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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Great review and blog, Anna. Your post inspired some thoughts for me about findability, a passion of librarians.



Noël said...

Thanks so much for the thoughtful, in-depth review. I love this book, and was dong a quick (lazy) search for quotes from it to use in a creativity seminar whne I found your site.

I'm with you, by the way - more of a lost-and-found kind of person. Cheers and write on!