Nature is Political Says Rebecca Solnit

Just ask this Western Tanager, negotiating a perch without being hassled by a man in a kayak with a camera. Sheesh.

No, seriously. Rebecca Solnit says so in her new book:


Not just his era, I don’t think. For instance, look again:

Awww. Now, James Rebanks is a wonderful author of English Country Life, one whom I read with great pleasure, but, still. Still. That’s no statement about nature. Mind you, illustrators are having a grand old time with this one.

It’s awfully fun.

No Nature, though. Hmmm.

So, if Nature is political, as Solnit claims, and if it provided the space and time for a great essayist to prepare to write political satires, as she claims as well, then are “images” of nature, and not just nature itself, political, and not just uses of nature and approaches to it but nature itself? I mean, what is a rose? This?

Yes. Or this?

Yes. Or this?

Yes. These are also all political, but not in the way Solnit proposes. For one thing, these are images of wild roses in various stages of their lives, not images of a garden, carefully tended, as was Orwell’s, around the house below:

Of course, an image is also a tending, and a garden, guard or wall erected around a thing to protect it, concentrate it, bring it close (and hold it there), and a minding. A gardener is only a guardian, a wall-keeper, by another name. Yes, the inference is correct: a garden, or a nature, is a mind. This, for example, is Solnit’s garden:

Solnit’s Mind is a Book. Yup.

But what if you leave the photograph and the book and go out into the roses? Well, that’s political in a different way. For one thing, it’s hard. For example, try it:

It’s tough, because the technology of making an image, the technique of it, that 19th century trick (seance?) of capturing spirit by light, means you can’t walk through the image into nature, just as you can’t walk into the past or into any other spiritual world. The image, in short, only hints that it is there. That’s not the function of minding so much as speaking, of saying, for instance:

Yes, the image is a word, even if it doesn’t look like one. Only a book bias says it isn’t.

And then of hearing, so to speak, and acting on what has been conveyed. What a lot of that other 19th century technology, the creation of settler cultures in Cascadia through fencing, or guarding, the land and removing it from common life, of saying, even, that Indigenous people, the people of the land, only camp on it, that they do not “own” it because they do not “tend” it, or, really, garden it. Well, that was the thing back in those days, and, unfortunately, for all of Solnit’s care and love for nature it still is, because, as she hinted, nature is political. As a result of colonial experience, it’s easy to say that the cattle in the image below, near Spectacle Lake, are political.

It’s even easy enough to see that the forest fire is likely political, and even the statement that the image represents Western heritage. Even the statement that the hoodoos on the valley wall represent Indigenous heritage can be construed as political. One can even easily get to the point of saying that it is political to deny that Indigenous heritage by saying that the hoodoos represent an old post-glacial lakebottom, here in the old bed of the Similkameen River, which was subsequently eroded away by meltwater out of what is now Canada, a river so strong it left the wave forms among the cattle below. But to say that the grass, sagebrush, hoodoos and trees are political? That is not allowed by the myth of the colonial experience, no more than is it allowable to walk through the image below…

… and cool off in Big Eddy on the Kooskoosie, or into the village which stood for 9,000 years on the knoll from which this image was made, which included the river and its salmon as village members, and which was erased by the Gold Rush of 1855. There is no garden here, and no minding, except insofar as this image, its display, its reading and even the mention of it are gardens and mindings, and if you go to Big Eddy, which I urge you to do, your actions are limited by regulations placed upon this land by the State of Idaho, the Nimipu’u Government, and the Federal Government of the United States, all in keeping with the imposed idea of gardens. Bugger it, eh. Hurts the head, it does.

My computer’s impression of me thinking my way through this blog post.

That’s the problem, which Solnit’s praise of roses and gentleness and care attempts to solve by proposing a partnership between attention to two different spheres at the same time, in her case to beauty (without political value), like this…

…and activism such as, say, writing this:

Both are guardians. Amulets. Protective spells. But what if we set these human social images aside and accepted that even something like our great river, the swah’netk’qhu, often called “The Columbia”, is in and of itself, political?

That it has a voice and directs us, that it is a political actor, and not just in the way that it is clogged with dams and, at the Hanford site above, kept artificially low so as not to draw radioactive garbage out of leakage from the Cold War’s plutonium factories into the stream and carry it down to Portland. If Solnit is going to say that Nature is political, she should be as brave as Orwell and go the distance. For starters, she could say that the rose the following image minds…

… is political, in and of itself. Otherwise, her praise of roses is only praise of Orwell’s roses, which is, like, dropping the roses altogether and saying “Orwell”. See?

How precious.

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