I search the web for others' takes on nature writing, so why not offer my own? I hope you'll respond. Here's more on the blog philosophy.

February 7, 2008

Nature Writing for All in a Time of Crisis

It is hard to think of a time in history when a literature of nature is more desperately needed, and yet readers have never lead lives more distant from nature. In the last year, global warming has begun to surface as a mainstream issue for Americans. We are groping for the will and imagination to respond to the threat, but many of us feel at sea. Polemics and how-tos abound, but we are not all going to stop flying, ditch cars, and go solar tomorrow. Many of us are scrambling to hold ourselves or our families together, with abundant recourse to antidepressants, painkillers, Yoga, and credit cards. We may be the most privileged people in the world, but we often feel helpless. If we are to act, we must find a bridge between our current lives and needs and the life and needs of the planet. Where more logical to turn than to the genre which has long connected the personal with the natural, the genre which helped create the environmentalist movement?

Starting with Thoreau, American nature writing has explored both what we owe nature and what it gives us. Yet despite the wealth of respected contemporary writers like Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez, and Wendell Berry, the genre today remains marginal. When mainstream critics speak of it, they yawn. Joyce Carol Oates famously criticized nature writing for what she called its "painfully limited set of responses: reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness." Nature writer David Gessner declares himself "sick of nature," and imagines livening up the nature writing soirée by getting Thoreau drunk. Even eco-critic Robert MacFarlane feels no need to substantiate his claim that, "So much nature-minded art suffers from the tonal sins of polemicism, piety or plangency."

Nature writing is no narrower or more pious today than it was in Thoreau's time. It's we, the public, who have grown restive and indifferent. Thoreau's fellow citizens knew the local huckleberry patch almost as well as he did, and they responded not just to his exhortations but to his "hail fellow" moments of humor and camaraderie. Now, the bio of every prominent nature writer includes a career as a naturalist or a dwelling in undeveloped country. These writers still address the reader both charismatically and informally, as spiritual authorities and as peers. They draw on the familiar, friend-to-friend essay tradition as well as the Romantic prophetic tradition. Americans, however, cannot easily see them as peers. It is hard for us to imagine living in the sagebrush or recognizing an egret's spoor. We still need our prophets, but we also need to supplement their works. We need a nature literature by and for the laity.

Some signs point to the beginning of such a literature. Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle preaches local food for global reasons, but it also recounts, whimsically, a family experiment. In A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson presents himself as an inexperienced middle-aged man who walks the Appalachian Trail with a hopeless-case buddy. He asks us to worry with him, in between comic scenes, about the trees and the songbirds. Ian Frazier stalks urban parks in search of suspended trash in "Bags in Trees." Still, despite Bill McKibben's 2005 call, "What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art," we are hard pressed to find personal essays that confront the most urgent aspect of our relationship to nature--climate change. In one exception, the essay “My Bird Problem,” Jonathan Franzen describes how his obsession with birds makes him "inconveniently obliged to care" about the species that will disappear with rising temperatures. Franzen doesn't convert to activism at the end, but he suggests that even the inactivists may have a role to play.

It is easy to criticize the self-absorption of Americans, but we will get further if we consider the self a gateway to the political. Personal essays create a sense of intimacy and make space for irreverent, exploratory, self-critical, humorous reflection, even on a topic as nauseating as the cooking of the biosphere. I am curious to know what essayists from Richard Rodriguez to David Sedaris think and feel about this looming subject. Could there be memoir along the lines of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love or Annie Lamott's Grace, Eventually which delves into the reconsiderations which climate change necessitates? These writers and a host of others might help me figure out how I, short of becoming an Al Goress, want to act.

So far, the world hasn’t tried to curb emissions enough to prevent widespread human and non-human loss of life. Nature and the way we're heating it had better show up soon in our shared inquiries into our lives. Else it will be business and neuroses as usual, until it isn't.

November 12, 2007

A Comfort Reading List

Some might say this is no time to comfort ourselves reading about nature when nature is so severely threatened. Still, comfort we must have at times, whether we're in the throes of insomnia or overwhelmed by predictions of environmental apocalypse. I've published an Amazon list of books I turn to.

November 10, 2007

In Deep: Country Essays by Maxine Kumin

How many writers have led lives of sustained contentment? How many personal essays express happiness and fulfillment in almost every line? Wouldn't such consistency bore readers? Not necessarily. Maxine Kumin's In Deep: Country Essays draws us into a happiness as varied as beauty. She has married herself to her plot of New Hampshire woods, her immense garden, her horses, and her farmhouse. Her essays revel in the dignity of labor that follows the seasons, in curious and succulent language, and in the hard-earned bounty of a New England farm. In Deep has a loose, eclectic feel. It rambles between jubilant descriptions of the way horses move, journal entries, affectionate ruminations on Thoreau, and a disquisition on the parallels between poet and mule. Her affection for the homey and oldfashioned shows in the following passage:

