Rebecca Solnit on a Childhood of Reading and Wandering

This essay is adapted from a talk given at California’s Novato Public Library earlier this year.

There are ecological reasons to question how books are made out of trees but metaphysical reasons to rejoice in the linkage between forests and libraries, here in this public library, in the town I grew up in, with the fiber from tens of thousands of trees rolled out into paper, printed and then bound into books, stacked up in rows on the shelves that fill this place and make narrow corridors for readers to travel through, a labyrinth of words that is also an invitation to wander inside the texts. The same kind of shade and shelter that can be found in an aisle of books and an avenue of trees, and in the longevity of both, and the mere fact that both, if not butchered or burned, may outlive us.

In the most egalitarian of European—and New Mexican—traditions, forests were public commons in which common people could roam, graze flocks, hunt and gather, and this is another way that forests when they are public land and public libraries are alike: as spaces in which everyone is welcome, as places in which we can wander and collect, get lost and find what we’re looking for.

The United States’s public libraries sometimes seem to me the last refuges of a democratic vision of equality, places in which everyone is welcome, which serve the goal of an informed public, offering services far beyond the already heady gift of free books you can take home, everything from voter registration to computer access. I’ve joked for a long time that if you walked up to people in the street and asked them whether we could own our greatest treasures collectively and trust people to walk away with them and bring them back, a lot of people would say that’s impossibly idealistic and some would say it’s socialist, but libraries have been making books free for all for a very long time. They are temples of books, fountains of narrative pleasure, and toolboxes of crucial information. My own writing has depended on public libraries and then university libraries and archives and does to this day. I last used a public library the day before yesterday.

I grew up here—the hills to the north of me and this very library to the south of me were my refuges, formative influences that are with me still, in who I am and what I write. I wander other hills and other libraries now, but this is where I started, and I’m moved to be back, and grateful for what I was given in this very building.

 

“To stand in this library again is a profound experience, a return to a wellspring of story and encouragement.”

 

So very many trees in Novato are little changed since my childhood, and in that childhood there were said to be bay trees standing at Rancho Olompali scarred by the bullets fired in the surprise raid of the Yankees on the Mexican rancho the Miwok village there had become. So let’s begin by recognizing that all this was—and in many moral ways still is—Coast Miwok land, before the Spanish came, before Spanish claims became Mexican claims, before this was considered to be part of Mexico, before it was part of the United States.

The oldest thing I own, stones aside, is a small two-volume edition of the essay-periodical The Spectator, from 1722, in which a Sophia Jones wrote her name on the flyleaf in 1780, when the United States was a four-year-old republic of thirteen eastern states, when Mission Dolores in San Francisco was also four years old, when California was claimed by Mexico but still largely populated by its myriad indigenous nations, and in this town of Novato and county of Marin that meant the Coast Miwok who left names that are still on our landscape, Olompali itself, Tamalpais, Olema, Petaluma, and names that aren’t, including Echetamal, Omioni, Gualen, and Pusaluma. There are trees still standing from when these names were spoken languages, though the paper in my 1722 book is probably the durable stuff made from the discarded linen clothes of people who died before whites had settled in California.

It was here in Novato that Mrs. San Felipe taught me to read at Lu Sutton School, here that I fell in love with books, here that in the first semester of first grade I decided I wanted to be a librarian, because librarians spend their days among books, and then by the second semester realized that someone, many someones, also wrote those books, and that rather than be a librarian I wanted to be a writer.

I’m proud and astonished and lucky that I grew up to write books, and then to make books, as I think of the books where I took a role in the design and the books with other aspects—artworks, maps, design features. The 2010 atlas of San Francisco and the Bay Area I directed and orchestrated includes the map called The Names Before the Names: The Indigenous Bay Area, 1769. The map is based on data gathered by the librarian and artist Lisa Conrad, from research done by Nick Tipon, a descendant of the Coast Miwok on this peninsula, and chair of the Sacred Sites Committee of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Ohlone environmental historian Chuck Striplen, and ethnogeographer Randall Milliken. They estimate that these people lived in a landscape that was “an enormously detailed tapestry of 35,000 place names for every seven square miles,” Lisa wrote. Most of those names are gone, though Novato itself was named after a Miwok leader who was reportedly baptized with the name of St. Novatus.

