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Savage Dreams

Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Hidden Wars of the American West

Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 435
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  • Book Info
    Savage Dreams
    Book Description:

    "A beautiful, absorbing, tragic book."-Larry McMurtryIn 1851, a war began in what would become Yosemite National Park, a war against the indigenous inhabitants. A century later-in 1951-and a hundred and fifty miles away, another war began when the U.S. government started setting off nuclear bombs at the Nevada Test Site. It was called a nuclear testing program, but functioned as a war against the land and people of the Great Basin.In this foundational book of landscape theory and environmental thinking, Rebecca Solnit explores our national Eden and Armageddon and offers a pathbreaking history of the west, focusing on the relationship between culture and its implementation as politics. In a new preface, she considers the continuities and changes of these invisible wars in the context of our current climate change crisis, and reveals how the long arm of these histories continue to inspire her writing and hope.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95792-3
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. [Illustrations]
    (pp. x-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xxvi)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xxvii-xxx)

    • From Hell to Breakfast
      (pp. 3-37)

      Dawn was only a faint glow behind the black crests of Skull Mountain and the Specter Range when I swung off Highway 95 and arrived, ten hours hard driving away from home. It was still too dark to pitch a tent, so I bundled my sleeping bag around me and curled up on the car seat. An hour later, groggy and aching, sleeping bag strings imprinted upon my cheek, I gave up on sleep and ventured out with my tin cup in hope of coffee. Someone who’d seen my little brother up at the gates of the encampment sent me...

    • Like Moths to a Candle
      (pp. 38-67)

      Later in the afternoon, dizzied by Bob’s acronyms and horror stories, I set out due west for the mesas beyond the camp. (That year the Bureau of Land Management had driven American Peace Test out of the site it usually used, opposite the road to Mercury on 95, and so the camp was a few miles further from Vegas and closer to the Spring Mountains.) The camp was an anthill of people all purposefully heading in different directions: toward water, planning meetings, meals, shade, music. At its heart was the cluster of striped pavilions and huge army-surplus tents in which...

    • April Fool’s Day
      (pp. 68-90)

      On march 31, 1990, the People’s Comprehensive test Ban was signed by representatives from Japan, East Germany, West Germany, and Holland, by Kairot Umarov for the Nevada-Semipalatinsk Antinuclear Movement in the Soviet Union, by Jackie Cabasso for American Peace Test, and by Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, who was there because the organizers recognized the Shoshone homeland of Newe Sogobia as a coequal sovereign nation affected by the Arms Race. My brother and representatives of some of these other movements would take it to the U.N. in January of 1991, where a Comprehensive Test Ban would...

    • Trees
      (pp. 91-107)

      On Memorial day in May of 1990, a month after I got back from the trip across Nevada, my brother called me up from his home across town and told me, “Al Solnit’s in town, and he’d like to meet us.” I said, “No he’s not, because he’s our father and he’s dead.” My brother explained that the man who wanted to meet us was our father’s cousin, a man we’d heard of, but never met. Our grandfather and his two brothers had all named their firstborn sons after their own father. This firstborn had seen David’s byline on an...

    • Lise Meitner’s Walking Shoes
      (pp. 108-144)

      A sentence, or a story, is a kind of path. In April of 1851, five years after his night in jail and a century before the nuclear explosions in Nevada, Thoreau gave a talk in which he took his audience down a path that few had trod before. The talk was called “Walking,” as was the rambling essay published eleven years later, in the midst of the Civil War and just after its author’s death. It still stands as a kind of manifesto for wilderness and as Thoreau’s most quoted piece—the place where he says, “In wildness is the...

    • Golden Hours and Iron County
      (pp. 145-158)

      I came back to the Test Site for the Spring Action of 1991. It seemed that nothing had changed there, but everything had changed around it. The Soviet Union was crumbling, and it was clear that the Cold War was going to be history sometime soon. But in January our own country had vetoed the Comprehensive Test Ban and begun a war on Iraq, and there had been talk of using nuclear weapons in the Gulf. For older Americans, the war was terrible because it reminded them of Vietnam. But for those of us too young to remember Vietnam, it...

    • Ruby Valley and the Ranch
      (pp. 159-190)

      I had been to Ruby Valley the month before the Veterans Day action.

      For the Western Shoshone, the forty years’ war at the Nevada Test Site was only an extension of an assault against Great Basin land and people that should have stopped in 1863, with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed at Ruby Valley that year. Dust had not settled on that treaty for them, nor had they entered into any new agreements with the Federal Government in regard to their land, but it was being taken away from them piecemeal by bombs, mines, and bureaucrats.

      In the...

    • The War
      (pp. 191-203)

      The war began suddenly, though not without warning.

      The man the Western Shoshone National Council had hired to organize the defense project went into the store in the mobile-home hamlet of Crescent Valley one day—there was only one store and it didn’t sell much besides potato chips, Spam, Kleenex, Gatorade, and beer—and the woman asked him what all those sheriffs’ cars were doing outside the community center. The lot full of four-wheel drives was news to him, early warning signs of a roundup at the Dann ranch. They had released their cattle in March, although the BLM’s regulations...

    • Keeping Pace with the Tortoise
      (pp. 204-212)

      Two more things happened to me in Nevada in the summer of 1992.

      The first was that I got to Ground Zero.

      I did it the easy way. I called up the Las Vegas Department of Energy and said that I was a journalist and that I wanted a tour of the Nevada Test Site. They had me come out and meet Darwin at six in the morning at the DOE office near the Strip in Vegas.

