Terra Incognita

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

book cover

A Field Guide to Getting Lost
[Click the title
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by Rebecca Solnit
224 pages

Five hundred years ago, when the Texas Gulf coast was a wilderness of salt marshes and sand dunes, the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca shipwrecked on Galveston Island. Enslaved by Natives, he and his crew spent their days eating fish and roots under the burning sun. Nine years passed before the lost sailor encountered Europeans again, and by that time, he had grown so accustomed to Native life that he could hardly speak Spanish or sleep in a bed. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her new essay collection, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:

He had gone about naked, shed his skin like a snake, had lost his greed, his fear, been stripped of almost everything a human being could lose and live, but he had learned several languages, he had become a healer, he had come to admire and identify with the Native nations among whom he lived; he was not who he had been.... He ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.

The peculiar moral of this story is typical of Solnit's field-guide-in-reverse. Unlike conventional field guides, which affix labels and definitions, Solnit's aims to unname and undefine. She takes readers on a tour of destinations that cannot be visited: the blue strip at the edge of the horizon, the half-transformed caterpillar inside a cocoon, the face of a long-dead ancestor who was never photographed. As a guide, her intention is not to lead her audience into oblivion, marooning them at sea like the castaways in the television show Lost. Instead, she encourages readers to submerge themselves in the manner of Cabeza de Vaca—diving into the unknown and resurfacing as someone new.

Anyone who has read Solnit's eight previous books will not be surprised to see her taking on the theme of terra incognita; each seems to foreshadow her Field Guide. In Savage Dreams (1994), Solnit explored the untamed American west with all its clashing characters and historical contradictions. Book of Migrations (1998) chronicled her journeys through Ireland, depicting the Emerald Isle less as a landmass than as a fluid body of myths and identities. Wanderlust (2001) charted the history of pedestrian travel, beginning with an anatomical explanation of walking and ending with the tourist-packed streets of Las Vegas. Each of these books, along with its themes of travel and exploration, drew attention to Solnit's vast array of interests and her mercurial way of sliding from one into another.

From the archives:

"A Close Read: What Makes Good Writing Good" (March 2006)
Christina Schwarz considers Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost stretches this tendency even further. In a chapter called "Abandon," Solnit begins one paragraph by reflecting on urban ruins, the next by discussing the origins of punk music and the next by musing, "I wonder now about Demeter and Persephone." Deeply personal memories about a lover who lived in the desert or a friend who died of a drug overdose alternate with facts from anthropology and history. Yet somehow the structure holds. All of her stories and facts come together like a series of well-plotted lines, hinting at the shape of ineffability.

Solnit, who grew up in Marin County, California, and now lives in San Francisco, has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Mark Lynton History Prize. We spoke by telephone on January 13.

Rebecca Solnit
Rebecca Solnit. (Photograph
by Jude Mooney.)

I was surprised to learn from this book that you were once a fan of punk music. Your writing style is so introspective and nuanced, not exactly three chords and a bunch of angry screams. Is there anything about the punk aesthetic that still informs your work?

When you think of the best punk bands, there's a kind of lyrical, poetic, esoteric aspect to what they did. They just did it at a thousand miles an hour, which is what the angst-ridden adolescent metabolism moves at. And I was definitely a very angst-ridden adolescent. If you look at my political writing, there's a certain sense of outrage that's very much a part of punk rock and is still part of me. I was a kid who was in love with the countryside and wished I'd been raised on a farm—someplace remote where I could have raised goats and joined 4H and all those kinds of things. But the urban was what was available to me for escaping from suburbia.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost has no plot, no characters and no real storyline. How did you decide which stories to tell and how to arrange them?

There's a real belief that writing has to be linear—that is, if my subject is X, I must keep writing about X, I must never detour into Y. But I love the kinds of conversations you have with your friends, the best conversations where you start out talking about what's wrong with Bush, then you start talking about alcoholism, then you start talking about your great-uncle, then you start talking about family stories, then you start talking about your childhood landscape, then you start talking about the nature of memory itself. I love those kinds of meandering trajectories, and I've often used them in writing. It's the way we think and the way we put the world together for ourselves.

With this book, I wanted to let personal stories lead to the impersonal, to break out of memoir as the trap I often feel it is. I've read enough memoirs that sound like what you tell your therapist—the kind of "all me, all the time" solipsism. Traditional memoir is usually a story of overcoming. But I feel that the version of self you often encounter in memoirs is, in itself, something that needs to be overcome. Part of how you overcome that limited sense of self is by connecting your personal story to these larger stories—remembering that other people suffer, that there are other things going on in the world, that even when you're going through a huge tragedy, you can be enchanted or bewitched by some fascinating thing that comes along and forget yourself. Which is also a way of getting lost.

Do you subscribe to Jack Kerouac's method of "spontaneous prose," or do you do a lot of careful editing?

I'm kind of against the Kerouacan notion of spontaneity. You know, there are moments where everything just flows. But I've always been surprised by those people who produce the big, monstrous, sloppy, half-thought-out first draft. When I talk to students and people who are still flailing with their writing, I encourage them to make lots of notes, to collect their sources, put their Post Its in the books—but to wait until they really have a strong sense of pattern and tone and purpose before they start writing. Because although I'm all for getting lost, I'm not for getting stuck, and I've always found you can get very stuck with spontaneous writing.

So I spend a lot of time beforehand. I edit a lot, but it's usually fine-tuning. I try to avoid that situation where you've essentially put together a Frankenstein's monster and you say, "But I didn't want those legs! I need to take out all the organs." You can really get into some nasty hacking and chopping. That's what creates a lot of the misery of writing for people. It's very uninspiring trying to smash up something you've just built.

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.

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.

I've written about these questions a lot. And I'm interested in the way you're always in multiple places at one time. I went to Ireland, where all these Americans go with the fantasy that they are Irish because their grandparents were. But I love those moments where you're hanging out in Ireland with somebody from Germany eating Chinese food with country music playing, thinking about California. Our experiences always hybridize. You're in the Mojave, but the motel has a painting of Midwestern grain furrows. That kind of layering.

I think a lot of the pleasure people gain from traveling isn't so much about where they are but how they behave. You must know, living in Washington, DC, that your city is a destination for other people, but the real pleasure is often simply that they slow down, they walk, they look around them. All of this enriches the texture of their everyday lives. But these are things you can actually do at home. I went down to the City College of San Francisco this week and saw, for the first time, the Diego Rivera murals I've been meaning to look at for twenty years.

So the paying attention and discovery that are rewards of getting lost can be done anywhere and everywhere. Somebody you've known all your life can reveal surprising things if you ask the right kinds of questions.