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Originally published Sunday, December 21, 2014 at 5:05 AM

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Rebecca Solnit’s essays: encounters with the wide world

Rebecca Solnit’s latest essay collection “Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness” covers topics from environmental accountability to disaster response to to Solnit’s travel writings on Iceland, Japan, Tunisia and Haiti.


Special to The Seattle Times

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“Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness”

by Rebecca Solnit

Trinity University Press, 335 pp., $25.95

San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit has been described as an environmental and political activist, a historian, and a participant in land, nuclear and human rights issues, among other serious pursuits. A contributing editor to “Harper’s,” she has won numerous writing awards. But it’s the last line on her dust jacket biography that’s exceptional. She has, it notes, made her living as an independent writer since 1988.

To general readers, the point of this accomplishment might seem vague. It’s estimated, however, that only about 10 percent of American writers make their living from writing. Most are best-seller genre writers — everyone else teaches, edits and/or tosses in odd jobs. Mainstream writers who succeed in such a competitive, fickle occupation have something special, a wide-ranging fascination for the world, perhaps, and an urge to put what they learn on the page in a form that engages the rest of us.

Solnit’s new book, her 16th, reprints 29 essays published in magazines, books and online between 2006 and 2014, some with minor revisions. Necessarily, certain of them — “Revolution of the Snails —— Encounters with the Zapatistas” (2008), for example, or “Winged Mercury and the Golden Calf —— Heavy Metal Histories” (2006) — feel like old news. Yet both pieces retain timeliness. The first finds hope in hard-won accomplishments of Mexican revolutionaries while the second introduces “true-cost accounting,” a method of including the price of gold mining’s long-term environmental damage into balance sheets showing quick financial gain only.

The book’s endpapers feature a map of the world, and lines joined to the titles of all the essays. Anyone who opens these covers and sees destinations like Iceland, Japan, Tunisia and Haiti, in addition to lots of North American stops, can’t help but look forward to what Solnit dubs “a travel journal, a list of experiments, a bouquet of theories and practices, and a few proposals about how things could be.”

One recurring interest is human behavior after disasters. Several essays dwell on Hurricane Katrina. Solnit finds the media’s preoccupation with looting misplaced. Valuable resources, she notes, were diverted from helping survivors to protecting property. Saving lives, she writes, should trump guarding stuff.

Her essays, “In Haiti, Words Can Kill,” “Oil and Water — The BP Spill in the Gulf,” and those about Japan after the 2011 earthquake find many instances of individuals helping each other while the media, emergency responders and governments fell short of a satisfactory response. In Louisiana after the BP “blowout,” Solnit learns that volunteers made some difference, but corporate penalties did little to restore the formerly bounteous wetlands from the “poisoned environment” where locals lost both their incomes and the food they depend on. And in Japan, the government diverted toxic rice to children’s school lunches since it couldn’t be sold; ordinary citizens began screening rice and finding safe replacements.

An intriguing 2014 piece, “Climate Change is Violence,” looks at how global warming affects society. The Arab Spring came on the heels of increased wheat prices, after crop failure due to changing weather patterns. “We can start having a real conversation about our priorities and values,” Solnit writes, once we face facts about what we’re doing to the Earth.

The practicality of urban gardens, Thoreau’s dependence on his mom to do his laundry, “Google buses” that chauffeur employees while undercutting public transportation, the pleasures of slow food, how “Walmart turns its employees into paupers, and we pick up the tab for their food stamps and medical care,” all this and more comprise a book of surprises, astute thinking and worthwhile ideas.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives and writes in New Mexico.



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