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A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

July 6, 2018

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“You could probably call her an intellectual nomad,” Josh Lacey wrote in Guardian UK of Rebecca Solnit. This intellectual wandering, searching, is maybe the thing that most ties Solnit’s writing together. There are common themes of nature, politics, social justice, memoir, but it’s the ease with which she slides from one topic to the next and stitches together provocative tapestries that makes her writing unique.

She recalls a quote given to her once, from Plato’s Meno, in which the paradox is laid out: “How will you go about finding that thing, the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” We all search for the truth that will transform us, but none of know the nature of that transformation nor how it will transform us. So then, how can we look? We can wander. We can get lost.

In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlines the archetypical story—The Hero’s Journey. Most of the epics, from Star Wars to The Odyssey follow it. The central required element is that the hero must get lost to find him or herself. It’s also a near-universal theme in religions and cultural rites of passage around the world to spend time lost in the wilderness and emerge changed on the other side.

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Yet, Solnit laments, we have constructed a world meant to keep us safe and on track. Guardrails and signposts, well-marked trails and GPS, medication and distraction, routine and regimented schedules that keep us from that dreaded place—lost. “Lost,” Solnit points out, has roots in the Old Norse los, which referred to the disbandment of an army. Much of our modern world is built to keep us in formation. To keep us from going beyond what we know. “Advertising, alarmist news, technology, excessive busyness and the design of public and private space conspire to make it so.”

Our place in the world and our sense of community is wound so tightly with our identity that the notion of detaching from it, even for a short time, can be terrifying. Lost challenges our very identity, can represent a destruction of self. It can lead to despair, to depression, to death. And yet it is necessary for transformation, for growth, for self-discovery.

The theme of getting lost in this collection of essays takes many forms. It applies as much to “all the metaphysical and metaphorical states of being lost as to blundering around in the backcountry.” Solnit examines many of artists and writers who have covered the topic. She writes of the color blue, the color of the distance we long for but will never reach. She writes of early cartography, of literal terra incognita, of historical figures who were lost, some found again. And she writes of her own life and travels, dreams, memories and relationships.

This book feels like walking through a wilderness of thought, albeit with a guide. A guide who, though you may sense is not following a set course, just wandering, you have confidence will lead you somewhere interesting. I am slowly making my way through Solnit’s Storming the Gates of Paradise and plan to read Wanderlust soon. I have a mild brain crush on her.

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