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

Although in a poetic sense—even, you could say, a religious sense—Muir does seem to be interested in connecting the physical world to a hidden, spiritual dimension. He finds mythic archetypes in everything he sees.

He pushes the envelope a little bit, if you'll excuse my using that horribly hackneyed phrase. He goes a little bit further than anyone in praising nature, but his language of spiritual uplift and epiphany is extremely conventional Victorian language. There's nothing transgressive or groundbreaking about it, except maybe its degree—that the landscape is even more beautiful and more redemptive and more worthwhile and more sublime and more transcendental. But there are a lot of other people writing like him, if you read the writing of his time. Thoreau is really radical and original.

Of course, you could measure who was more useful—Muir in founding the Sierra Club and mounting a very specific defense of the Sierra Nevada or Thoreau in setting out arguments that would be used for civil disobedience, for going back to the land, for questioning capitalist activities and industrial progress. You could ask who contributed more to the culture at large. I don't think that's a question one should try to answer. It's a very apples and oranges question. But I still think Thoreau has a much broader imagination.

I feel much more like Thoreau than Muir in that I'm usually advocating for something complex and, I hope, radical. I'm usually trying to connect things together. I value the external landscape for its own sake, but in my writing, I map the imagination in the physical landscape and the physical landscape in the imagination in a way that prompts ideas, provides metaphors. That was very important in Wanderlust—the way that exploring your own ideas can feel like exploring a real landscape, and that exploring a landscape can be one of the ways you can find out what else is in your head.

In A Field Guide, you revisit a theme from another one of your earlier books, Savage Dreams: the relationship between early settlers and Native Americans. Do you think that learning about native cultures gives European-Americans a deeper appreciation for the natural environment?

That's part of it. A lot of people simplify it and say, "Let's be Indian"—which suggests that being native is so simple you can essentially turn it into a Halloween costume. I'm not for that, and I don't secretly hope to be native. I know the difference. Of necessity, we carry with us other traditions and stories, and we're going to live in different ways.

But knowing the native cultures is incredibly valuable for knowing where we are. They're part of the history of the country and they're part of the politics, because in most parts of the United States, they're still here. They have land rights that haven't been satisfied. They have burial grounds and other sacred, historical sites that are part of what that land means. Just recognizing and appreciating that enriches one's own sense of place. It allows you to understand that you're looking at a landscape with a deep human history. It didn't all begin 300 years ago.

In America, it seems that many of us have to make a real effort to understand our connection to the land. In Europe, there are people who don't even know of a time when their ancestors weren't living in one particular village or landscape, speaking one particular dialect.

Yes, whereas the majority of Americans are newcomers. In the past, this was interpreted as if no one was here before us—as if the land was a blank sheet of paper where we could inscribe our own stories and histories rather than a book to be read. This was really crucial to Savage Dreams. Learning who was here and what it was like gives you a sense of what the land can be restored to, and of other ways you can live in the same place.

In A Field Guide, you write about your aunt and your father, both of whom were very much involved in political activism. Did their work help to ignite your own interest in environmental and social causes?

In some ways, yes. My aunt was very proud of a battle she fought to defend her community's watershed against logging. And my father was a very good urban planner, working on the master plan for Marin County in 1970. He wasn't really involved in politics on an ongoing basis. She was, though. She was really great—cantankerous and contrary a lot of the time, not so easy as a mother for my cousins. But aunthood is a much easier job, and she was a superb aunt.

A Field Guide deals as much with urban wilderness as with natural wilderness. You describe a ruined hospital in San Francisco where you and a former boyfriend created a Super 8 art film in the early 1980s. Do you think a city loses something when its ruined, empty spaces disappear?

There are cities like Detroit and St. Louis that are far more filled with ruins than San Francisco ever was for any length of time. There free space and cheap housing still exist, along with lots of economic depression. But in general, there's been a real degeneration of the local. I've been traveling a lot on book tours during the past few years, and there's that sinking feeling when you get out of the airport in another country and see Benetton and The Body Shop and The Gap.

At the same time, a lot of people have been motivated to try and recognize what's local, to understand it and embrace it. You can look at the enormous burgeoning success of farmers' markets, as people start to appreciate that they don't want tomatoes that have been on a truck for a week—maybe they want ones that were picked nearby just this morning. Maybe they want to meet the farmer.

You look at the arguments surrounding New Orleans: Is it going to be rebuilt as a middle class vacation condo city? Or is it going to be rebuilt as a place for impoverished people—people who are economically disenfranchised, but also very deeply connected to that place? That's one of the big struggles around Katrina—it devastated one of the most deeply rooted and, so to speak, specific places in the United States.

But elsewhere in the book, you admit that you enjoy staying in those interchangeable roadside motels with their polyester bedspreads and ice machines and cable TVs.

Actually, I usually stay in non-chain motels with wacky names and neon signs. They're usually cheaper than the Super 8s. I may be anonymous, but I'm not generic.

At one point, I wanted to do a project, photographing the art inside these cheap motels. There are usually strange landscape scenes very different from what's outside. For instance, it's rare to encounter a desert landscape painting in a Flagstaff or Mojave Desert motel—there's usually a New England landscape.

It can be difficult to get excited about local scenery when far away places seem so much more interesting. There's always that lure of the unknown, which is so much of what your Field Guide is about.

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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.

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