As I read the linked essays of "A Field Guide to Getting Lost," Rebecca Solnit's ninth nonfiction book, I was by turns enthralled, bored, puzzled...
“A Field Guide to Getting Lost”
by Rebecca Solnit
Viking, 209 pp., $21.95
As I read the linked essays of “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” Rebecca Solnit’s ninth nonfiction book, I was by turns enthralled, bored, puzzled, restless and delighted. So I consulted “Contemporary Authors” online to learn about this prolific San Francisco writer, who won the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Award for “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West.”
Her biography pegs her as an essayist, critic and activist. Reviewers call her work “fascinating, annoying, tiring … brilliant” but “somewhat gauzy” as well as “provocative” and even “banal.” It’s safe to say, then, others also find the intricate musings from her wide-ranging interests challenging, a hit at some times, a miss at others.
Four of these nine new pieces bear the title “The Blue of Distance.” Each explores varied aspects of the color as a vehicle for contemplating loss. The blue of glaciers and alpine lakes triggers memories, for instance, yielding new understandings. “Without noticing it,” Solnit points out, “you have traversed a great distance” and made “transitions whereby you cease to be who you were.” A blouse from childhood, precious stones, swimming pools, the sky, one’s moods, music: all kinds of blues affect our lives.
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All kinds of losses do, too. Losing oneself to love or a book can be “chosen surrender,” a pleasure. One can lose objects, competitions, the way. For Solnit, writing changes the “shadowy life” of thought so it becomes “fixed in letters; it ceases to be mine; it loses that mobile unreliability … ” Some things “cannot be moved or owned,” such as a Native American petroglyph, which would lose context, perhaps be utterly destroyed, if pried from its fragile yet enduring setting.
The naturalist Gary Paul Nabhan makes an observation that Solnit examines. While visiting the Grand Canyon, his “kids were on their hands and knees, engaged with what was immediately before them.” By contrast, Nabhan and his wife were entranced by distance. An observant, articulate writer himself, Nabhan had not lost interest in creatures or flowers underfoot, Solnit says, yet maturing gradually alters perceptions. “There is no distance in childhood … Their mental landscape is like that of medieval paintings: a foreground full of vivid things.”
Another essay begins with the 16th-century Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who was one of only four out of 600 men not to lose his life after landing in Florida and becoming hopelessly lost. Without maps, food or clean water, de Vaca and his companions struggled westward. Indigenous people kept them alive. These “castaways” lost their clothes, their language, their customs, yet “did not reject the unfamiliar but embraced it.” As years passed, they also lost the “obdurate, obsessive, inflexible” demeanor of conquistadors.
On occasion, Solnit makes observations, then does nothing with them. “Sex for women,” she writes, “has the twin possibilities of procreation and annihilation.” Big idea, no follow-up. Other times, her attention swerves like a driver too preoccupied with a cellphone. “Two Arrowheads” jumps from Solnit’s love for a desert dweller to the movie “Vertigo” to hermit crabs to the blind seer Tiresias. With a bit more grace — or perhaps transitions and space breaks — this puzzle could have been more fun and less frustrating to assemble.
The moment I began Solnit’s blue essays, I was reminded of another award-winning essayist and activist, the late Ellen Meloy, whose marvelous collection, “The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art, and Spirit,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2003.
Both women evidence strong love for the West in their powerful writing; both offer memorable word travel and engaging philosophies. I recommend both books. Each reveals the richness of the world, Solnit through loss, Meloy through nature.