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
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.