On the opposite wall a framed poster advertises the virtues of the Andes stove, a porcelain monster foursquare on its black bowlegs. Makes poor cooks good and good cooks better, reads the unabashed slogan. Not an extravagant claim, its unvarnished declarations suits this country kitchen. Nothing fancy takes place here.
The same cannot be said for her prose, which is often fancy. Kumin has an elegant, precise, pedantic style. She addresses us warmly in the mode of the traditional familiar essay, a kind of Oxford parlor talk. When her parlor talk treats of muck and mules, she takes a mischeivous pleasure in the dissonance. She likes to juxtapose the rustic with the cultured within a sentence, like "My favorite kitchen artist is a cookstove artist with birch and poplar chunks in the maw of his old ironsides." "Maw" takes us back to Beowulf; "Old ironsides" is jaunty Mark Twain vernacular.

Kumin finds the most amusing dissonance, however, within her own person. In her bib overalls, she comments that her son "would prefer a mother who dressed in matching beige sweaters and skirts and a single strand of pearls." She has discovered her place in life as a born-again farm matron as well as a New England establishment poet. As a result, she can take play with the rhythms and precise diction of formal prose without taking the prose or herself seriously.

My father, an incorrigible fungophobe, did not want to hear my favorite chapter of the book, "Mushroom Hunting." Nevertheless, I read excerpts aloud on a recent plane ride to Los Angeles. As my father likes witty and peculiar language as much as he dislikes mushrooms, he did not stop me. I read, "Attractive, showy, as seductive as the jacket of a trashy novel and displaying to the uninitiate all desirable mushroom qualities, the amanita nods its cap throughout the growing season." I read, "Among mycophagists (mushroom eaters), toadstool is considered a cruel epithet to be disavowed along with various other racist and sexist expressions." I read, "Should you cut open the thick-skinned scleroderma, its purply black inner flesh will repel your appetite, but even this bitter old bird is not dangerous." My father grimaced and smiled.

Kumin refuses to preach, and she doesn't seek out mystery as much as other nature writers do. She is too busy melting the ice in her horses' drinking troughs and picking spaghetti squash. She is too busy marveling over the names and natures of funghi like "chicken-of-the-woods," the spiny-toothed "pig's trotter," and the "horn of plenty (otherwise known as the trumpet of death)." She relishes the particular, not for what it implies about the cosmos, but for itself. She writes, "Without religious faith and without the certitude such faith brings, I must take my only comfort from the natural order of things." Few of her readers find ourselves as rooted in the world as she is in her farm. We catch a glimpse, in her essays, of what physical contact with a place and its creatures over many years might feel like.

November 5, 2007

First Church of the Higher Elevations by Peter Anderson

It is a rare book that can speak both to earnest seekers and people who find religion annoying. Peter Anderson’s First Church of the Higher Elevations, a meditation on decades of wandering in the Rockies, manages. In a review in Mountain Gazette, Kurt Caswell testifies,
When I picked up Peter Anderson’s book, “First Church of the Higher Elevations,” I prayed that he would not preach to me. I didn’t want to hear that my sins condemned me and that seeking God was my one path to salvation. I just wanted to read good prose about mountain adventures. By the time I finished the book, my attitude had oriented itself in the opposite direction. Enough of these mountains, I thought. Tell me more about how to find God.
We never learn just what Anderson thinks God is. The point is not to resolve theological conundrums. The point is to search for a direct encounter. Anderson makes it easy for us to join him. He avoids false notes of dogmatism or self-righteousness even as he looks back on Quaker seminary and his two mountain-priest mentors, a Santa Fe padre, and a nineteenth-century Italian hermit. He doesn’t feel compelled to come up with grand-slam epiphanies. Far from stodgy, Anderson sings "Wild Thing" in a downpour among oak trees, quotes from Dharma Bums, and stays for another draft at the Lariat Saloon. He uses words like “schlepp,” worries about escaped convicts, and counts the days until he sees his wife. His descriptions of beauty are spare and unaffected. In one of my favorite passages, he sits near a ridgeline and watches.
A bumblebee zips by and rides the west wind into an updraft, headed for a vanishing point in flat-bottomed clouds reflecting the reds from the canyons below. For a few moments the air is still. Then another wind wave breaks across the crest of the ridge, carrying a swallowtail that has just taken off from a red clover blossom. It is gone a hundred feet before it moves a wing. Adios angelito.
Anderson makes his faith palpable without making it improbable. By faith, I mean an awareness, dim or acute, explicit or implicit, of what I want to call presence. This “presence” is no supernatural deity, but an essence that surrounds and inheres in us and in nature. It is inseparable from the quality of attention that Anderson brings. It is inseparable, too, from absence. This kind of faith is not the opposite of doubt. It includes uncertainty, loneliness, and disappointment. Most of Anderson's expeditions involve a lot of time wondering what he’s doing out there. Even his moments of joy are handled with a light touch, as if they implied lingering questions. He muses,
The tangible gifts I find on this mountain–the shade of an aspen tree, a clear-running creek, waves of blooming wildflowers–are reassuring when prayer invites me into an experience of Presence that often feels more like absence.
Anderson draws most heavily on the religious tradition of Quakerism. He quotes Quaker theologians, yet he mentions few Quaker associates or Quaker places of worship. In Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings, people sit together quietly and rise to speak if the spirit moves them. Like them, Anderson believes there is “that of God in every person,” and he seeks God’s presence in simplicity and silence. My own father is Quaker, and when I visit his meeting, I sometimes feel the silence as Yeats heard the lake water lapping at Innisfree--I hear it in the deep heart's core. I sense a similar stillness in the chapters of First Church of the Higher Elevations.