When I was growing up here, the textbooks insisted that California’s native people were diggers, a term that referred to digging sticks, and that they were so primitive they hardly had a culture, nothing worth preserving or recollecting. That has changed, and Santa Rosa native son and novelist Greg Sarris was one of the leaders for the project of federal recognition of what is now the federated tribe of Graton Rancheria, bringing together descendants of the Coast Miwok and the Pomo.

When I was young, Novato was an erased landscape when it came to culture, and the nature there in the 1960s and 1970s was different than it is now. DDT was still ravaging birds—whitetailed kites, white and brown pelicans, eagles, osprey, hawks, falcons as well as songbirds—that have since recovered. As I write at the end of A Field Guide to Getting Lost—which ends on the Tomales Peninsula—both elephant seals and tule elk have returned to the county after being nearly driven to extinction at the turn of the 20th century. Mountain lions and coyotes have returned in abundance. This place is not what it was, and it is richer in some ways as well as poorer in others.

 

“Trees remind us how busy and unstable we are, and how ridiculous that is.”

 

To stand in this library again is a profound experience, a return to a wellspring of story and encouragement, here where many of the librarians knew me by name when I was a shy kid who’d walk home with a stack of seven books, one to devour each day before exchanging them for the next stack. Had the library not reorganized itself a little since the early 1970s, I could walk straight to where so many of the books that mattered to me between nine and fourteen were located. The single most peaceful memory I have of my father is walking with him one evening over the beautiful old arched bridge across the creek next to the library as owls floated soundlessly overhead.

Browsing, woolgathering, meandering, wandering, drifting, that state when exploring, when looking to find what it might be possible to find rather than seeking one particular goal, is the means of locomotion. I often think that hunter-gatherers must move a lot like this, seeking game or plant foods, flexible about what might show up on any given day. I was lucky that children were weeds, not hothouse flowers, in those days, left to our own devices, and my own devices led in two directions: north to the hills and the horses, south to the library.

I roamed, in walks and words, and those roamings recur in my own writing. My book on walking begins in the Marin Headlands:  

These linked paths and roads form a circuit of about six miles that I began hiking ten years ago to walk off my angst during a difficult year. I kept coming back to this route for respite from my work and for my work too, because thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking. Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart. It strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals. After all those years of walking to work out other things, it made sense to come back to work close to home, in Thoreau’s sense, and to think about walking.

Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts. I wasn’t sure whether I was too soon or too late for the purple lupine which can be so spectacular in these headlands, but milkmaids were growing on the shady side of the road on the way to the trail, and they recalled the hillsides of my childhood that first bloomed every year with an extravagance of these white flowers. Black butterflies fluttered around me, tossed along by wind and wings, and they called up another era of my past. Moving on foot seems to make it easier to move in time; the mind wanders from plans to recollections to observations.

I’ve seen a lot of those butterflies—pipevine swallowtails—this spring. And that question about meandering I took up again in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which begins in the house I grew up in a few blocks from here:

The first time I got drunk was on Elijah’s wine. I was eight or so. It was Passover, the feast that celebrates the flight from Egypt and more generally celebrates freedom. I was sitting at the grown-ups’ table, because when my parents and this other couple joined forces there were five boys altogether, and the adults had decided that I was better off being ignored by their generation than mine. The tablecloth was red and orange, cluttered with glasses, plates, serving dishes, silver, and candles. I confused the stemmed goblet set out for the prophet with my own adjoining shot-glass of sweet ruby wine and drank it up. When my mother eventually noticed, I lurched and grinned a little, but when she looked upset, I imitated sobriety instead of tipsiness.

