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Saturday, July 16th, 2005


A Field Guide to Getting Lost


A review by Jill Owens

"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

-- Elizabeth Bishop, "One Art"

We order our lives, spending months or years settling and collecting, people, jobs, drawers full of letters and photographs, and then sometimes, often in spring, we disorder them again; we crave the freedom of chaos, pack a light suitcase, and try not to look back. Rebecca Solnit's marvelous new book of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is about the spaces between stability and risk, solitude, and the occasional claustrophobia of ordinary life. She explores the mysterious without puncturing the mystery, and that is a remarkable achievement indeed.

The title is exact in the truest sense of a field guide, the older sense, replete with narratives of the "field" of loss and losing oneself or one's way; Solnit is the best, most unobstrusive kind of travelling companion: a lanterned shadow slipping through the mouth of the cave. Blue in concept and color (as in blues music, the blue of china and of sky) is as important a character in these essays as the idea of disorientation; "The Blue of Distance" is the title of every other essay. Solnit's blue is the blue of separation, longing, and desire, a blue so pure it may not even exist.

Loss (being lost) and longing are a mutual dependency, a "pleasure akin to joy," as Solnit puts it. The loss of languages from the world, species from the planet, ancestors and their histories from their descendents gives way to unique regenerations, often terrible and sometimes beautiful, sprouting something altogether different in the space of absence. With dreamlike transitions, Solnit considers a variety of examples which contrast created wildness with natural wilderness, including Passover, punk music and suburban youth, the early death of a friend from an overdose, movie-making in the ruins of a mental hospital, and her affair with a hermit in the southwestern desert.

One notable essay explores narratives of children who were kidnapped by Native Americans, away from their Puritan settlements, to be brought up with a different language, an alien culture, amongst the wilderness of a vast "new" continent. The initial separation, Solnit describes, must have been "as violent as birth." Yet many of these children adapted well, and few wanted to be recovered; one who was re-stolen by force died in part of self-starvation. Though Solnit uses these stories of captivity as an example of the kind of distance from our own lives that we cannot (and probably would not) hope to duplicate today, the emotional impulse is still valid; the difference between youth and adulthood, embracing life and fearing death, is in our willingness to lose ourselves, to traffic in the realm of the strange and the unknown.

One of the great pleasures of A Field Guide to Getting Lost is its associative power to transport you to the grand coincidences of your own life, the moments when pieces of time overlap into a profound and uncharted synchronicity. Solnit's book has a kind of otherworldly joy and calm about it, but it is so unapologetically beautiful that it can be almost painful. It is not, of course, a book that anyone else could have written, but it does stir a peculiar longing: in the spirit of grace and the uncanny, in the chance and change of dream-logic, it is one that I might strive in the future to write.

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