My father had a queer reaction when I told him about Anderson’s book. “I love the mountains, but I'm not someone who finds God there, at least not particularly there,” he said. “I find God in my relations with people. To me the mountains feel like escape.” He couldn’t imagine a Quaker spirituality outside communal worship and human dealings with other humans. Many religious people of all creeds, I imagine, would agree with him.

Most nature writing, on the other hand, finds spirituality in solitude. Thoreau and Emerson praised the individual’s communion with the divine through nature, and the genre still follows their lead. Yet a book like First Church of the Higher Elevations is not so solitary as it might seem. If I sense presence when I read it, I am sensing that presence only through Anderson. Anderson does not keep his experience of presence to himself. He wants, perhaps needs, to share it. Reader and writer do meet for worship in these pages, though they must both imagine the meeting.

Additional Links:
Peter Anderson is the editor of Pilgrimmage Magazine and the poetry editor of Mountain Gazette.
The April 2005 issue of Friends Bulletin contains "Father, in Fragments," a poem I wrote some time ago about my father and his Quaker spirituality.

October 19, 2007

One Day on Beetle Rock by Sally Carrighar

In the 1940s, Sally Carrighar spent her summers in a cabin in Sequoia National Park. She distilled her observations into this exploration of the experiences of nine creatures during a single day near the same granite cliff. The interlocking portraits are engaging and convincing. Carrighar keeps the inevitable anthropomorphization to a minimum. Her descriptions allow us to enter into the animals' sensations and impulses. A deer mouse "wanted the walls of the nook to press her all over, but however she crouched, one of her sides had no touch of shelter on it." A lizard is tempted by "a gamey, delicately tart green leafhopper." A chickaree giving an alarm call "jerked, as if he were a little bag filled to bursting with bright sound that piped out whenever the bag was jostled."

Unlike Thoreau and all his literary descendants, Carrighar does not focus on the spiritual reverberations of nature in the human soul, and she does not speak of herself. Today's nature writers, perhaps influenced by postmodernism and multiculturalism's emphases on individual perspectives, rarely attempt to enter the consciousness of other beings. Perhaps they avoid cuteness, projection, and presumption that way. They also miss a chance to help us begin to become aware of and begin to inquire into the nature of non-human minds. I am embarrassed to say that I felt surprised when this book reminded me that the animals I glimpse and don't glimpse on the trail must have continuous emotional and sensory lives.

Carrighar didn't entice me with the promise of objective knowledge of a secret kingdom. Rather, she made me wonder if I could achieve a sense of home in that kingdom through intimate knowledge. Though she never describes her own process of observation, Carrighar offers herself as a teacher. With her clear, faithful gaze, she comes as close to joining the community of Beetle Rock as a human can.

September 23, 2007

Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild by Ellen Melloy

Many write gorgeously about deserts and mountains, but few inject self-conscious weirdness, of the absurdist variety, into their lyricism. Ellen Meloy does. In Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, she describes her obsession with a band of desert bighorn sheep near her home in a small town on the Colorado Plateau and her wider explorations of the species in Baja California, on Navy bombing ranges, and around uranium-mining ghost towns. Readers can loll about in rhythmic, biblical prose, such as, "The late afternoon light comes from the bedrock, from within the mountains themselves, pouring amber from granite and dust, wicking up through the trunks and out the branches of the foxtail pines." Then Meloy exclaims, "The next time you buff up the Hummer with an auto-detailing cloth that came from the skin of a petite rupicaprid, bond with the ungulates that share with us a molecular past." Come again? Whence this aggression and language delirium? Why does she refrain from explaining?

Meloy welcomes the reader without pretension, so her bizarro sallies seem flirtatious. They tease, tantalize, and keep us alert even as they run the risk of annoying us. For my part, I enjoyed the jarring mysteries. It was like finding Dali touches in the corners of a grand Bierstadt landscape. For Meloy, the road along the Hoover dam becomes the "hair-thin rim of a giant potato chip." A diorama of bighorns in a museum "sounds as if its grinding up fresh loads of zirconium monkeys." She casts "a Giacometti shadow," invoking the uncanny yet familiar weirdness of those elongated statues. Like other nature writers, she exhorts us to wake up and pay attention, but she does so with these curious injunctions: "Admire the male midwife toad," "Master a hyena's laugh and use it when in the presence of politicians" and "Quit badgering your tax attorney." She observes a poodle's entrance into a small church in Baja California and then declares, "I am too snobby to share a church with a poodle."

