A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit contains several essays that meander over ideas of the benefits and pleasures of losing one’s way, not only in the physical world but in that of the heart and mind. Using the author’s personal life experiences as entry points to a river of ideas, we dive into her ruminations on loss, distance, discovery, and place. 

Each essay takes us to a different topic: building ruins described as the landscapes of abandon and the backdrop of art, a vibrant friend who died young, the detailed physical and emotional landscape and interior of her childhood home, the surprisingly teeming wildlife of the desert, an alternative character study from the movie Vertigo, the origin of the musical genre known as Blues - which is part of a fascinating exploration of the power and properties of the color blue that occur in between each chapter.

In the opening essay “Open Door” Solnit describes her childhood memory of a Passover dinner in which she mistakenly consumes a glass of wine intended for the prophet Elijah. She becomes a little tipsy and contemplates the idea of a door left open so the prophet may enter. How thrilling she thinks, to leave the door of their suburban home open to dark uncertainty of the night. A quote by Meno, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” seems to float behind every proposed idea.

I found of particular interest her thoughts on native peoples who lived in the wilderness and knew how to read the signs of the natural world, thusly were never truly lost. They were at home in wild places because they had the skill set to find their way out. “They never expected to know exactly where they were.” She describes an experience of the Pit River Indians who go “wandering” when they reach a point of difficulty or stress and need relief. They travel to isolated places away from society and eventually enters a state of despair, or transcends to another level and becomes a shaman.

After completing this book and turning the ideas over in my mind, I saw Bjork perform her song Wanderlust which instantly resonated with the idea of the native wanderer. Björk has described "Wanderlust" as being the heart of her album Volta, and has said that the song is about "the state of looking for something and almost knowing you're never going to find it". The music video excited me with the ferocity wich she is plunged ever forward into the wild toward the blue Rivergod who emerges from the river, all the while physically struggling with a darkly colored shade of herself (described by the video creators as the Painbody) which emerges from her pack.

I have lost my origin
And I don't want to find it again
Whether sailing into nature's laws
And be held by ocean's paws

Wanderlust, relentlessly craving
Wanderlust, peel off the layers
Until we get to the core

Artists like Bjork or David Lynch are visionaries who provide surreal or unusual environments to become lost in without a guidebook to spell out the meaning for the viewer. Lynch lets the viewer drift in lengthy extended shots that one must invest in without the quick return of understanding how it contributes to the overall plot. The longer the viewer bathes in this world they begin to reap the rewards of letting of the need for understanding, and they become part of the drift through a complex narrative that cannot be categorized as either horror, mystery, comedy or romance. Once one becomes content to simply float in the odd juxtapositions and abstractions, one begins to invent/discover previously unseen connections and develop a sense of fluency of the enigmatic language.

Getting out to see or experience art you don’t understand can be a substitute for getting lost in the natural wilderness of land. Being in a museum or gallery and viewing work that one does not have context for provides the benefits of getting lost with very low risk. To be out of your depth is an exercise which sharpens the mind and senses and promotes creative growth.

  Ink Box 1986 by Charles Ray. Steel box and 200 gallons of printer's ink.

Ink Box 1986 by Charles Ray. Steel box and 200 gallons of printer's ink.

In Solnit's words, “Certainly for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found. It is the job of artists to open doors and invite in prophecies, the unknown, the unfamiliar, it’s where their work comes from, although its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own… they transform the unknown into the known, haul it in like fishermen; artists get you out into that dark sea.”

I love the subtle unexpected turns in the thread of Solnit’s thought. Contemplating city ruins and the landscapes of human abandon Solnit makes a link to the backdrop of decay in punk rock artwork and performance, and then imagines the Greek goddess Persephone as a closet goth punker - wondering if she was truly attracted to Hades and wanted to always return to the pleasures of the underworld. “The sharp taste of pomegranates, the freedom from her mother, maybe she knew that to be truly alive death had to be part of the picture just as winter must. It was as the queen of hell that she came an adult and came into power.” 

  Hades in Darkness, Simone Pignoni, c. 1650

Hades in Darkness, Simone Pignoni, c. 1650

I love Solnit's update to Persephone “losing” herself to the dark side. She flips the cautionary tale (like that of Eve who gained knowledge from the apple) into a story of the victim gaining power, stepping into the uncertain darkness without fear because she knew she could learn from it and become stronger.

In the "Blue" chapters Solnit suggests, “Blue is the color of longing, of distances you never arrive in.” She makes a case that people treat the desire as a problem to be solved instead of a sensation to linger in and with peacefully, that the arrival of what is longed for does not always satisfy. Own your longing - we can take pleasure in it, and make some interesting art from it. 

“… to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that is it a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.”

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