      Darwin was a large, blunt-featured, public-relations middle-weight who seemed sincere, but not fanatical, about his job. He was well disposed toward me, but...


    • The Rainbow
      (pp. 215-227)

      I read once that the Mono Lake Paiutes believed that there were two skies, each coming down to rest on the crest of the Sierra Nevada. It was an old unreliable book that I read it in, but the theory does much to explain the profound difference of the two worlds the Sierra divide: the wide-open arid spaces of Nevada, still so sparsely inhabited, and the riot of life—flora and fauna, particularly human fauna—that overruns California.

      The two skies may be just a way of describing the rain shadow the Sierra cast over Nevada—as the clouds blow...

    • Spectators
      (pp. 228-247)

      I came back to Yosemite again and again, but nothing ever happened to me there. It was a place where nothing was supposed to happen. I had become used to things happening, used to Nevada, which has not yet come out of the freewheeling frontier era. Nevada is an insular, unregulated place whose few real inhabitants are fearless and openhearted, while California’s crowdedness breeds professionalization and the cultivation of privacy. It may also be the difference between institutions and communities, for at the Test Site I worked with communities of volunteers, while at Yosemite I met almost exclusively with employees...

    • Framing the View
      (pp. 248-267)

      Late one September afternoon, I walked along the Merced. As I followed the river west through the valley, toward sunset, something surprised me every few minutes. The river bent, the valley turned a little more due west and a last ray of sun stretched toward me, a stand of trees gave way to a meadow, a space between the trees opened up a view of a sheer wall or the deep V of the west end turning rosy. The river is a gentle, neglected, beautiful thing, widening into broad mirrors, spilling over shallow falls and singing to itself, breaking into...

    • Vanishing (Remaining)
      (pp. 268-293)

      California was probably the most densely inhabited part of North America before the Europeans came, and its inhabitants spoke more than a hundred different languages and led lives as diverse as the climates and terrains of the state, from the deserts of the southeast to the rainforests of the north coast. Human history in the region may reach back more than 10,000 years, but the history of European incursion and written history begins a couple of hundred years ago.

      In 1769, when Franciscan missions began spreading up the coast, the population of the state was about 310,000. The missions were...

    • Fire in the Garden
      (pp. 294-308)

      One way to guarantee a conversation without a conclusion is to ask a group of people what nature is. One person will assert that it’s anything that is unaffected by human beings, anything out there, and then another will object that DDT has been found in the polar icecaps and nothing is that far away. Someone else will go for a more moderate definition of anything not made by people, and more hairs will be split over domesticated and selectively bred things like cows and cabbages, and over artifacts made from natural materials, such as baskets. An antiromantic might bring...

    • The Name of the Snake
      (pp. 309-327)

      So the Ahwahneechee didn’t disappear, they just became invisible. And perhaps that was enough, enough to write a new history over the old one in the region and a new version of nature over the old one—except that the new version didn’t work, because it was missing a key element. Even if the histories were silent about them, the land spoke of them. Still, a great many believed the Ahwahneechee had disappeared, and even more people pledged their faith to Yosemite as a temple of virgin nature, so that they were erased from the past as well as the...

    • Up the River of Mercy
      (pp. 328-354)

      At some point in my ramblings through the woods and manuscripts of Yosemite it occurred to me that Savage might be the thread that would tie all the various histories together, a touchstone for their ambiguities. An extraordinary character of great courage, recklessness, athletic prowess, linguistic talent, and unscrupulousness, he was famous—some said notorious—in his time. Now he is hardly remembered but as part of the first chapter of the Yosemite histories, a second false start, after the Ahwahneechee, to the main story.

      As the ashes of the cremated dead are scattered to the winds, so the facts...

    • Savage’s Grave
      (pp. 355-364)

      We were tired, and the men at the next campsite were annoying. There were five of them, and they were loudly recounting their dubious sexual exploits to each other as their heap of beer cans grew. Catherine and Dianne were upset by the one who was talking about trying to seduce a twelve-year-old. I hadn’t heard him, but I came back in time to catch another story about cornering a woman in an elevator. I cheered up my companions with promises to make trails of aromatic food—Bac-o-bits were the leading contender—to their tents so that the bears would...

    • Full Circle
      (pp. 365-385)

      On the first day of Octomber in 1992 I set out on the longest route to Las Vegas I could take without heading in the wrong direction, across the San Joaquin Valley, up through Tioga Pass in Yosemite, and all around the Test Site’s north and east sides I had never seen before.

      Of all the cardinal sins against the environment, driving long distances is the most seductive, the one that brings us back to otherwise inaccessible places, whatever the terms. I love long drives alone. The road is a place itself, or a border between places, a long narrow...

  8. Afterword to the 1999 Edition
    (pp. 386-389)
    Rebecca Solnit

    Around noon on march 29, 1999, Bob Fulkerson sent me to go walking among the petroglyphs at Grimes Point near Fallon, Nevada, while he wrote a eulogy for Bill Rosse, who, after surviving a war and many illnesses and accidents, had finally passed away three days before, aged seventy-two. The rocks around me were almost black and the faint diagram-like petroglyphs were easiest to see when you weren’t looking for them. Military jets shaped like arrowheads and hypodermics ripped through the pale sky overhead, and I seemed to be back where I was nine years earlier when Bill and Bob...

  9. Sources
    (pp. 390-404)
  10. Index
    (pp. 405-408)