There are plenty of reasons to adopt a self-consciously weird voice in nature writing. First, it relieves the monotony of reverence. Variation in tone can make it easier to engage the reader. Some purists like Mary Oliver, Barry Lopez, Loren Eiseley and John Muir refuse to dilute their awe. Why would a believer fart in church? They count on the perennial allure of the sacred, which should draw readers over and over as a lake draws swimmers on a hot day. Other writers like to vary their tone, and they often interject irreverent, informal, humorous bits of mischief. We see the picaresque vein in nature writing in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and in all of Edward Abbey's work as well as in recent books like David Gessner's Sick of Nature and Susan Zakin's anthology Naked: Writers Uncover the Way We Live on Earth, with its inflammatory introduction.

Really, though, this mischief has been around in the genre as an undercurrent at least since Thoreau. Could we even recognize Thoreau without the gruffness, the defiance, the edge of humor? He makes fun of "the ladies of the land weaving toilet cushions against the last day, not to betray too green an interest in their fates." He sees that "The head monkey in Paris puts on a traveler's cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same." He recounts his eating habits, too, with slyness and glee. "In cold weather it was no small pleasure to bake several small loaves of [bread] at once, tending and turning them as carefully as an Egyptian his hatching eggs." He boasts, "I could make a very good molasses of pumpkin or beets," and adds a little singsong, "We can make liquor to sweeten our lips // of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut tree chips."

Meloy likens the scent of the purple mustard plant to "stale washcloths." She says of mountain lion control, "Whenever eater and eatee came within drooling distance of each other, someone pushed the bad-kitty button and zapped the cat." She describes the oryx, an African transplant into New Mexico, as "antelope as rather beefy drag queens." Her beloved bighorns are more likely to burp "a froggy-sounding bleat" than to execute a graceful leap. She approaches nature with an interest in its frank physicality, including the crass details of sheep life. She peers at a dead sheep's rumen and declares, "The fermentation vat. The desert eaten." She admires "lovely rumps and eyelashes as delicate as fishbones." She has an oddly proprietary affection for the profanity of nature, including genitalia. "'Let's see you get that cantaloupe off the ground,'" she says "to the chocolate ram as he rises."

Any writer of personal narrative needs to counter charges of egotism, and self-mocking helps deflect mockery. Lone-seeker nature writers in particular have a tendency toward self-congratulation. Meloy flaunts her weirdness in part to make fun of herself. True, she sometimes hints at Abbeyesque "desert-girl swagger." She boasts, "The main roads of Baja California have been upgraded from bad to less bad. We avoid them and drive the old tracks of rocks and ruts, throwing up plumes of white dust behind us. When these roads are too civilized, we drive the euphemisms." Still, she enjoys undercutting her boasts even more. She begins a sentence, "A slow-moving glassy mirror of winter light, the river holds all of my attention..." and then observes, "This kind of strolling reverie usually ends up with me walking face-first into a bush." She makes fun of the myth of the ideal naturalist who can "spot the copulation of deranged pygmy badgers from several hundred yards away."

Meloy's weirdness hints at a private sense of shame and defiance as well as quirkiness. Weirdness can work as a defense mechanism for the kind of post-hippy white intellectuals who often become nature writers (I know whereof I speak). Defiant, aggressively geeky humor can transform the alienation of the nerd and the misfit into pride, as the cult of Monty Python demonstrates. Meloy advertises her strangeness with lines like, "I feel like my normally abnormal self as I shift into a fifth-gear cruise through Navajo land." When Meloy stumbles into a brothel one day in search of a pay phone, she identifies with the prostitutes' marginality even as she laughs at her own awkwardness: "They glare at me as if I were about the twenty-eighth extraterrestrial to drop by that day, like when was it ever going to end, Nevada being a state that could really grow sick and tired of space aliens." She admires their "scornful pride" and imagines a sisterly cup of tea, a conference of outsiders.

Meloy's weirdness is most interesting, however, when it implies a weirdness beyond the personal. Like the aesthetic movements that praise weirdness, from Surrealism to the Theater of the Absurd to Dada, her work seeks to mirror the strangeness of the world and of the mind. Like the clowning of Shakespeare's fools, her weirdness dances between sense and nonsense, opacity and clairvoyance. The very randomness and uncertainty are the point. Her passion for the desert and the sheep leads her toward entropy. As she finds herself in intimate contact with the desert and the sheep, her response is flailing, voracious, bewildered. She wants "to rise up and bite the desert to bits." She wants to zero in on one thing but wants everything too. She pants, "A single Russian olive tree holds some of the [bluebirds] among its dried gold leaves, a Persian miniature I shall paint as soon as I study Persian miniatures for about ten years." It delights her when the exuberance of being and desire erupts the sheep too, in a rare deviation from survival mode. She observes them springing up in the air for no apparent reason and writes, "Toast pops spread throughout the band like a chain reaction... Here I am, broiling my brain amid a bunch of existentialist Caprini."

