Storming the Gates of Paradise

Rebecca Solnit

I started reading Storming the Gates of Paradise early last year, but since it’s not a light read, the library wound up wanting it back before I could finish. Only thanks to having added it as my “currently reading” book on Goodreads was my memory jogged enough times to get another copy and finally read the rest. An anthology of essays over a number of years, the book is grouped by subject matter with a fair amount of overlap — each essay was originally written to stand alone, so key facts or concepts tend to get rephrased across them. Some subjects drew me in deeper than others; I found myself relating parts of the “Borders and Crossers” essays in casual conversation, yet skimmed over most of “Gardens and Wildernesses.” Solnit writes about place in specific contexts of politics and environmentalism with a similar panache to Joan Didion, though there is an activist’s intent in her work.

Solnit is perhaps at her best writing about her hometown of San Francisco, which gets a section called “City at the End of the World.” She recounts “the first ten destructions” of the city in “The Ruins of Memory,” looking at how cities can smooth out their decay too quickly, culminating her SF list with the dot-com boom gentrification. She conspicuously doesn’t mention the Sutro Bath Ruins at all, though they got a mention in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which was published before this essay. Those ruins perhaps have less historical significance than the vast devastations of the fires in the city’s early history or the more recent displacements of communities as urban renewal swept through, but this part especially evoked them for me:

Ruins stand as reminders. Memory is always incomplete, always imperfect, always falling into ruin; but the ruins themselves, like other traces, are treasures: our links to what came before, our guide to situating ourselves in a landscape of time. To erase the ruins is to erase the visible public triggers of memory; a city without ruins and traces of age is like a mind without memories.