Book Cover: A field guide to getting lost by Rebecca Solnit

“How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?”                  Meno, pre-Socratic philosopher

Do you remember the last time you were lost? More people today have a sense of being emotionally and spiritually lost in their life rather than ever being physically lost. Our natural navigation has been replaced with technological tools, and our tendency to wonder outdoors has diminished as we become increasingly pre-occupied with a virtual environment. If people are to ever address their sense of being lost, the physical journey must be taken. Plot a course by following the stars or retrace your memory, because the outward reflects the inward, and the outward journey informs on the inward one.

Rebecca Solnit’s collections of essays pay homage to getting lost. The reader must prepare to get lost in the flow of Rebecca’s findings, memoires and fictions. On a nature trail hike or river raft expedition we take in the sights and small details of the landscape and its surroundings, not necessarily knowing exactly where we are going, yet in our journey we find new perspective. Solnit, dives into the land of the unknown, shining her torch on historical events and into her reflections of her own life.

“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.”

In many other languages ‘los’ could be interpreted as ‘loose’ or ‘free’. Solnit observes from her mountaineering research that people who get dangerously lost, do not admit they are lost, and therefore do not retrace their steps, or do not stay in one place. Children on the other hand are the best at getting lost because they stay put, trusting that someone will come and find them. The belief in being at peace while being lost is a skill that very few people possess. Little people know that, like Socrates said, mystery could be like a compass.

Solnit joins together a myriad of informative stories, taking the reader on a journey through spaces, dreams, relationships and history. Every page bursts with metaphors, entwined with awakenings and discoveries. Rebecca expresses her ardent love for the colour blue and the distance it signifies, from the infinite sky to the unknown ages of the mountains.

Solnit writes about how change and adaptation is crucial for survival while being lost. In her essay on the lives of the colonial captives during the earliest histories of America, Solnit tells many stories of the people who survived their captivity by being one with the nature of their situation, “like shedding a second skin”, and “the captives had in a sense to lose their past to join their present” to adapt. The most iconic symbol of metamorphosis is that of a butterfly. Solnit also mentions “the butterfly is such an unique emblem for the soul that its name in Greek is psyche.” Solnit then touches upon what Pat Barker wrote in Regeneration about a doctor who “knew all too well how often the earliest stages of change or cure might mimic deterioration. Cut a chrysalis open and you will find a rotting caterpillar.”

Thus implying that decay is part of the journey to forming the true self.

It amazed me how the author could glide across various topics in one essay, from an artist in the 1960’s doing relief paintings of maps, showing the infinite connectivity of life amongst the valleys and the hills, to cartographical history of terra incognita, and philosophy and the psychology of different states of the unknown. The unknown is so vast a topic that one needs only to seek a line of questioning and an array of allure and curiosity appears. Solnit’s curiosities connect intricately with her personal experiences of relationships, creating a beautifully written part-memoir part-philosophical study on how to be.

“The people close to you become like mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them.”

In the essay where Solnit discusses the freedom of losing oneself in creativity, she explains how the artist Yves Klein delved into emptiness, “into the void” to travel closer to his true being. Earlier in the book, Solnit raises the notion that the unknown is what drives people to want to find out more, and has precipitated discoveries and science throughout history. However some of these scientists, discovers and artists pushed the boundaries of the unknown too far, which cost them their lives and/or the lives of others. As humans we need to accept that some things are best left unknown and our natural limits are there for a reason. Rebecca touches upon a theme in Hitchcock’s film Vertigo: the transcendence beyond fear and comfort, in order to assist the reader to understand that darkness is a necessary part of life.

“Movies are made out of darkness as well as light; it is the surpassingly brief intervals of darkness in between each luminous still image that make it possible to assemble the many images into one moving picture. Without the darkness, there would be only a blur.“

This is not a book that you can read in one sitting; you cannot force yourself faster into being lost.

It is a process of letting go. If this approach can be acquired and practiced by just reading a book, then more books like this should be written for people who need an existential experience of how to live in today’s world.

Perhaps getting out of your comfort zone is necessary for some, but balance is always crucial. Personally, I found this book difficult to read despite its small size. The title alone indicates an oxymoron: how do you get lost with a guide? I wanted to get lost in my own way, and Solnit merely demonstrates the manner of how, in beautiful prose.

“The question then is how to get lost. Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

Aliya Tamarin Duncan Poole completed her undergraduate at AFDA Film School and then went on to UCT to receive an Honours postgraduate degree in Scriptwriting. Aliya previously worked in the film industry, currently teaches at a high school and edits films in her spare time. She is a freelance book reviewer and also a co-organiser of the Cape Town Book Club of Life-changing books. 

[Book image source:]