She was a lapsed Catholic, and the other woman a former Protestant, but their husbands were Jews, and the women thought it good to keep up the custom for the kids. So the glass of wine was set out for Elijah. In some versions, he will come back to earth at the end of time and answer all the unanswerable questions. In others, he wanders the earth in rags, answering difficult questions for scholars. I don’t know if the rest of the tradition was followed and a door left open for him to enter by, but I can picture the orange front door or one of the sliding glass doors into the backyard of this ranch-style house in a small valley open to the cool night air of spring. Ordinarily, we locked doors, though nothing unexpected came down our street in this northernmost subdivision in the county but wildlife, deer tap-tapping on the asphalt in the early hours, raccoons and skunks hiding in the shrubbery. This opening the door to night, prophecy, and the end of time would have been a thrilling violation of ordinary practice. Nor can I recall what the wine opened up for me—perhaps a happier detachment from the conversation going on above me, a sense of limpidness in the suddenly tangible gravity of a small body on this middle-sized planet.

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go…

This library on Novato Boulevard has Seventh Street as its nearest cross-street, which runs through town and then runs uphill and into the country. The subdivision I grew up in from seven to fourteen was just off Seventh as it became a rural road. I wrote about it in my 1997 A Book of Migrations:

The eastern side of Seventh Street sloped down, and a quarter-horse stud farm took up much of its length. Directly behind our back yard the old stud himself was pastured, a chestnut quarter horse of dignified and incurious bearing, even on those occasions when he dutifully heaved himself atop some mare. The western side of the street rose up in a small steep hill, on whose ridgeline was a blasted oak with an enormous dead limb resembling a stag leaping against the sky (when I returned recently it surprised me by looking that way still—twenty years is not a long time in the life of an oak). Up on the ridge itself were rocky outcroppings covered with lichens, the seats on which in my first years there a brother and I devoured stolen candy and in my last, we smoked pot. The local kids occasionally went cardboard-sliding—what coastal Californians have in place of sledding—down the hill when the grass was slick and dry. The old pieces of cardboard would moulder on the hillside along with abandoned lumber and fallen limbs; under them would develop grassless dark, damp patches in which centipedes, skinks, and alligator lizards lived.

I never saw foxes or coyotes then, and I only heard rumors of mountain lions, but skunks and raccoons would wander down into the shrubbery of the subdivision. Sometimes early in the morning a deer or two would come trotting stately along the middle of the street as though on an inspection tour. There was a girl named Joy who lived near the top of Seventh Street alone with her father and a white horse in a field with a pomegranate tree I raided, past the estate whose grapevines I also raided annually, along with sundry plum trees, prickly pears, and blackberry patches. It must have been the estate which planted the tall pines that flanked a stretch of the road and under whose low branches I built less a tree house than a field nest, of gathered grasses.

I seemed always to be making little homes in the hills, finding hollowed trees in which to store treasures, rocky nooks to spend afternoons in, climbable trees. The best of all was at the top of the street, near where the pavement ended: a huge old-fashioned rosebush which had been running wild for decades until it was a mass the size of a large room; there was a low tunnel to its center, which was not a trunk but a cavernous hollow. Some nights I would lie in the still-warm grass of the hillside, my weight spread so evenly against the earth itself that gravity seemed hardly to hold me, and as I stared up at the stars the sky seemed a deep well I was hanging over and might fall into at any moment. The sensation of fearful vastness was my first introduction to the pleasures and terrors of the infinite.

Up Seventh Street I entered the natural world; I found a dead great horned owl by the side of the road once, probably shot by one of the neighbor boys, and contemplated the beauty of its feathers for a few days before it disappeared; I saw a dead luna moth there too; and many live things, from the parasitic, fascinating horsehairs swimming in the seasonal ditch-stream, to deer and skunks and raccoons and once a sort of parliament of buzzards gathered around something and spreading their enormous wings to air in the sun.

