Six Questions — August 8, 2013, 12:40 pm

The Faraway Nearby and Unfathomable City

Rebecca Solnit on how personal stories can fail to satisfy, the architectural space of the book, and the pleasures with which the landscapes of our lives are salted

Rebecca Solnit. © Sallie Dean Shatz

Rebecca Solnit. © Sallie Dean Shatz

Harper’s Magazine contributing editor Rebecca Solnit’s new book, The Faraway Nearby (Viking), takes readers to the distant depths of the self, by varying means: unknown landscapes, a sleigh, some rotting apricots, and her mother’s worsening Alzheimer’s disease. She also has a book forthcoming on November 4, Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (University of California Press), co-edited with Rebecca Snedeker, that lyrically and graphically explores the body politic of New Orleans, and that has in common with The Faraway Nearby a desire to investigate hidden aspects of well-known landscapes. I asked her six questions about the books and her writing, and she kindly answered them all.

1. In The Faraway Nearby, readers intimately experience the ideas associated with your experience of dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s, but are given few details about the personal story. What role did you want that narrative to play in the book?

Actually you are told a great deal about my story, but in the context of a larger investigation of stories and an attempt to define a larger sense of self than we are often given. The conventional self in most novels and memoirs is defined by private life, family life, and romantic life, and these are present in The Faraway Nearby, but that’s not all that’s there.

I think psychotherapy taught most of us how to tell our story and I find these stories often impoverished in their scope. I want more for myself and for everyone and for narrative. Who are we? Aren’t we also citizens, don’t we have souls and ideals, aren’t we also interfused with the natural world, biologically and psychically, don’t we extend far beneath, above, beyond that private realm? I think of that as analogous to a house; yeah, you live there, and crucial and sometimes sweet parts of your life take place there, but are we agoraphobics? Home is great to come back to, not so great to be on lockdown in. Friends, principles, ideas, writing itself, activist communities, and the natural world are great sources of strength and support to me, and that’s part of the larger territory staked out here.

I also see our lives being made out of the stories that we hear, that we live through vicariously, that we suspend our own lives to be absorbed in, the stories that guide and shape and feed and sometimes poison us, and I tried also to include the stories that were most illuminating for me in that phase the book describes: thus the several chapters that are not about me, except that I chose every word, interpretation, and emphasis, and chose the stories because they helped me think through my own or beyond my own; they are me even when they’re about Mary Shelley or Atagutaluk’s ordeal in the Arctic. 

From The Faraway Nearby:

“To what extent, in which ways, are you a cannibal, and how careful are you about who you consume? We consume each other in a thousand ways, some of them joys, some of them crimes and nightmares.”

The author’s annotation:

Something that’s really important to me is to be clear that madness, criminality, forgetfulness, selfishness, cluelessness are not someone else’s attributes; the question is not who has those qualities but to what degree each of us possess them and how aware are we of that, and how gracefully and maybe compassionately do we try to work with those limits, stains, and sins that are our own, as well as other people’s. There’s such a tendency to render the world in binaries: you’re a paranoid schizophrenic and me over here I’m sane; you have a disease that makes you forget things and my memory is impeccable; you drive a car/eat meat/pay taxes and I am beyond reproach (or situated to reproach you in a left-puritan way). We’re all implicated. But as for the cannibalism, we do live off each other, from mother’s milk to blood transfusions and organ transplants to the way we are all enclosed in a world that is the result of human labor, human making, of clothes, of houses, of food, of systems. Maybe what I’m interested is the ways we consume each other that are gifts rather than thefts, that don’t involve destruction of the body or soul . . .

2. An essay runs the entire length of the book, italicized, one line at the bottom of each page. Why did the essay take that form?

I wanted to call attention to the fact that the codex, the bound book, is an architectural space through which we literally travel with hands and eyes, and that to read a book of this length is quite a journey. Interestingly, the form cannot be replicated on e-readers, where this fourteenth chapter just sort of floats as a bonus chapter. So in the paper books this thread provides continuity, literally — a single line of text that runs through all the other chapters (someone called it the crawl, as though the book was CNN, to my amusement). It also invites readers to decide how to read a book that has two narratives running parallel to each other; the thread can be read before, during, or after. And then, I was so smitten with the sentence I begin with, “Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds,” which is the title from a scientific report from a few years back, and this floating, stitching chapter was the right place for it.

3. The structure of The Faraway Nearby is purposefully associative and digressive. When do you know an essay should digress?