Partway through the book, Meloy complains of an undiagnosed neurological abnormality which has reduced her vocabulary and her memory. She sees her brain as a sort of natural history museum "curated by a pack of unruly imps... Imps in the language and memory sectors are gray-haired and decrept, shuffling along in orthopedic huaraches, wreaking havoc, turning the contents of my cranium into moon cheese." If she has lost words and stories, however, we certainly can't tell. We can tell that the condition reactivates her sense of helplessness and awe about the unpredictability of the brain.

Like Virginia Woolf, Meloy finds meaning in "moments of being." She seeks "the occasions when jolts from the universe fly open. This jolt, in this desert with these animals, is a belonging so overwhelming, it can put deep cracks in your heart." At the moment when she finally belongs, when she comes home, the experience breaks her. The wilderness makes her whole as it accepts her discontinuities. Perhaps this is the meaning of the subtitle, "Imagination and the loss of the wild." Wilderness embodies and welcomes chaos, the chaos that gives rise to imagination and spirit. In the wild, Meloy feels at home in the wildness of her mind.

Ellen Meloy

Additional Links:
The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers offers an annual scholarship
Tributes to Ellen Meloy and links to her radio interviews and commentaries
Verlyn Klinkenborg's article on Ellen Meloy in the New York Times

September 17, 2007

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat

This classic defense of wolves never strays into preaching; it makes its points through slapstick adventure. A hapless young biologist named Farley Mowat gets shipped off into the bush by the Canadian government and instructed to conduct meticulous observations of wolves. He is to disembowel a lot of wolves and prove that the ravening beasts are decimating the caribou. Instead, the wolves disprove his assumptions at every turn. He becomes an ardent fan of their family life, sense of humor, restraint, and good nature. He decides to skip the disemboweling. An Eskimo named Ootek helps to illuminate wolf nature and plays the wise straight red man to Mowat's buffoon. Mowat hides under his canoe from wolves that turn out to be huskies; he ogles a she-wolf he has christened Angeline. Some of his antics could come right out of a Chaplin movie. Perhaps Chaplin should have done a movie in the far north not about Gold Rush prospectors who eat shoes, but about wildlife biologists who eat creamed mice to test their nutritional value. In one scene, Mowat jumps up naked from sunbathing to run off after a pack of wolves in hopes of observing a caribou hunt. When the wolves ignore the caribou, Mowat runs at the pack, swearing, in frustration. An Eskimo lad tells his mother, who never speaks to the mad white nudist again.

This nature writing does not sing. It is not meant to. When Mowat mentions the tundra plains around him, he calls them dreary. Nor does he praise the wolves' appearance much. What's more, enough experts have questioned the veracity of his observations that Barry Lopez labels Never Cry Wolf a "fictionalized account" in his book Of Wolves and Men. Yet Lopez still recommends Never Cry Wolf as an introduction to the species. The truth is that the book doesn't need beauty or literal truth to draw us closer to nature. Through Mowat's stories, we come to share his affinity for wolves, and we understand the hunger for connection that propels his scientific curiosity.

Coming into the Country by John McPhee

Coming into the Country is a wonderful relic, the last plausible vision of a living American frontier. In the mid seventies, McPhee went to Alaska to do a few pieces for the New Yorker. He met trappers, prospectors, and "river people" who'd built moss-chinked cabins and whose individualism, gruff hospitality, and happiness he admired. McPhee made a plea for democratic access to Alaskan land. He argued that land far from roads should remain fair game for homesteaders in perpetuity.

It is odd to read an ode to Alaska's wild immensity at a time when islands are being evacuated in the Aleutians, polar bears are drowning, and the permafrost is melting. The question these days is not whether Americans can still choose to live in more or less untainted outback. The question is whether that outback will soon be transformed beyond recognition, not by oil drilling, but by climate change.

Coming into the Country allows us to escape into nostalgia. McPhee's account of the political squabbles over the location of Alaska's capital has lost its relevance, but the rest of the book still comes to life. We meet a mix of clannish Christians, proud native people, and prickly bootleggers in the small, dry town of Eagle. McPhee's tale of a man's survival in sub-zero weather after a plane crash constitutes a minor classic of its own.

Beyond escapism, this book reminds us how powerful the frontier fantasy remains in American psyches. Can it be harnessed as a metaphor? Can the dream of self-reliance on a private patch of woods help motivate us, indirectly, to cut carbon emissions? It has motivated us to go camping and conserve some wild lands even while ruining others. Still, I suspect that as the environmental movement shifts in response to global warming, we may have to jettison the frontier fantasy. It depends too much on a view of nature as more powerful than man. Whether or not we agree with Bill McKibben that we have arrived at the end of nature, we know that everything is responding to elevated temperatures. There is no untouched patch of land left in Alaska. The romance of a homestead sours when the flora and fauna are marching north past the log cabin, driven by coal and oil fires from all over the planet.