I wrote about some of these creatures in A California Bestiary (created with the artist Mona Caron and Heyday Books):

Bluebelly lizard, or Western Fence Lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)
The official English name of this creature is the western fence lizard, but they were all over the west millennia before fences were, and the California kids I knew called them bluebellies. Bluebellies were everywhere in the California hills when I was growing up, darting away from us, sometimes—like many other lizard species—shedding their tails when one of my brothers tried to catch them, so that the tail stayed behind flapping frantically, a tactic thought to have evolved to distract the predators. I have seen countless thousands of bluebellies, held dozens, perhaps hundreds, but only twice have I seen the intensely blue males in rut fight each other, scrabbling and separating and gripping, doing pushups on the rocks in between times. (The pushups are thought to impress females and display their blue undersides.) Once they were under live oaks on Mount Tamalpais near the Golden Gate, once they were on the warm granite of the trail up Little Yosemite Canyon; both times I watched until all sense of scale fell away and I might as well have been watching sapphire dragons. But it is not the exceptional moments or exceptional beasts that are grounds for wonder. The everyday bluebelly found everywhere in California but in the deep deserts and highest mountains is, with its purifying blood, its underside of sky, its speed and its talent for survival, already a small astonishment.

If you walked all the way through Seventh Street and then through the swampy pasture where Mrs. Anderson taught me to ride western, you can walk to Mt. Burdell, as we did in summertime. I went up from the north slope a few years ago, to write about the place for Bay Nature:

Old memories of wandering the region came back, including a summer when the grass was taller than we were, and my younger brother and I trampled a labyrinth into it with an occasional overhead arch made of shocks of grass twisted together. It was just wild oats, not the native grasses, but wild oats deserve their poets too, for the wonderful pale gold they turn, for the way the chaff hangs on the plant long after the seed has gone, light and dancing in the breeze. Is there a word for that particular color that is at once pale and golden, not as yellow as grain ripe in the field, a little tawny like lions, both stark for its utter dryness and lush for its abundance, the color of much of the landscape in summer? Should there be, and would it be a phrase like hills of August? Or just summer-colored? Lion-colored?

I entered the Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve (part of the Marin Open Space District) off Simmons Lane, heading north and west from the cul-de-sac of houses, and found a stand of wild oats that was taller than my now-much-taller self, and then a stand of artichoke thistles that must have been eight feet tall. There must have been a tiny miracle in the hydrology or soil of that corner of the preserve. The weeds were this year’s crop, but the trees farther up the trail must have changed little in the 40 years in which I’d changed so much. Wordsworth wrote, “But there’s a tree, of many, one / A single field which I have looked upon / Both of them speak of something that is gone…” But the visionary gleam returns, unexpectedly, as though that familiar face you strained to see in the crowd came suddenly knocking at your door when you least expected.

This, this feeling where recognition mounts into revelation, is a friend who is not reliable, but who nevertheless shows up. There is something ordinarily marvelous about the way that some oak trees grow into hemispheres of foliage, their lowest branches trailing along the ground or elbowing into it, the way they create a shady room within, the way that the larger oaks resemble old men with their gnarled angular limbs and their sense of survivorship. That they’d sat still while I’d grown up and gone away and had various crises and revelations and 90-degree turns and ruptures and advancements, that I might’ve walked by them in 1970, and here they were again hardly changed was sublime and a little mortifying. Trees remind us how busy and unstable we are, and how ridiculous that is.

And those domes of trees and the bare trees whose branches nevertheless carve out a rough hemisphere of space must be, after cumulus clouds, one of the greatest articulators or celebrants of what three dimensions really mean—reaching in every direction, carving out volumes from the air. After clouds and trees, swallows might be best at this job when they swing and plunge through the afternoon air as they did late in my walk. Most of our pleasures—the personal ones of love and friendship, the animal embodiment of everyday activities like walking, the impersonal visual and spatial splendors of form, of scale, of color, and texture, are utterly ordinary, except when they’re not available at all.

A mountain is usually described as a form, but it can also be described as a series of viewpoints, and to walk a mountain is to have vistas appear and vanish, the landscape close around you so that you see only the near and then the far shows up around the bend; to see more and more of the world as you rise and as much as possible at the summit, if you’re not surrounded by fog, clouds, weather, trees or inattention. A less chartable series of subjective viewpoints also flows as you walk: you look at the world around you, you are lost in thought and hardly notice anything until a quail bursts from underfoot or the crack of a stick startles you, you travel back in time and then an intensity of color or the joys of the lines of a madrone bring you into absolute present.

