Rebecca Solnit

A Field Guide to Getting Lost

“The things we want are transformative, and we don't know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.”

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon,” surmised Ralph Waldo Emerson. “We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

There is something about a horizon that provides alignment. It is situating. Is it the sky’s orientation? The foresight of things to come and far sight of things that have been?1

Or maybe, as Rebecca Solnit (born 1961) suggests in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the distant, far horizon represents that which is lost, unknown and thus, it captivates our interest.2

The world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost. Light at the blue end of the spectrum that does not travel the whole distance from the sun to us. It disperses among the molecules of the air, it scatters in water. Water is colorless, shallow water appears to be the color of whatever lies underneath it, but deep water is full of this scattered light, the purer the water the deeper the blue. The sky is blue for the same reason, but the blue at the horizon, the blue of land that seems to be dissolving in to the sky, is a deeper, dreamier, melancholy blue, the blue at the farthest place.

If lost were an image, it might be that blue horizon.

Ginevra de' Benci, by Leonardo da Vinci featured in Rebecca Solnit's "A Guide to Getting Lost" in the Examined Life Library.
“Ginevra de’ Benci” by Leonardo da Vinci painted when the artist was in his early 20s. Leonardo wrote “to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building…of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue.” Learn more.

If blue is the color of lost, the form of lost is shape shifting. It arrives in many forms and Solnit holds our hand through each one.

Like the distance that exists between friends when both move forward individually and life’s details are unknown to the other:3

Even when that friend arrives on the doorstep, something remains impossibly remote; when you step forward to embrace them in your arms, you are wrapped around mystery, around the unknowable, around that which cannot be possessed. The far seeps in even to the nearest.

There is also the lost of the past, what has been, what transpired before. The unreachable lost for which we often long:

‘Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves,’ said a Tibetan sage six hundred years ago, and the book where I found this edict followed it with an explanation of the word ‘track’ in Tibetan: shul, a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by—a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there.

Footprints, shells, and photographic images are shul. Empty remnants. These words are shul, I am no longer the person who writes them.4

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Featured in Rebecca Solnit's "A Field Guide for Getting Lost" in the Examined Life Library.
Leonardo’s masterpiece, digitally retouched to mitigate the darkening effects of aging. Shapes form in a blue horizon. “In the fifteenth century, European painters began to paint the blue of distance, Earlier artists had not been much concerned with the faraway in their art.”

As she conjoined disparate narratives in The Faraway Nearby, so Solnit braids together concepts of ‘lost’ in A Field Guide.

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control.

All humans are in the business of handing over precious things, language and words, memories and stories to people, our children mainly, in order for lost items to once again be “found”. It strengthens our vitality.

But what do we do to find our lost self? I imagine that not being known to our self must be the most heartbreaking, destructive feeling of lost and this “getting lost” is the true focus of Solnit’s narrative.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci. Featured in Rebecca Solnit's "A Field Guide for Getting Lost" in the Examined Life Library.
Solnit writes “The painters seemed to have become smitten with the blue of distance, and when you look at these paintings you can imagine a world where you could walk through.” The space beyond is one in which we can become lost.

When she discovered her father was not her biological father, Dani Shapiro was torn by questions of self and identity: “If my father wasn’t my father, who was I?” the writer wrote in Inheritance.

Or consider the wonderful Welsh writer Jan Morris who lived 45 years in an “disunified” body before she had a sexual reassignment surgery.5

Solnit is a storyteller, but rather than chronology she uses themes as her backbone. Individuals like painter Yves Klein and explorer Cabeza de Vaca, as well as her own friendships, journeys and distilled memories of place interlock to form a narrative of getting lost.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

On Virginia Woolf, the originator of one of the best space/freedom metaphors:6

The Wanderer, man or woman, shuns camps and villages, remains in wild lonely places, on the tops of mountains, in the bottoms of canyons.” This wanderer isn’t so far from Woolf, and she too knew despair and the desire for what Buddhists call the unbeing, the desire that finally led her to walk into a river with pockets full of rocks. It’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself.

Do not be misled by Solnit’s meandering style and imagine she too might be lost, however. Far from it, Solnit is a writer of great structure, sharp self-consciousness and precious world awareness.

Accompany this immediate study of the unknown with my own “The Need to Empty Ourselves”, Ocean Vuong’s poetry on identity, Gaston Bachelard’s poetry as space, and the Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, a firsthand account of a person truly lost from himself.

Rebecca Solnit illustration.