June 12, 2007

A List of Nature Writing on the Sierra Nevada

I have just posted an annotated list of favorites on Amazon which includes Mary Austin, Mark Twain, John McPhee, Gary Snyder, and Lester Rowntree as well as John Muir.

May 17, 2007

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

The first question is, what is a field guide to getting lost? Field guides help us with finding, not losing or getting lost. We use them to classify the unfamiliar and figure out what surrounds us. Field guides name and explain elements of a natural scene: furry leaves like giant hands on a bush by the creek, a long-legged beetle that strolls black and dignified across the trail, a bird whose call sounds like a baby's rattle. Field guides reassure us that the bewildering array of natural phenomena has an underlying order. They serve the desire for mental schemas of the world. Solnit's title suggests we might also want our schemas to break down and we might not always know how to let go of them and get lost. Can we catalogue the various ways of getting lost as we might catalogue songbirds? The paradox feels whimsical, mocking, alluring. We can tell the book will hover between the urge to know and the urge not to know, between rationality and mystery.

In the middle of the first chapter, Solnit gives us a manifesto: "Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction." "Lost," for her, means we lack a narrative for what we are experiencing. Getting lost is a kind of Zen rebirth because "to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty." Getting lost also has connotations of spiritual longing. Solnit titles every other chapter "The Blue of Distance." Blue "represents the spirit, the sky, and water, the immaterial and the remote, so that however tactile and close-up it is, it is always about distance and disembodiment." Voila the tone of the book--grand, abstract, sensual, yearning and inexorably aloof.

The romance of losing one's way is hardly a new theme for literature. Like the blues and country music Solnit loves, however, the book doesn't need an unusual subject to make it compelling; specificity and depth of feeling draw us in. A Field Guide to Getting Lost strikes the same note of longing repeatedly, but we don't get bored because Solnit dances from topic to topic. She uses her license as a public intellectual to offer snippets of American history, art and film criticism, philosophy, natural history, and Greek mythology. She salts all this with memoir. The book has no overarching plot, and we get pleasantly lost as we flit from one anecdote to the next. In one chapter, "Two Arrowheads," we go from love of the desert to a love affair in the desert to desert animals to the loneliness of writing, to serendipity, to a breakup, to Hitchcock's film Vertigo, to hermit crabs' vulnerability, to nostalgia for San Francisco, to a story Solnit composed in her head about a character from Vertigo who ascends Mount Whitney. The effect is kaleidoscopic. The ideas are dazzlingly varied and yet curiously the same as if generated by one brilliant machine. They bubble up much like characters and plot twists in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

We could call this bubbling magical realism for the essay, but maybe there's no need for a fancy neologism. It was Montaigne who first skipped around like this in personal narrative, just as it was Montaigne who bundled personal narrative with history, literature, and philosophy. Montaigne wrote that the essay should move like a poem, by free association. Often, it is not logic that guides each leap in A Field Guide, but something like the book's unconscious, an obscure coherence that makes the book whole as a poem can be whole. In this era of memoir that mimics fiction, then, Solnit's book returns to this earlier conception of the personal essay as poetry and philosophy.

With a topic like the beauty of longing and loss, it is surprising how rarely Solnit lapses into cliché. In one indulgence, she describes the artist Yves Klein's death, "Though he was tragically young, his life looks like a meteor, a shooting star, a complete trajectory across the sky, a finished work of art." Elsewhere, she avoids this kind of theatrics. Her prose is as smooth and bare as polished stone. It creates the feeling of waking from a dream and encountering the world, dazed and receptive. As Solnit walks by the Great Salt Lake, she comes upon "a series of shallow indentations where water had dried into salt crystals. One was a carpet of roses, one a heap of straws, one a field of snowflakes, all made of muddy salt, though when I tried to cut away a small cluster of the pale brown roses to take with me, they immediately became less beautiful." What more familiar lyric image could you find than ephemeral roses? Precise, mundane words like "muddy," "salt," "brown," "straw" show us the reality and the concreteness she holds dear.

If Thoreau is the most cerebral of the philosopher-poets and Whitman the most sensual, Rebecca Solnit belongs at the midpoint. She does not allow herself academic verbal tics, or excess verbiage, but neither does she shy away from the syntactical complexity of acadmic writing. One moment she can reflect, referring to the nature writer Gary Nabhan that, "If sorrow and beauty are all tied up together, then perhaps maturity brings with it not what Nabhan calls abstraction, but an aesthetic sense that partially redeems the losses time brings and finds beauty in the faraway." It is no accident that the quote she falls in love with in the first chapter is from Plato: she shares his earnest seeker style of philosophizing, his orientation toward ultimate abstractions.

