Rebecca Solnit is a spirited, spiritual guide to life’s open-air secrets. She sees patterns and purpose in both the mundane and extraordinary of events that most of us overlook. Her writing style is as rich as her subjects are unusual.
She has treated us to a history of walking, which is not at all as plodding as you would think; three books on landscapes and politics; one on Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering photographer and murderer who captured motion on film and showed us that horses really do fly, on getting lost and finding oneself, and more.
Most recently, she has written what just may be her best book to date, and certainly her most important. It is called A Paradise Built in Hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.
Solnit recounts several catastrophes (both natural and human-inflicted) that befell communities over the last century from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina. She argues that in times of catastrophe, many people, from all walks of life, rise to great heights of kindness, selflessness and generosity; that among such people and such acts, an air of purpose and joy fills the soul and becomes infectious.
Even more, it was those whose hearts were open to the other, those who did not fear the masses, who did not withdraw or withhold, who were best able to create quick, makeshift, appropriate responses that enabled others to survive.
There are those who believe that when the big crisis comes, we should hole up in our houses with our loved ones, shotguns and home-grown vegetables and protect what is ours. But there are others, like Solnit and the people whose stories she tells, who believe that survival, and society, do best when we trust and work with each other.
Research on the 1995 Chicago heat wave seems to confirm this. It tells us that while the weather overwhelmingly oppressed all the poor, conviviality, neighborliness, and the age-old tradition of looking out for each other disproportionately improved mortality rates. Poor whites and African Americans died in higher percentages than did Latinos. The apparent reason: the Latino neighborhoods offered a safer, closer, more intimate community. People took better care of each other.
On the other hand, the tragedy of Katrina that haunts us still was compounded by a legacy of fear and hate. It was not just nature, poor engineering or organizational ineptitude that caused so many casualties, Solnit argues. It was the darkness of the human spirit.
Thankfully, though, many faced with disaster are possessed of humanity’s brightness. Throughout the book, Solnit recounts story after story in which ordinary people possess the initiative, kindness and capacity to organize, heal and support each other. Rump communities sprouted up, serving as surrogate family and security till government, infrastructure and routine returned. What we are learning from contemporary disasters is that we are each others’ first responders. In the short run, spontaneous and random acts of kindness and organization lift the survival rate and blunt the psychological impact of loss and dislocation.
It is important that we hear this wisdom, this reality, for we are entering an era of increased crises, both natural and political (the two are often connected) and we must know how to respond. The BP Gulf disaster is only beginning to show its full fury. More avoidable and unavoidable tragedies will regrettably but inevitably come our way.
Solnit compelling argues that how we behave, how well we manage, how well we survive, are determined by the ways we choose to respond. And the ways we choose to respond are determined by what we believe. If we are filled with hate and fear of the other, we will lock our doors and take comfort in our guns.
But if we create a society which believes in the goodness of each other, if we believe with William James (as quoted by Solnit) that “human beings are at their best when much is demanded of us…,” then we can prepare for on-coming random disasters in ways that ennoble us all, and save as many as possible.
But we need to do this together. We need to believe in each other.
Community resiliency is a growing discipline, wherein cites, counties, states and neighborhoods assess how well equipped they are to handle broad-scale disruptions. While we must further develop and train emergency personnel and systems, and have rapid communications and response teams ready, we also need to create a society of trust where every neighbor can be a first-responder. Believing in each other, caring for each other, tending to each other is a large part of preparedness, and survival.
I have not even begun to do justice to Solnit’s soaring book. The references, the quotes, the historic cameos and coincidences that she has uncovered are worth the price and time invested in reading it. Not just as a window on the past but as a cautionary tale, and a hope, for tomorrow.
(photo of outdoor kitchen in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, from windows2universe.org)