Wander Woman

Free roaming: Rebecca Solnit
photo: Jude Mooney

Rebecca Solnit is one of those freelance intellectuals you hardly hear about anymore—unattached to any academic institution, dependent (I'm guessing) on the kindness of publishers. An apprentice to the world at large, she has made a life's work out of scavenging for connections. Solnit's offbeat oeuvre veers through history, politics, nature writing, literary criticism, and memoir. Even a partial list of her recent books—River of Shadows, a lauded biography of Eadweard Muybridge; Hope in the Dark, a tiny treatise on contemporary activism; and Wanderlust, a voluptuous history of walking—boggles the mind with the tantalizing promiscuity of subject matter.

Solnit described Hope in the Dark as "a zigzag trail of encounters, reactions, and realizations." A Field Guide to Getting Lost celebrates disorientation itself, zigzagging over so many topics that it's often hard to keep hold of the thread. Explorers, urban ruins, country music, Vertigo, grandmothers, and endangered species all find themselves loosely lashed together in these wide-ranging, semi-autobiographical essays.

The word lost derives from the old Norse term for "disbanding an army," and Solnit fears that "many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know." In Wanderlust she delved into the shrinkage of public space, and here she pursues the idea that children's lack of opportunity to roam freely—"Because of their parents' fear of the monstrous things that might happen (and do happen, but rarely)"—will strip away our culture's sense of adventure and imagination. Wildlife has returned to many American neighborhoods because, "[a]s far as the animals are concerned, the suburbs are an abandoned landscape."

We live in an increasingly standardized environment, bouncing from one branch of Starbucks to another, and it's almost impossible to get truly lost thanks to technology. Solnit believes that our fear of not knowing where we are is partly due to our inability to read the language of nature. "There's an art to attending to the weather, to the route you take, to the landmarks along the way. . . . And there's another art of being at home in the unknown, so that being in its midst isn't cause for panic or suffering."

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One of my favorite games as a child was getting lost with my grandfather. We would wander far afield in his Miami neighborhood, until he claimed he had no idea where he was (who knows, maybe he didn't), then find our way back. It was only when I convinced my more regimented grandmother to play the sa me game that I realized how uncomfortable grown-ups feel surrendering control. Maybe that's why the TV series Lost has such an evocative pull: It plays on our unspoken terror, as well as on our desire to be stranded in unmapped territory, like the explorers of our continent. They wandered with no maps, no common language, no clue. But even the earliest American settlers tried to re-create a sense of familiarity in the New World, imposing their own names and importing their own customs rather than embracing the strangeness of the place.

Although the title pronounces this a field guide, it's closer to a walkabout. Solnit's essays sweep through myriad varieties of loss, from objects to memories to love, with plenty of slippage between the categories. She believes that losing things is intrinsic to human life, a never ending process of abandonment and discovery. "Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names," Solnit proposes. "This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery." Solnit's writing switches gracefully between these two modes of perception—between melancholy regret at what's been discarded ( Hollow City documented the displacement of bohemian San Francisco in the dotcom era) and fragile optimism ( Hope in the Dark rallies around the power of grassroots activism).

A child of the Jewish diaspora, Solnit grew up with a tenuous sense of her own family legacy. Her forebears were born in countries with fluctuating borders, had their names changed or transliterated, and survived a Nazi regime that wanted their people permanently lost. She speculates that her lack of a solid family history inspired her to invent one, as she did when she imagined what happened to her great-grandmother, who allegedly disappeared on her journey between Eastern Europe and the West Coast. Solnit pictures her disembarking from "a train somewhere on the prairie, getting lost and staying lost . . . stepping out of the noisy compression of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story into the expansive calm of a Willa Cather novel."

A Field Guide to Getting Lost sometimes gets lost itself, meandering into dense personal anecdotes and slipping out of focus. But even then, Solnit can catch the reader by surprise, illuminating some ordinary place we've all been (a decrepit building, a beach at low tide) so that suddenly we see the hidden possibilities embedded everywhere. As if to say, step away from that Starbucks Frappuccino, sir. The world is still here, waiting to be explored.


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