Rebecca Solnit is one of my favorite writers. Her insights have a breathtaking originality and she writes with a richness and clarity that, in the end, is simply astonishing. Her books A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West have become touchstones for me.
Last year, while in Ireland, I read A Book of Migrations, a meditation on travel, identity, movements of populations, notions of ethnicity sparked by a year she spent in Ireland in the 80's. I read most of the book sitting in this chair, while staying with my friend Paul De Grae—architect, musician and bon vivant. Here is a typical passage that had me nearly trembling with excitement when I read it. I shared it with Paul that morning at breakfast.
She's speaking about blood and soil as metaphors for ethnic purity. Though she introduces the passage with references to Hitler, the implications are clear for almost any place on earth we might look: Ireland, Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Armenia.
"Blood's most significant quality is that it circulates, though the Western world only found this out with Harvey's experiments in 1628. Which is to say, despite the archaic idea that heredity and identity are situated there, literal blood is not so much like the reservoir or bank vault of the body as its interstate highway system or its rivers: blood is what mixes things up, imports and exports, keeps them moving. And blood itself is not a pure, singular substance, but a compound, made up of red and white blood cells, T-cells, oxygen, hormones, and other internal messengers and regulators, wastes, nutrients, antibodies. A healthy bloodstream is a very mixed community, and an updated metaphor based on blood would have to be one of multiplicity and mobility. Blood and soil make an even less appropriate pair for grounding identity racially and spatially, since both are zones of profound transformation. The ecohistorian Paul Shepard describes soil as "a skin, mediating the mineral and biological communities." Just as blood moves through the body importing and exporting diverse substances to the outside world, so worms and microbes course through the soil, aerating it, turning it over and transforming things at the end of their lives—corpses, wastes and decay—into fresh soil where the cycle will begin again. Soil is a festival of corruption and reinvention, the alpha and omega of all corporeal things."