I hike the same hills over and over, Mount Tamalpais, the Marin Headlands, and recently I’ve returned to Big Rock Ridge, the steep wall that curves around the south and west of Novato, and to the same ideas about books and libraries and forests and refuge. I want to end with a passage from The Faraway Nearby, which came out four years ago but reached back to forty years ago and more to think about what books and stories give us:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In the children’s books there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, but most of all there are doors, particularly in the series that I, like so many children, took up imaginative residence in, for some years, The Chronicles of Narnia.

I read one in fourth grade after a teacher who barely knew me handed it to me in the Marion school library; I can still picture his moustache and the wall of books. I read it and read it again and then began to save up to buy the seven books, one at a time. The paperbacks came from Amber Griffin, the enchanted bookstore in the middle of town, whose kind proprietor rewarded me with the case in which the seven books fit when I had paid for the last one. I still have the boxed set, a little tattered though I think no one has ever read them other than me. When I took one out recently, I noticed how dirty the white back of the book was from my small filthy fingers then.

Much has been written about the Christian themes, British boarding school mores, and other contentious aspects of the series, but little has been said about its doors. There is of course the wardrobe in the first book C.S. Lewis wrote, the wardrobe made of wood cut from an apple tree grown from seeds from another world that, when the four children walk into it, opens onto that world. Two of the other books feature a doorway that stands alone so that when you walk around it it is just a frame, three pieces of wood in a landscape, but when you step through it leads to another world. There’s a painting of a boat that comes to life as the children tumble over the picture frame into the sea and another world. There are books and maps that come to life as you look at them.

And there is the Wood Between the Worlds in the book The Magician’s Nephew, which tells the creation story for Narnia, a wood described so enchantingly I sometimes think of it as a vision of peace still. It’s more serene and more strange than the busy symbolism in the rest of the books, with their talking beasts, dwarves, witches, battles, enchantments, castles, and more. The young hero puts on a ring and finds himself coming up through a pool to the forest.

“It was the quietest wood you could possibly imagine. There were no birds, no insects, no animals, and no wind. You could almost feel the trees growing. The pool he had  just got out of was not the only pool. There were dozens of others—a pool every few yards as far as his eyes cold reach. You could almost feel the trees drinking the water up with their roots. This wood was very much alive.” It is the place where nothing happens, the place of perfect peace; it is itself not another world but an unending expanse of trees and small ponds, each pond like a looking glass you can go through to another world. It is a portrait of a library, just as all the magic portals are allegories for works of art, across whose threshhold we all step into other worlds.

Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it: here in quiet rooms are the lives of Crazy Horse and Aung San Suu Kyi, the Hundred Years War and the Opium Wars and the Dirty War, the ideas of Simone Weil and Lao Tsu, information on building your sailboat or dissolving your marriage, fictional worlds and books to equip the reader to reenter the real world. They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper. Every book is a door that opens into another world, which might be the magic that all those children’s books were alluding to, and a library is a Milky Way of worlds. All readers are Wu Daozi; all imaginative, engrossing books are landscapes into which readers vanish.

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

I had started out in silence, written as quietly as I had read, and then eventually people read some of what I had written, and some of the readers entered my world or drew me into theirs. I started out in silence and traveled until I arrived at a voice that was heard far away—first the silent voice that can only be read, and then I was asked to speak aloud and to read aloud. When I began to read aloud another voice, once I hardly recognized, emerged from my mouth. Maybe it was more relaxed, because writing is speaking to no one, and even when you’re reading to a crowd, you’re still in that conversation with the absent, the faraway, the not-yet-born, the unknown and the long-gone for whom writers write, the crowd of the absent who hover all around the desk.

Sometime in the late 19th century, a poor rural English girl who would grow up to become a writer was told by a gypsy: “You will be loved by people you’ve never met.” This is the odd compact with strangers who will lose themselves in your words and the partial recompense for the solitude that makes writers and writing. You have an intimacy with the faraway and distance from the near at hand. Like digging a hole to China and actually coming out the other side, the depth of that solitude of reading and then writing took me all the way through to connect with people again in a unexpected way. It was astonishing wealth for one who had once been so poor.

By  Rebecca Solnit

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