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

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.

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.

Presented by

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz

Jennie Rothenberg is associate editor of The Atlantic Online.

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