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Book review: “A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit

Rebecca Solnit’s 2005 A Field Guide to Getting Lost is a celebration of much that is disdained and feared by mainstream American society:


  • The Unknown
  • Loss
  • Getting Lost
  • Being Lost
  • Hell
  • Solitude
  • Tragedy
  • Melancholy
  • Emptiness
  • Ruins
  • Death
  • Sadness
  • Wanting
  • Captivity
  • The Wild
  • Heartbreak
  • The Void
  • Mortality
  • Disappearance
  • Darkness

Does that list give you nightmares? Then, A Field Guide to Getting Lost is not for you.


Three recognitions

Solnit looks deeply into how various people and peoples have faced all of these seemingly negative aspects of existence and how she has faced them in her own history.

And she finds in them the deepest life. The deep place where life is richest, fullest.

It has to do with a recognition that, first, none of these is avoidable, and that, second, each is the yin to a yang of some seemingly positive aspect of human existence.

For instance, you can’t have heartbreak without having had love. You die because you’ve been alive. Darkness is part of the texture of light.

Her third recognition is that these aren’t negative at all.


The Turtle Man

Near the very end of her book, Solnit tells a story of having a dream one night of carrying a leaking tortoise around her childhood bedroom. Four months later, she went to the San Francisco Zen Center near her “white birdcage of an apartment” for the regularly scheduled Sunday morning talk.

A gaunt monk in dark robes sat down cross-legged in front of the audience and began telling the story of the Turtle Man, a blind man who would come to the center to sell tins of chocolate-covered caramel turtles. The monks liked them and, although they only wanted one tin, would buy two because, well, the man was blind.

Once the sale had been made, the Turtle Man would use his white cane to tap his way down the street to the corner and stand there yelling that he needed help. He couldn’t cross the street without someone to see for him. Eventually, someone would help him. And he’d move to the next corner where he’d call for help until someone helped him. And the monk told the audience:

“So I thought, Isn’t that really amazing? What an amazing life. You walk along and you reach a barrier and you stop and you just call out help. You don’t know who you’re talking to, you don’t know who’s around if anyone, and you wait, and then somebody turns up and they help you across that barrier, and then you walk on knowing that pretty soon you’re going to meet another barrier and you’re going to have to stop again and cry out help, help, help, not knowing if anyone’s there, not knowing who it will be that will turn up to help you across the next barrier.”


“Life has a mysterious quality”

The monk talked about how the Turtle Man “defied gravity, he defied common sense, he defied conventionality,” and yet wasn’t his life pretty much like everyone’s? Who of us knows what’s going to happen next in life? And how it will be faced?

He talked about the practice of awareness and the need to get below the seeming reasonableness of one’s moment-to-moment life. And about the need to avoid being too complacent or too fearful.

And he said:

“It’s okay to become like the Turtle Man, it’s okay to sometimes experience not knowing what to do next, to run into a barrier. It’s okay to realize that life has a mysterious quality to it, it has an element of uncertainty, it’s okay to realize that we do need help, that calling out for help is a very generous act because it allows others to help us and it allows us to be helped. Sometimes we’re calling out for help. Sometimes we’re offering help, and then this hostile world becomes a very different place.”


“To refashion oneself into a hero”

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost has nine chapters, four of which are titled “The Blue of Distance,” a reference to that blue you see when looking across a long expanse at the far edge of land and sky, as well as the blue you see in many paintings to indicate that far place, a merging of all colors. For Solnit, it seems, all blue contains within itself this sense of distance and melancholy.

In one of the “Blue” chapters, she spends a lot of time looking at the life and work of artist Yves Klein who became particularly famous for a 1960 photograph that seems to show him leaping off a second-story ledge — leaping, really leaping, arms outstretched — with nothing but the hard pavement below.

It was a fake. And it wasn’t.

Solnit starts this essay this way:

When I think of the artist Yves Klein, I think of those absolutists who preceded him by a generation or two, those who vanished, think of the boxer and Dadaist poet Arthur Cravan who in 1918 was supposed to leave Mexico to meet his new wife in Argentina but was never seen again; of Everett Ruess, the bohemian who might have become an artist or writer had he not disappeared into the canyons of Utah at the age of twenty in 1934, leaving behind a final signature carved into the rock: “Nemo” or “no one”; of the aviator Amelia Earhart who disappeared over the Pacific in 1937; of the pilot Antoine de Saint Exupery who left behind several lapidary books before his plane too disappeared, in 1944, in the Mediterranean.

They were all saddled with a desire to appear in the world and a desire to go as far as possible that was a will to disappear from it. In the ambition was a desire to make over the world as it should be; but in the disappearance was the desire to live as though it had been made over, to refashion oneself into a hero who disappeared not only into the sky, the sea, the wilderness, but into a conception of self, into legend, into the heights of possibility.


“The Leap into the Void”

In terms of reasonableness, this seems foolhardy, self-destructive, the waste of a life. It seems a denial of reality.

Which, I think, is Solnit’s point. But in a good way. These disappearers pushed so hard at the edges of reality that they transcended it in some way. Certainly, decades after their deaths, their stories are still told, as Solnit does here.

Of course, it’s easy enough to argue that they didn’t transcend reality. They just lost their lives.

They leaped into the unknown — to their deaths.

The famous photo of Klein, titled “The Leap into the Void,” was a montage, as Solnit explains:

Klein the judo-master did indeed leap, but there was a tarpaulin held by ten judo practitioners below, so the photograph splices together Klein above and the street below without the tarp and the colleagues.

Aha, the trickery!


“Leaping toward the sky”

Yet, several months earlier, Klein had made this leap — with no judo friends holding a tarp to catch him. Solnit quotes the woman Klein was living with at the time:

“For a judoka who knew how to fall, it was not extraordinary…It would be expected of someone at his level of training to know how to recover and fall. He did it as a challenge or act of defiance, to prove that he was capable of leaping into the void — that is not leaping out of a window, but leaping toward the sky…He had nothing underneath him but the pavement — nothing!”

Solnit notes that the street below the leap was the Rue d l’Assomption, named for bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven.

There are leaps into space, and leaps into space.


“We fly”

At the end of this essay, Solnit notes that, for a runner, every step is a leap:

So that for a moment he or she is entirely off the ground. For those brief instants, shadows no longer spill out from their feet, like leaks, but hover below them like doubles, as they do with birds, whose shadows crawl below them, caressing the surface of the earth, growing and shrinking as their makers move nearer or farther from that surface.

For my friends who run long distances, these tiny fragments of levitation add up to something considerable; by their own power, they hover above the earth for many minutes, perhaps some significant portion of an hour or perhaps far more for the hundred-mile races.

We fly; we dream in darkness; we devour heaven in bites too small to be measured.


“Where you will come from and where you will go”

Solnit starts her book with an account of a Passover in her home when she was eight or so and she drank the wine set out for Elijah.

She notes that she isn’t sure whether another part of the Passover tradition was followed that day — leaving a door to the home open so Elijah can come in if he happens to be passing by.

She segues from this to a meditation on a question that the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno asked which essentially is this: How I can find something if I don’t know it exists?

This isn’t about lost and found, but about transformation. Life cannot stay the same. We are always in the middle of transition and transformation. How can I know how to best transform myself since whatever will transform me is something that is not part of me now? How do I seek it?

As Solnit discusses in the essay, there are ways to seek it, in the sense of active searching.

But, in the small moment of transition from the Elijah story to the Meno question, she provides a better strategy, and it is the strategy that sums up A Field Guide for Getting Lost:

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go.


Patrick T. Reardon



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