Interviews March 2006

Terra Incognita

Essayist Rebecca Solnit, the author of A Field Guide to Getting Lost, discusses the art of falling off the map

Along with your prose collections, you've written the text for a number of photography books. In Richard Misrach's Sky Book, for instance, you wrote essays about clouds and constellations to accompany his images. As someone whose writing is so fluid and personal, do you find it limiting to collaborate in that way?

I like those kinds of challenges, where you're working with a set of rules and you have to figure out the possibilities that are remaining—given that you will talk about this and you will address that, and you won't go off on a tangent. I find that it can be quite creative. It's been very rewarding, actually, thinking with these photographers. And I've always found it fruitful to be around the visual arts. There's a scale of questioning—really basic questions about making, about being, about space, that don't always get asked in writing and are very valuable to the things I want to think about.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost has an unusual structure. In between your five ordinary chapters, you've inserted four little interludes, each called "The Blue of Distance." What did you have in mind when you decided to write those four identically named sections?

This book was more improvisational than usual. It was actually written in pieces, although the pieces ended up fitting together really nicely. Then my editor said the book was lovely but too short, and did I have anything I wanted to add? It had a clear beginning and a clear end, so you couldn't just tack something on. So I wrote the "Blue of Distance" chapters, which I ended up thinking were very valuable additions just for kind of "cooling down" the book in some ways. The other chapters are very personal—people die and go mad and suffer, that sort of thing. "The Blue of Distance" chapters, I think, are happily impersonal, like the palate cleansers between courses.

In the course of this book, you bring out all kinds of facts about tortoises and John Keats and small indigenous tribes. Are these just tidbits you'd come across in your own personal reading, or did you pointedly research the subject of getting lost?

There are some things I pay attention to on an ongoing basis, western histories and biologies and endangered species. These are things I'm kind of always tracking. I actually download a couple of stories a week and put them in a file I call "histories." I keep returning to the Death Valley 49ers, certain parts of California history. For this book, I reread those histories to find the parts that illuminated the particular questions I was asking.

And then I started to see the patterns that connected those endangered desert tortoises with the endangered species of San Francisco and with what the San Francisco landscape has become as it grows for us humans and shrinks for them. I'd also read that magnificent memoir by Carobeth Laird, Encounter With an Angry God, where she became an ethnographer to the Chemehuevi Indians, and I went and read other books of hers that connected so well to these ideas of traveling and knowing. You become a magpie, picking out the shiny bits of information. If you're lucky, you can locate them again when it's time to use them.

In the first chapter of A Field Guide, you describe old maps with their big, blank spaces labeled "terra incognita." Our civilization has spent so many centuries trying to cover all of that territory and fill in all of those gaps, both physically and intellectually. Why do you think it's important to leave some places uncharted?

I think unknown territory is where the imagination gets stimulated. It's where you find the thing you didn't know you were looking for, where your world gets enlarged. That's also why Keats's idea of "negative capability" is so interesting to me. He speaks of a kind of suspension that lets you embrace contradictions. People say all the time, "He's either a good person or a bad person. I love him or I hate him"—all these rational ideas that create the ego or landscape for us. And I think that the answer to almost all either/or questions is "both."

It's certainly true that the United States is a nation of liberty and oppression, oblivion and obsession. That's one of the things I like about being in this country: anything you can say, you can say the opposite. If you're talking about Ireland, you can choose one set of the pair of opposites. But here, we're usually both. I feel like just learning to balance the paradoxes, hold the contradictions, is something that understanding deeply requires of us. It's something that I've tried to incorporate into this writing.

You suggest, in one scene about getting lost in the mountains, that people have come to rely too heavily on cell phones and GPS devices. Have these technologies obliterated our natural "wandering in the wilderness" instincts?

I don't think it's the technology's fault. Technology is often very neutral. You can do what you want with it. You can use Mapquest and GPS as tools for exploring the world more fully.

Much more pernicious—and this is one of the things I wrote the book against—is the discourse around these new technologies, which says that the unknown is dangerous and unpleasant, avoid it at all costs. During the dot-com boom, we were always being told that the beauty of the Internet was that you'd never need to leave the house again. Everything would be delivered; you wouldn't have to talk to strangers. It really suggested that encountering the unknown—wandering, discovering, exploring, doing things that weren't utilitarian, being out in the world—were essentially wastes of time: annoyances, inconveniences, dangers.

These new technologies, from cell phones to cars, that give you directions are often used to insulate oneself from encounter and discovery. But they don't have to be used that way. They can be used to extend oneself out into the world. And really, that part of A Field Guide to Getting Lost came out of my book Wanderlust, which is about being part of these uncontrolled, unsheltered spaces—whether you're encountering strangers or social upheaval or the landscape, or encountering the ways your own ideas are generated.

In Wanderlust, you drew inspiration from Thoreau's Atlantic essay on walking, which advocates "absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil." But I've read that John Muir, who spent months on end sleeping outdoors in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, laughed at Thoreau's New England notions of wildness.

Of course, Thoreau had tuberculosis and Muir had excellent health, so it's sort of unfair to compare them on that basis. And Thoreau lived in a very different time, when parts of America were only beginning to be colonized and opened up and explored. Muir came along in a period after a lot of the game had been extinguished and California was uniquely available.

What's really interesting is that the landscape of Thoreau's imagination is so much richer than John Muir's. Muir describes and defends the landscape, but he doesn't make these imaginative leaps between politics and economics and philosophy. You would never see him defending John Brown or trying to uncover a connection between a democratic nature and a democratic nation. You don't hear him theorizing about civil disobedience. John Muir may have the 300-mile long Sierra Nevada range to explore, and he explored it fairly thoroughly. But Thoreau, in his ability to connect his incredibly rich imagination to the visible world around him, lives in a much bigger world than John Muir.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is The Atlantic's digital features editor. More

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In