Never to get lost is not to live

By Martin Vogel

Loch Lomond, Scotland

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

Rebecca Solnit writes non-fiction as if it were a work of poetry. A Field Guide to Getting Lost is part cultural history, part philosophy: a meditation on loss and being lost.

The meaning of these experiences – the familiar falling away and the unfamiliar appearing – is different today than it was in the past.  19th century travellers thought nothing of being off course for days at a time; for us, anxiety sets in within minutes of losing our way.  People had the skills to navigate the natural landscape and with this came a sense of optimism about their ability to find their way and survive.  Today,  even those who walk in the wilderness lack this familiarity with the landscape and rely on mobile phones to get them out of trouble.

For Rebecca Solnit, to live this way is to miss something of the very essence of life: “Never to get lost is not to live.”  Indeed, her theme is less the hazards of getting lost and more a hymn to losing oneself – the life of discovery that comes with living with uncertainty.

One chapter explores the mythology of captives who come to embrace the culture that enslaves them.  Such as Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who went to America as a Spanish conquistador, one of only four survivors of a ship that landed in Florida in 1528.  He tried to travel west but he and his men gradually fell to illness and exposure, eventually being held for several years by Native Americans, escaping finally to reach not just his destination but also a respect and sympathy for the people he had initially come to conquer:

“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…  The terms in which to describe the extraordinary metamorphosis of the soul did not exist, at least for him.  He was among the first, and the first to come back and tell the tale, of Europeans lost in the Americas, and like many of them he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else.”

The story pre-figures the American narrative of settler children who were captured by the Natives and became “adopted” by them.  Many of these – despite witnessing the murder of their families – became attached to their new culture and resisted attempts to “rescue” them, so far did they travel from their previous life, identity and values.

All this may seem distant, too, from contemporary life, but Solnit suggests that each of us routinely faces similar existential challenge – if, mostly, in less extreme form:

“Reading these stories, it’s tempting to think that the arts to be learned are those of tracking, hunting, navigating, skills of survival and escape.  Even in the everyday world of the present, an anxiety to survive manifests itself in cars and clothes for far more rugged occasions than those at hand, as though to express some sense of the toughness of things and of readiness to face them.  But the real difficulties, the real arts of survival, seem to lie in more subtle realms.   There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next.  These captives lay out in a stark and dramatic way what goes on in everyday life: the transitions whereby you cease to be who you were.  Seldom is it as dramatic, but nevertheless, something of this journey between the near and the far goes on in everyday life.  Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists.  Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.  And some people travel far more than others.  There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far.  Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.”

Towards the end of the book she relates, through the voice of a follower of Buddhism, the story of Turtle Man, who was blind and hustled a living selling chocolates around the streets of San Francisco.  When he would reach street corners, Turtle Man would shout out for help to cross the road – not knowing who was around and simply waiting for someone to show up.  The narrator imagines what it would be like to live with the only certainty that each day would bring barriers which you would need help to negotiate.  And he reflects that it might hold lessons for the rest of us:

“It’s okay to become like Turtle Man, it’s okay sometimes to 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 offering help, and then this hostile world becomes a very different place.  It is a world where there is help being received and help being given, and in such a world this compelling urgent world according to me loses some of its urgency and desperation.  It’s not so necessary in a generous world, in a world where help is available, to be so adamant about the world according to me.”

Rebecca Solnit describes herself as an activist.  In other words, she’s someone who is dissatisfied with the world as it is.  There’s an aura of loneliness, as well as solitude, which pervades this book.  Reflecting on the death of her friend, Marine, when they were both young women, she recognises that even in death Marine had made choices which opened her to experience in life and which could have ended differently, at a time when Solnit herself closed off options.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost disrupts the continuities which inform our sense of self.  To find our way in the world, we must not simply tolerate uncertainty, we should embrace it.  There’s discomfort and pain on this path, to be sure.  But there’s also magnaminity and ease with life.  For Solnit, to be open to loss is the only way to know what it is to be human.  Equally, it is impossible to experience loss and stay the same.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit.

Available from Amazon.