Book Review: Rebecca Solnit's Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West

Savage Dreams In this, her second book, Rebecca Solnit leaves a literary chronicle of her experiences in two stages of western U.S. conflict, the Nevada Test Site and Yosemite. Her prose is part historical and largely memoir, leaving a sterling impression of the battles and consequences on the western landscape and its people. With clarity, Solnit demonstrates a theme of continuity and intersection among the conflicts, land, and people she discusses, from the plight of the “downwinders” living near the test site to the erasure of native culture from the Great Basin region and Yosemite. In her book, Solnit splits her time between the Great Basin and northern California and draws her parallels with fluidity and with purpose.

In the opening section, Solnit sets her landscape with a cruise down Highway 95 and into the maw of the Nevada Test Site. Her style is literary and evocative, and she misses no insight on what it means to be a part of this larger world. She goes on to detail her time spent with the pacifist groups working for disarmament. There, Solnit encounters a striking array of activists who all see unique and personal threats issuing from the bomb. Solnit meets those who preach the ill health effects of fallout as well as environmentalists who seek to protect the rights of the landscape. Many of the players are women, including Janet Gordon, a downwinder who lost more than a few loved ones to radiation poisoning, and three repeat-activists at the site (dubbed the Princesses of Plutonium) who all go by the name Priscilla, after a particularly volatile detonation during the 1950s. Further, Solnit encounters a strong presence from the indigenous Shoshone people, who stand mired in conflict with the federal government over land use rights. All have unique ideologies behind quelling the bomb, yet all causes intersect in a global effort to achieve peace and level the playing field for all people involved in the conflict.

In examining the activists’ varying perspectives, it’s easy to see a range of motivation at play. For the Princesses and for Gordon, Solnit hints how conflict manifests in the form of the patriarchy using the bomb to assume control over the women’s bodies through the bomb’s fallout. There is also a parallel between using the landscape against its will and to its detriment, which places all interconnected systems of earth and humanity in jeopardy. Further, Solnit chronicles how Gordon recalls a 1950s test site propaganda film that sought to mollify a nation by likening a nuclear detonation to a beautiful, God-given sight, akin to a rainbow. Outraged, a now-adult Gordon rejects this manipulative message and sees it as a way of exercising power and privilege to meet terrible ends.

Solnit’s book takes issue most with land-use conflicts between the U.S. federal government and the indigenous people who involuntarily fall within its jurisdiction. The conflicts she describes show a struggle that is fundamentally a racial one but stretches wide to intersect again on the other side with feminist and environmental issues. To illustrate these, Solnit describes at length the decades-long struggle between the Dann sisters and the federal government.

The Dann sisters—Mary and Carrie, hearty Shoshone women—occupied a ranch on their people’s land, situated in the heart of government-controlled testing and mining grounds requisitioned in the latter-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. Solnit describes how one day a federal agent visited the Danns’ ranch and informed them that they were trespassing on federal land that had been purchased from the Shoshone. The ranchers informed the agent that their land, in fact, fell within the Shoshone boundaries dictated in the Treaty of Ruby Valley and had never been up for sale. This event sparked a long and fierce battle between the federal government and the Danns, with the government attempting to run the Danns from their land and with the Danns standing their ground. After decades of fierce battle, another visitor arrives on the Danns’ ranch, a government agent who literally twists the arm of now-fifty-nine-year-old Carrie Dann in an effort to force her to stand down from her land and surrender her livestock to the government. In true feminist fashion, Dann stands firm and fashions an ultimatum for the agent to either produce the bill of sale from the Shoshone to the United States, or stand down and let her people be. Solnit describes Carrie Dann’s fortitude and brings all conflics full circle:

Thus two decades of legal battle came to their culmination. The federal government versus the Western Shoshone boiled down to Joe Leaf twisting Carrie Dann’s arm. I had come to Nevada because of the great apocalyptic end-of-the-world war, a war of great bombs and technologies annihilating cities or continents or species or the weather itself, and it had changed into a man bruising the wrist of a fifty-nine-year-old woman over some cows, but it was still the same war, and in this round, she had won (Solnit, 167).

Solnit goes on to describe the ill treatment of the natives in the late nineteenth century when the treaty was signed, including the rape of Shoshone women and forced cannibalism against the native people. Similar cases arise when the federal government seized control of Yosemite and snuffed out much of the native population of surrounding Mariposa County—a heavy tale discussed at length in the second portion of the book. Through this juxtaposition, Solnit shows how the past atrocities against indigenous peoples are alive and well in modern conflicts that crop up in the same places, as if nothing has been learned at all. In the Great Basin and Yosemite alike, the push is the same at the date of Solnit’s writing as it was a century or more prior: the privileged classes suppress the underprivileged (native peoples, women, and others without a voice) in a power play that transcends a variety of power structures.

In this way, the federal government’s injustice toward the Danns and other indigenous groups represents an intersection of oppression that reaches beyond pacifism and visits heavily upon feminist, environmental, and racial questions (an idea expressed at length in Rosemarie Tong’s chapter on third-wave feminism). Pacifism raises the question of why the bomb must be detonated at all. Feminism asks why a male government worker can feel justified in coercing a Shoshone woman to give up her livelihood against her will, or why the federal government can expect that a native Miwok woman practice her people’s lost crafts as a lookie-loo exhibit for white Yosemite tourists. Environmentalism asks why the Great Basin was long ago depleted of its indigenous plant and animal species in favor of the forced agricultural lifestyle of non-native white settlers, upon which the Danns are now forced to depend. Finally, race explains a keystone in the interplay of all of these ideas: the indigenous peoples, as “fourth-world” citizens, are perceived as having lesser importance than the citizens of the “first world” and must be subjugated to fit the will of the ruling class.

Solnit shows in vivid color how a host of ideas converge to trespass on the basic human rights of the Shoshone, the Miwok, and countless others as well as on the basic natural rights of the landscape. Her wayfaring memoir shines light on the complexities of what seem to be very straightforward conflicts and expose the intricacies with light and courage.