Curiously, though, bodily hunger and hunger for beauty inform this book as much as intellectual hunger. For Solnit, it seems, these kinds of longing are inseparable. In the next paragraph after the sentence about Nabhan, she jolts us into physicality. She returns to the walk on the shore of the Great Salt Lake and says of her decision not to wade out to Antelope Island, "I can imagine another version of that journey in which I stripped and swam, burning my back and bobbing like a cork, to the island, but I do not know what I would have done upon arrival. And I'm not sure the island was meant to be arrived at, for up close its glowing gold would have dissolved into scrub and soil." Solnit integrates lyric sensuality and philosophizing as if these modes belong together, as if western civilization had never tried to separate mind and body.

I admire Solnit's poise and authority as I admire Susan Sontag's. Solnit's is a supremely self-possessed voice, which may be the same thing as a voice that has abandoned the antic whining of the self. She draws deeply on experience, yet she resists the confessional mode. True, she flirts with it. She hints at confession and then offers ornate justifications for clamming up. Of her affair with a desert hermit, she says, "For a while it was forever, and then things started to fall apart. There isn't a story to tell, because a relationship is a story you construct together and take up residence in, as story as sheltering as a house." Yes, yes. I will squirrel away this insight. Still, cause and effect were not suspended when things with the hermit went awry. She could explain a smidgen if she wanted. In the final chapter, she declares of her childhood home, "Terrible things happened in that house though not particularly unusual or interesting ones; suffice to say there's a reason why therapists receive large hourly sums to listen to that kind of story." She may be tired of her trauma narratives, but she has piqued our curiosity. For my part, I admire her nerve as she turns her back on the victim's tell-all. Still, I feel a certain disappointment, and not just because I'm curious. I also miss the intimacy of confession. Solnit doesn't speak with warmth and frankness as if to a close friend. Even her photograph seems to look past us.

I wonder how much Solnit's authority as a cultural critic depends on this reserve. She accepts, that the personal can be philosophical, not to mention political, and she uses examples from her own life. Still, she clearly doesn't want to get mired in the personal or be dismissed as personal. Virginia Woolf dealt with this problem in A Room of One's Own by fictionalizing her experiences within an essay. Solnit deals with it by continuing to gaze past us, directing our attention, too, away from the reader-writer relationship toward landscape, culture, existential quandaries.

Solnit looks at loss in so many contexts that its fair to ask if this is nature writing. There is no indication that she needs it to belong to that genre. She's not self-consciously rebelling, as, say, David Gessner is in Sick of Nature. Still, I still see the book as nature writing because engagement with the natural world is its touchstone. Solnit can appreciate a ruined hospital, but her bread and butter consists of light, sky, water, ravens. Many of her examples of lostness invoke American relations with landscape. Her creed of lostness reformulates the frontier fantasy. She claims, "Somewhere in the terra incognita...lies a life of discovery." She does not set out in search of her own Walden. Instead, she claims, "I thought of my apartment in San Francisco as only a winter camp and home as the whole circuit around the West." Her relationship to the West is America's: she is conqueror and stranger, "possessor of an enchanted vastness and profoundly alienated."

"Possessor of an enchanted vastness and profoundly alienated" is the sort of phrase that evokes something like the "modern condition." Indeed, the book often echoes modernism's angst about the decline of traditional social structures, the alienation of industrialization, the demise of stable relationships to place. Solnit's desire to get lost reminds us in wistful, elegaic tone of Proust's search for "lost time," Virginia Woolf's fascination with wandering consciousness, or of Baudelaire's idle flaneur who strolls through Paris. Baudelaire says, "Get drunk: on wine, poetry, or virtue, as you please, but get drunk!" Solnit might cry, "Get lost--in landscape, memory, history, or art, as you please, but get lost!" At the same time, the book echoes postmodernism's obsession with unfulfilled desire, with signs that refer to signs and cannot connect us to real objects or to a God, with Derrida's "difference." Solnit, however, sees getting lost not so much as the tragedy of our existence but as a goal. Her tone reminds me of the oft-anthologized Romantic poems I read and reread as a teenager, of the rapt mystery of Water de la Mare's "The Listeners" or the epic promise of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," which dissolves into confusion and obscurity after just two stanzas. She seems to share the Romantic belief that in surrender to mystery, chaos, and uncertainty we sense that the world is haunted by beauty and coherence.

You might say that Solnit offers an optimistic way to confront the globalized, alienated world of the twenty-first century, a sort of "If God gives you lemons, make lemonade," or "If God gets you lost, revel in it." You could argue that she offers a sophisticated alternative to the self-help genre, though I imagine Solnit would look down on self-help. She likes slipperiness and paradox too much. Still, she is interested in finding a way forward for the soul, and I, for one, am glad because my little soul is often bewildered.

