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Let's Get Lost

Rebecca Solnit strays the path in 'Field Guide'

By John Freeman

Getting lost in America is a pretty easy thing to do, until you try to do it on purpose. Suddenly, every town center is a grid and every street sign points you back to the interstate. Wander onto the wrong property and you can actually put yourself in danger. A Somali writer I met told me that he once went for a walk in upstate New York and wandered off the grounds of the writers' colony he was visiting. Suddenly, out of the woods came a voice: "Do not take another step. I have a gun pointed at you and this is private property. So just turn around."

Little does she know it, but Rebecca Solnit is actually a brave soul in this nation of fervent property owners. For the past decade and a half, Solnit has been thinking about Americans and motion and our conflicting desires to both destroy and explore our landscape. Her breakthrough book, Wanderlust, offered a clever cultural history of mankind and walking, observing that automated motion has distanced us from the speed of our thoughts--which explains why some of the world's deepest thinkers have also been keen on the art of a good stroll.

Solnit's latest book, The Field Guide to Getting Lost (Viking; $21.95), is an even more far-reaching meditation on the art of wandering--only now she has focused on travel without a destination. This is a book about losing yourself.

"That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost," she writes. "The word 'lost' comes from the Old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know."

The Field Guide is, then, a kind of self-help book for the philosophically inclined, its geography spanning the personal to the actual. Every other essay in the book is titled "The Blue of Distance," and these bring us back to the color blue, memory and artistic representations of the gap between here and there.

"Light at the blue end of the spectrum does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us," Solnit notes in the first of these refrainlike essays. Before it reaches us, it "disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water." Hence, the sky is blue, but, Solnit argues, so are the things that we dream about from a distance.

Country music is blue, Solnit says, because of the longing that produces its twang. So, too, is the color patented by abstract expressionist Yves Klein, who once put on a show featuring "11 blue paintings, each featureless, each the same size, each with a different price."

Solnit layers ideas like a painter does pigment, and she doesn't mind a little splatter. Her sentences tend to meander like a dog off a leash, nose to the ground, following a scent and an instinct that often eludes the rest of us. When she comes bounding back out of the brush it is usually not an answer but a question she has retrieved.

Solnit could not get away with such indolence were she not, of course, such a fine writer, one so capable of transporting us from our over-air-conditioned coffee shops and lounge chairs into a place both wild and evocative. Waking up from the spell she casts is not unlike rising from a midday nap to discover someone has dropped a throw over your shoulders. The effect lingers as if by magic.

Some of the loveliest writing in this book grows out of the rough soil of Solnit's own experience, where personal loss has been mulched down into melancholy and introspection, then replanted with something whimsical and skyward-reaching. The essay "Abandon" recalls her misbegotten youthful love affair with punk rock and a friend who did not survive that age; "Two Arrowheads" remembers a romance she had with a man who lived in the desert.

There are frustrating omissions in this book, to be sure--many of them of the practical variety. There is much talk of maps, for instance, but precious little on property law; Solnit talks quite a bit about motion but neglects to comment on something as basic as today's prohibitive gasoline prices.

But to linger on such details misses the point of A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The first place we must go to lose ourselves is the terra incognita of our minds, Solnit suggests again and again, and this impractical but beautiful book provides a sort of compass for that trip.

Rebecca Solnit reads from and discusses 'A Field Guide to Getting Lost' on Tuesday, July 26, at Copperfield's Books. 140 Kentucky St., Petaluma. 7pm. Free. 707.762.0563.

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From the July 20-26, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.