The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.” A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit
An upside to disaster is that it can create community out of the ashes. Utopia, even, temporary though that might be. And among individuals, a clarified, reinvigorated sense of life purpose.
In light of my last post about David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, it occurred to me that Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell can be an antidote to despair, because it arms us with a deeply optimistic view of human nature. When it was published in 2009, it was named best book of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
Two hundred years from now, when people want to know what it was like to be alive early in the 21st century, they’ll read Rebecca Solnit: journalist, scholar, historian, and immensely gifted storyteller. Solnit’s prose is a joy to read, because she so seamlessly blends deep research with exquisite portrayals of the humans involved in whatever stranger-than-fiction story she happens to be telling.
Solnit is a soulful activist with a decidedly liberal bent, so she may not appeal if you have more conservative leanings. On the other hand, her books are not partisan diatribes, but suspenseful, exquisitely-researched works often drawing surprising conclusions that transcend our tired, inaccurate political and cultural divides. She does so in A Paradise Built in Hell.
We see a handful of disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the 1917 Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, among others – and how the government, other well-established institutions, and ordinary citizens responded. Mostly, citizens rose to the occasion magnificently. But, often, the government, the military, and officially designated emergency responders – not so much. Solnit interviews disaster studies experts (it never occurred to me that disaster studies is a well established and growing academic discipline) and other specialists and draws upon what she learned to posit theories as to why might be so.
We also see, up close and personal, overwhelmed individuals who mustered inner resources they didn’t know they had, permanently transformed by the utopian-like goodwill and community that, in the right circumstances, can arise in the days after disaster.
Here’s a passage written by a survivor of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire:
“….everybody was your friend and you in turn everybody’s friend. The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant. Never even when the four walls of ones own room in a new city shall close around us again shall we sense the old lonesomeness shutting us off from our neighbors. Never again shall we feel singled out by fate for the hardships and ill luck that’s going. And that is the sweetness and the gladness of the earthquake and the fire. Not of bravery, not of strength, nor of a new city, but of a new inclusiveness.”
Here are the memories of a young woman who survived the London Blitz:
“A bomb fell two streets away. Another landed nearer as they raced inside, came near enough to buffet her with waves, ‘like bathing in a rough sea.’ She found herself clutching the floor as if to keep from falling while dust was everywhere, her mouth was full of plaster….She was taken in by a neighbor who plied her with blankets and a hot-water bottle ‘for the shock’ and when she said she wasn’t in shock her hostess ‘referred darkly to ‘delayed shock.’ And when she was left alone: ‘I lay there feeling indescribably happy and triumphant. ‘I’ve been bombed!’ I kept saying to myself, over and over again – trying the phrase on, like a new dress, to see how it fitted.’ She concluded, ‘It seems a terrible thing to say, when many people must have been killed and injured last night; but never in my whole life have I ever experience such pure and flawless happiness.’
She was young, she’d survived with her love by her side, and she had fifty-five more nights of bombing to endure…..but time and war did not change her memory. Thirty-five years later Harrison….followed up on her story. She had recently become a grandmother, and she looked back on her night of being bombed as a ‘peak experience – a sense of triumph and happiness’ that she compared to the ‘experience of having a baby.’
All is not roses and optimism in Solnit’s book, however. For example, she takes a good, hard look at what went wrong in New Orleans after Katrina. I found the chapters on New Orleans especially moving, a nuanced portrait of a city and its citizens in a years-long recovery, permanently changed. (It would be fascinating to see what Solnit might make of Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.)
(Her portrayal of Katrina reminded me of the riveting Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink, about a New Orleans hospital forced to cope on its own, with disastrous results. I wrote about this on Books Can Save a Life when I was a medical librarian and interested in the issue of medical rationing during disasters, something we’ll be hearing more about in the coming years.)
In the epilogue of A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit writes:
“The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in so doing they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be….
In the 1906 earthquake, a mansion burned down but its stone portals remained standing. A photograph shows that suddenly, rather than framing the entrance to a private interior, they framed the whole city beyond the hill where the ruins stood. Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”
I found Solnit’s San Francisco Atlas when I traveled there to visit our son and attend a memoir conference. Her Infinite City series includes New York and New Orleans. Not your standard atlases, but quirky reinvented ones, an acquired taste that conceives of cities as complex layers of culture, history, architecture, trends, personal stories, you name it. Intriguing, but somewhat text-heavy for my taste. Compiled with the help of cartographers, artists, and writers, the San Francisco Atlas includes a map called “Dharma Wheels and Fish Ladders” that pairs ancient/current salmon migrations with Zen Buddhism arrivals.
My son gave me Solnit’s The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, though I haven’t read it yet. Here’s a passage from the essay, “Detroit Arcadia: Exploring the Post-American Landscape.” (I’m all for Rust Belt writing.) Solnit is often funny, always astute: “….the lobby was bisected by drywall, the mural seemed doomed, and the whole place was under some form of remodeling that resembled ruin, with puddles in the lobby and holes in the walls, few staff people, fewer guests, and strange grinding noises at odd hours. I checked out after one night because of the cold water coming out of the hot-water tap and the generally spooky feeling generated by trying to sleep in a 413-room high-rise hotel with almost no other guests….but….as I have explored this city over the last few years, I have seen an oddly heartening new version of the landscape it [the mural] portrays, a landscape that is not quite post-apocalyptic but that is strangely – and sometimes even beautifully – post-American….This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit’s since the last days of the Maya.”
I highly recommend getting to know Rebecca Solnit, especially if you’re restless to find a new nonfiction writer who is entertaining and spot-on when it comes to portraying our current culture, or if you need to become re-enchanted with the world. I have my eye on reading these books by her someday:
Wanderlust: A History of Walking
A Field Guide to Getting Lost
The Faraway Nearby
Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities
Coming up on Books Can Save a Life:
From the dark specter of an uninhabitable earth, to Solnit’s redeeming vision of community and resilience to, next up, a book well on its way to becoming a classic: one that shows us how to constructively turn inward, live slowly, and cultivate an authentic, deeply felt creativity that can be our gift to a world that sorely needs it. Hint: the author is Christian McEwen.
What are you reading now? Fiction? Nonfiction? Books worth your time, I hope. Please let us know your recommendations in the comments.