Notes: A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
I don’t watch TV so much as glance up at it from time to time. So I like shows that reward inattention, and one of my favorites is Life After People. Each episode targets a major world city or industry or human construction for destruction and speculates about how quickly and in what ways it would fall apart if mankind suddenly disappeared (how is not made clear). I shouldn’t spoil the surprise … nature starts taking back what’s hers within days, basically as soon as unattended power plants fail. There’s some infocational effort made—academic talking heads and science-y factoids—but the producers of Life After People are kidding no one. The show exists to broadcast delicious disaster simulations—of the San Francisco Bay Bridge collapsing, Atlanta being overrun with kudzu, water reclaiming every jerry-rigged below-sea-level city in the world. As implied at the top, these standardized disaster narratives don’t require actual watching. If you live in this world in 2012 and consume any media at all, they’re the visual mantras cued to play on loop in your brain.
I don’t spend a lot of time probing why civilization’s ruin has such a gut-level appeal. In her collection of connected essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit does. “What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature … Nature is allowed to take over when, for political or economic reasons, maintenance is withdrawn.” Maintenance withdrawn: These casually bureaucratic words are deployed factually but pointedly. Civilization, Solnit implies, is a burden of constant vigilance, a choice exercised at the expense of other choices. Which makes ruin by extension an untethering, a release, a freedom. Solnit goes on:
A city is built to resemble a conscious mind, a network that can calculate, administrate, manufacture. Ruins become the unconscious of a city, its memory, unknown, darkness, lost lands, and in this truly bring it to life. With ruins a city springs free of its plans into something as intricate as life, something that can be explored but perhaps not mapped.
She links ruins with her punk rock adolescence, but it’s only one of the ways Solnit argues the case for “getting lost.” Lost, by her lights, has several meanings—the familiar falling away, the unfamiliar appearing, even the nomadic impulses of a lot of creative people. In my favorite chapter, one of several she calls “The Blue of Distance,” the author relates the history of early Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who, following a misguided errand into the wilderness, was kidnapped by native Americans (several times), and eventually assimilated their culture, becoming a faith healer. “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.”
So in being about “lost,” Solnit’s book is also about “found,” or at least “not-lost,” an ontological trick that lends itself to almost everything and is as outlook-changing as a new eyeglasses prescription. Here’s Solnit on film (and running):
Movies are made out of darkness as well as light; it is the surpassingly brief intervals of darkness between each luminous still image that make it possible to assemble the many images into one moving picture. Without the darkness, there would only be a blur… In a similar way, a runner’s every step is a leap, so that for a moment he or she is entirely off the ground. For those brief instants, shadows no longer spill out from their feet like leaks, but hover below them like doubles …
I could quote the book all day (I read every page with pen poised to underline). I could devote a new tumblr to it. Solnit’s just that smart about stuff, from mix tapes to Italian renaissance painting to Indian captivity narratives to tortoises to why blue is “the color of where you are not.” Damn, here I’ve gone and buried my lead! Getting Lost is one of those rare, brilliant books that offers entirely new perspectives on the familiar and obscure, profound and banal. And if you write or paint or make music or films or regularly engage in any act of imagination, it’s pretty essential reading.
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