Oddly, as Solnit makes her way through the varieties of loss and lostness, she touches very little on environmental crisis. She mentions endangerment and rescue of species like the tule elk, but only in passing. Solnit herself goes to more rallies and marches than any other cultural critic I can think of, as Google Images, among other sources, will testify. After A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she wrote an exploration of grassroots activism called Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Still, Field Guide is a kind of respite from all that. "Lost" comes from "los" "meaning the disbanding of an army," and Solnit laments how infrequently we disband our emotional armies. Getting lost, for her, offers "a reprieve from my own biography" a vacation from the self and its social relations. This includes the current catastrophe. Lostness seems to provide an antidote to grief and even an anesthetic. How many of us can handle the bleak picture of the environmental and political mess of the world without interludes of escapism?

Solnit does not conceive of getting lost as merely escapism, however. Once lost, we can find renewal and transformation, a substitute for religion. Her characterization of this faith in mystery echoes Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Paganism. Solnit was raised Jewish and sees some of the roots of her nomadism in the diaspora, in the tradition of the wandering Jew. The idea that desire cannot be satisfied and we must induce ourselves to return to the present moment echoes Buddhism. She draws the story of "Turtle Man," from a talk she attended at the San Francisco Zen center. On a Christian note, she imagines that to get lost is also to be able to become someone else, to unfold like a butterfly. You have to be lost to be found, you have to give everything up to be saved, to be brought into the bosom of the world. Her account of the history of the Spaniard Cabeza de Vaca in the New World makes lostness sound like utopia. As he and his companions wander around the continent, "they seem to have become sacred beings, these naked, relentless survivors whose journey had become a triumphal procession accompanied by three or four thousand locals." By the time he met white people again, Cabeza da Vaca "had gone about naked, shed his skin like a snake, had lost his greed, his fear, been stripped of almost everything a human being could lose and live, but he had learned several languages, he had become a healer, he had come to admire and identify with the Native nations among whom he lived; he was not who he had been." Solnit implies that the New World can still save us if we surrender.

Solnit's spiritual paradigm also feels distinctly Pagan at times. She quotes Jaime De Angulo, the "wild Spanish storyteller-anthropologist" who wrote about the Pit River Indians' tradition of wandering under "certain conditions of mental stress." De Angulo concludes, "'When you have become quite wild, then perhaps some of the wild things will come to take a look at you, and one of them may perhaps take a fancy to you...When this happens, the wandering is over and the Indian becomes a shaman." Solnit seems to share the sense that when you get lost, you make yourself available to some power in the landscape or the imagination. This power, embedded in the energy of the physical world, can possess and transform you. The book leans more toward animism than it does toward deism. Solnit doesn't seem interested in Pagan theologies, but she tells an anecdote of a time when she found an identical arrowhead to one she'd seen earlier in the desert. She does not discount her superstitious inklings about the workings of the world, and in these she finds the imaginative resources.

Solnit's syncretistic spirituality culminates at the end of the book in a declaration of faith. She relates the story of "Turtle Man," a blind man who stops at each street corner and "just say[s] help until someone [comes] along and [helps] him across the street." Solnit implies that we too must keep moving, believe in the abundance and generosity of the world because "only the continuation of abundance makes loss sustainable, makes it natural." She doesn't make any hopeful statements about the future of our earth. Hers is an abstract vision of a world rich with possibility. According to this faith, the world will remain rich in possibility even if it goes barren and all that we love is lost.

As stark and lovely as I find Solnit's creed of lostness, I have not adopted it as my own. The trouble is that I still want to be found, or to find myself, or to find a home. Maybe I'm not mature enough to accept the modern condition. I love to imagine Solnit driving around the Great Basin, out in the desert, spreading her arms, then driving on. Every summer I, too, head east from the Bay Area, over the Sierra, and into the desert. Unlike her, when I get down into the desert at Mono Lake, I stop and turn back and wander within a small radius between desert and mountain, between the Yosemite peaks and the sagebrush plains. I aspire to belong to that area.

I like to be lost and found at once, to walk the line between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Last summer, I set off to take a cross-country short-cut between Highway 120 just outside Yosemite and the remains of the mining town of Bennettville. I'd hiked the area for years and figured it was impossible to lose sight of the mountains on either side. I didn't bring a map. I skirted the side of a ridge past some murky glacial tarns frequented by dragonflies. The forest went on and on without a sign of the connecting trail. I hiked over the pine needles under the lodgepoles among gooseberry bushes and an abandoned firepit or two. The forest opened, and I gasped. A pale green pond appeared. Five female ducks sailed over it, absurdly large on this tiniest of lakes. I hadn't thought there could be a body of water I didn't know in this forest. I felt blessed, wondering, nervous. Right away, I loved the pond because it belonged to my land. I loved it more because it was beyond what I had imagined.

I think Solnit, too, dances between lostness and foundness. She notes that "nomads have fixed circuits and stable relationships to places," and her own wandering through the west is ritualized, repetitive. She doesn't need to go to Antarctica; she gets lost in an America that she is coming increasingly to know but can never fully know. Her home territory, it seems, is simply vaster and more ambitious than mine, her spirals broader. Still, in order to lose herself time after time, she has to find herself in between.