A Field Guide To Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit

Weary of the social wilderness? Take a hike on the wild side

Ken Worpole
Wednesday 26 April 2006 00:00

"Never to get lost is not to live," Rebecca Solnit writes in a guide to modern life that develops themes from her earlier book, Wanderlust.

Solnit is one of America's most prolific and original writers, providing an antidote to the contemporary European wastelands of urban psycho-geography. She has left the social wilderness of the city and her punk sensibility behind, preferring to travel to places where the wild things really are: bears, snakes, mountains and forests where one wrong move can spell death or disaster. Her friends work in search-and-rescue teams in the Rockies, where the art of finding is only gainsaid by Solnit's even cannier art of getting lost.

Solnit's writing stands in the tradition of American transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau, and their modern counterparts Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez. The earth is a fragile thing, losing species and ecological character. Thick description of place is one way of responding to these losses.

Solnit is adept at evoking the high cumulus clouds and summer lighting encountered on mountain hikes, the vanilla and butterscotch smell of pine trees after rain, and the intricate movements of lizards and snakes. She even savours the place-making poetics of country and western music. Leaving a door open to the unknown, as well as the dark, is her way of living on the edge of things and of states of consciousness. She notes that "some dreams are made of fog, some of lace, some of lead".

Not everybody gets lost on purpose. Solnit is fascinated by "captivity narratives": accounts of pioneer women and children captured by Native Americans. Often, enforcement turned into a willing adoption of the new life. A willingness to slip the bonds of attachment is even discerned in her jogging friends, who for a few minutes each day literally rise free of the earth's surface, to Solnit's delight.

Four of the essays share a common title, "The Blue of Distance", consisting principally of exercises in art history. While they contain insights, there is at times too much narration of secondary material, such as Borges's stories or incidents from the life of the painter Yves Klein.

The author grew up in and around Marin County, near San Francisco, home in the 1960s to psychobabble and the mountain bike. Solnit, however, has fashioned a more tenacious style that addresses her native landscape with precision, richness and depth.

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