It really feels like following a path, or following a track — as in tracking animals or lost people. Stories lead to ideas, ideas lead to stories, the perception of patterns somehow happens in my mind in ways that aren’t visible even to me. The kid in The Sixth Sense said, “I see dead people.” Me, I see patterns of association and meaning and relation between things that are maybe far apart conventionally. 

4. Much of this book is about the interior landscape of the self, brought up in conjunction with literal landscapes, mapping, mazes, etc. How did this metaphor aid the writing of the book? What effect do you think it has on readers?

I’ve been really interested in metaphor for a long time. For one thing, most of our metaphors and analogies are drawn from spaces, the natural world, the animal world, and our own bodies, and all these things can also represent each other — thus roads have shoulders and mountains have foothills and rivers have heads and coasts have headlands. We think through the material, the tangible, the visible, and I fear living in a more and more disembodied world in which metaphors grow alienated or just fade away. We need the natural and sensual world not only for ecological, biological, and maybe spiritual reasons, but for intellectual and imaginative ones.

And though “natural” is a weird word in this context, metaphors come naturally to me, and spatial metaphors are how I think. Thus, for example, I find it really valuable to think about the psyche as a landscape, and wrote about my mother’s that way: it’s not that you get over trauma, for example, as though you left it behind on the road, but that it’s somewhere on your landscape, a swamp or crater maybe. You can choose to hang out there, or pretend it’s not there and fall in, or be poisoned by what seeps out of it, or be fully aware of its location but dwell elsewhere. 

Sometimes going to the tangible world can complicate metaphors gorgeously: Working with the photographers Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe in Yosemite (for what became our book Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers), we realized that if time is a river — a rather stale metaphor — then this river moves its bed, has shallows, rapids, eddies, and backwaters, and maybe freezes over. The physical landscape demonstrated to us how uneven the progression of time is, and that the metaphor had to be grounded in the more literal complexity of rivers, which do not flow steadily. The Merced River had even changed its banks many times. 

5. In the introduction to Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, you write about the eroding Louisiana coastline the same way you write about rotting apricots in The Faraway Nearby, offering hope in decay. So much of your writing is elegiac — how do you balance painful truths with hope, sentence over sentence?

The introduction to Unfathomable City was co-authored with Rebecca Snedeker, my co-director of that project. There is a kind of tragedy to all our lives, consisting of failures, of losses, of mortalities — but that sad landscape is salted with pleasures, with unions, with epiphanies and revelations, at least if you’re looking out for them. The trick is to hold both and maybe value both; we’re in a culture that’s desperate to be happy, which often turns into desperate to be shallow, numb, tuned out. And therein the depth and meaning is lost.

Which is the one thing you can hang onto when you lose everything else; like a lot of people I am much impacted by Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, the account of what a sense of purpose and connection did even for prisoners in Auschwitz. My Paradise Built in Hell was about that joy of purpose, meaning, immediacy, solidarity, agency that often arises in the most dire circumstances, in wreckage and devastation and uncertainty. I wrote in that book,

We speak mostly of happy and sad emotion, a divide that suggests a certain comic lightness to the one side and pure negativity to the other, but perhaps we would navigate our experiences better by thinking in terms of deep and shallow, rich and poor. The very depth of emotion, the connecting to the core of one’s being, the calling into play one’s strongest feelings and abilities, can be rich, even on deathbeds, in wars and emergencies, while what is often assumed to be the circumstances of happiness sometimes is only insulation from the depths, or so the plagues of ennui and angst among the comfortable suggests.

I tried to write about this another way in A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.

Unfathomable CityThe Faraway Nearby6. In The Faraway Nearby, you write about the dangers of lying to oneself and of not knowing the lie, or story, that is part of one’s personal makeup. Your essay “Charting the Territories of Untruth,” in Unfathomable City, discusses lies and mysteries of a municipality in the same way. What kind of truth are you searching for in your writing? Where do you find it?

Clarity about who we are, what we’re doing, who and what we impact, what we desire, the clarity that is not only not lying but seeing deeply into the patterns and meanings of things, that is a dedication of one’s life as well as a touchstone for the work. Where do I find it? I find that clarity scattered in fragments everywhere: in the fierce hope and commitment of movements like Occupy, in the words of writers like Jonathan Schell or Subcomandante Marcos, in poetry, in conversations with the people I love most, in the emotional nakedness of small children, in the patterns of the natural world.

To view one of the maps created for Unfathomable City by cartographer Jakob Rosenzweig and artist Jacqueline Bishop, please click here.

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August 2018

Combustion Engines

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There Will Always Be Fires

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The End of Eden

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How to Start a Nuclear War

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Combustion Engines·

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
There Will Always Be Fires·

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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
The End of Eden·

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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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