The first essay in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby describes an embarrassment of apricots, three large boxes of apricots from a tree in her mother's yard, so many apricots that she spread them out on a sheet on her bedroom floor to prevent their crushing each other. But there was no stopping time, and something had to be done with the fruit. Inspecting it frequently for rot, she saw their nagging presence not as abundance but as anxiety, a complicated set of feelings related to her relationship with and responsibility for an aging mother slipping ever further into dementia.
This abundance of apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood. It was a last harvest, a heap of fruit from a family tree, like the enigmatic gifts of fairy tales.... The apricots were a riddle I had to decipher, a tale whose meaning I had to make over the course of the next twelve months as almost everything went wrong.
- Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby
The mother-child relationship, family stories, fairy tales, inheritances, riddles, meanings, and memories, the mystery of stories told and retold and changing in the remembering and telling – such seeds are nurtured and coaxed along with a delicate, masterful touch in the pages of this book, which constitutes a garden stretching from familiar home scenes in North America to steaming Latin American jungles and bare Icelandic plains, soils from which emerge leprosy and revolution, literary monsters and strange cults. We are on a journey with author Rebecca Solnit. And she? She says,
I am, we each are, the inmost of an endless series of Russian dolls; you who read are now encased within a layer I built for you, or perhaps my stories are now inside you. We live as literally as that inside each other’s thought and work, in this world that is being made all the time, by all of us, out of beliefs and acts, information and materials. Even in the wilderness your ideas of what is beautiful, what matters, and what constitutes pleasure shape your journey there as much as do your shoes and map also made by others.
The book itself is a series of Russian dolls. Not only does each essay consist of layered meanings and images, growing from, for example, a floor spread with apricots to a meditation on time, picking up fairy tale strands along the way, but the collection itself is a larger essay encompassing the smaller ones. Perfectly coherent, it contains the others in meaning, not only as all are held together by the book’s binding. The apricots recur. Frankenstein’s monster reappears. And each reprise of each theme adds another layer to this intricate, complex work of art.
As a reader, one is aware on every page of being led somewhere new by a master essayist as Solnit takes us into and through her labyrinth, a journey that winds along as unspooled thread to bring us back home again in the end.
In the folding up of great distance into small space, the labyrinth resembles two other manmade things: a spool of thread and the words and lines and pages of a book. ... Reading is also traveling, the eyes running along the length of an idea, which can be folded up into the compressed space of a book and unfolded within your imagination and understanding.
The quotations I've used so far are beautiful, I hope you will agree, and yet they hardly do justice to the sensual detail of Solnit’s essays. Besides her lovely metaphors, extended analogies, and other abstractions beloved of a philosopher reader, there are also descriptions of her immediate surroundings. For instance –
Arriving in Iceland in spring, I watched the annual tuning up of the instruments everywhere as the earth woke up from winter. Mats of flattened gray plant stalks metamorphosed into grasses and great mounds of invasive Alaskan lupine smeared whole hillsides violet. Tiny flowers appeared in clumps of greening moss on the stones that paved vast expanses of land. Bumblebees that seemed to have the lower levels of the air all to themselves were joined by tiny butterflies and other insects.
The lush, swarming, high-speed Arctic spring! And the author brings to her experiences of art this same willingness to be submerged, though it is emergence -- becoming -- that is her overarching theme.
Does anyone out there remember a feature of The Last Whole Earth Catalog, a story that run from page to page in the margins? Solnit does something that reminded me a little of that story. Beginning on the first page of the first essay, there is a line of italic type (a single line, though my typeface and page formatting have it look otherwise below) at the bottom of the page:
Moths drink the tears of sleeping birds. This is the title of a short scientific report
The line is not a footnote, and the second sentence begun does not end on that page, and sentences bridge the spaces from one essay to the next. The relationship of this secondary (?) meditation to that of the essays, however, is a riddle for each reader to solve. (Perhaps a fiber artist would see it as elaborate decorative hemstitching.) An while a reader with a different kind of mind than my own might be able to follow both meditations in tandem, I admit I gave up trying after a few pages, reading the essays first, to the end of the book, and then starting over to follow the path laid by the meditation on tear-drinking moths.
But however one reads this book, whether in one long, thirsty series of gulps or slowly, measuring the reading out over a longer period of time, I cannot a more rewarding feast for lovers of the essay form. And at the end of the meal, hungry for more, you will be delighted to discover Rebecca Solnit's other books. The Faraway Nearby will be my first featured book for January 2017, and I'll be ordering multiple copies soon, so please contact me by phone or e-mail to reserve or to request one of Solnit's other titles.