Granta’s online editor Luke Neima talks to William Atkins about his new book, The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places.
The Immeasurable World falls between the two great traditions of travel writing and nature writing. Can you tell me a little about the influences that went into the writing of this book?
I suspect it’s closer to something like reportage, though I often am writing about wild places. Thoreau over Theroux, Lawrence (D.H.) over Lawrence (T.E.), and Rebecca West over almost anyone apart from Joan Didion.
You strike a balance in the book between telling the stories of early Western explorers and those of local peoples. As a writer and as a traveller, how do you bridge those two very different understandings of place?
The chasm between the two is often the subject, the indigenous understanding of place serving to highlight the feebleness of Western interpretations, mine included. Those places that to explorers have been howling voids, literal blanks on maps, have often been realms of infinite complexity and value to indigenous populations. In Australia it can seem that the one remaining, but immeasurable, power Aboriginal people have is their knowledge.
One of the recurring figures in this book is St Antony, famous for the time he spent alone in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, and for being one of the early advocates of monasticism. When did you become interested in him? Does his story have a particular resonance with the world today?
St Antony is the book’s archetype, the original of the so-called Desert Fathers who founded monasticism in the deserts of third-century Egypt, and thus, in effect, Christian monasticism as a whole. Egypt’s present-day Coptic monks, whom I stayed with, aspire to a state of apatheia, a kind of holy detachment, disinterest and indifference. The desert is the physical counterpart of this state. The fourth-century theologian Evagrius of Pontus wrote: ‘Desert apatheia has a daughter whose name is love’. My book is partly an attempt to understand what he meant by that.
One of the accounts I was struck most by in your book is that of the man-made desertification you saw in Kazakhstan. What lessons did you take from your time there?
Not a lesson exactly, but a reminder that environmental catastrophe is not usually an outcome of ignorance or improvidence or even inaction. The Aral Sea, which lies in a region of desert steppe, was once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. In the 1960s the Soviet Union started drawing water from its feeder rivers in an effort to make the union self-sufficient in cotton (a very thirsty crop). The Aral Sea was regarded as a ‘mistake of nature’, and it was expected that it would be destroyed, along with its fish stocks and the communities those stocks supported. The desert that now covers its former bed is known as the Aralkum, the ‘Aral Sands’.
You write about how geography can become a ‘cordon and executioner’, as you put it in your account of the Sonoran desert, which acts as a natural border between Mexico and the United States. (An excerpt of that chapter appeared in our issue on Journeys). After your experiences there, how does Trump’s ongoing promises to build a border wall strike you?
A friend of mine in Arizona, who died not long ago, told me about a particular dry wash she knew of, deep in the Sonoran Desert near the Mexico border. A little shade, no water closer than a stagnant stock-tank five miles away. This was where she wanted to leave the current president and an ally of his, Ann Coulter, for a week, with just enough water to keep them alive. The desert of course is the ancient place of revelation, and the idea was that it would prompt a more compassionate policy towards migrants, when the pair were finally picked up – perhaps even saved by passing Guatemalan or Mexican migrants – parched and grateful. Of course, since my friend died, it’s become apparent that some people are immune to transformation.
There’s an obsessive quality to many of the early explorers you write about, and there’s a kind of parallel obsession in the hermits and monks who spend their lives in deserts. What is it about the extremity of arid spaces that evokes obsession? And have you felt that obsession yourself?
The Desert Fathers spoke of the paneremos, the deepest and most isolated part of the desert. French travelers in the Sahara had a corresponding term: le désert absolu. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote in The Little Prince: ‘One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams.’ I suppose we’ve all been preoccupied with seeking this throbbing and gleaming something, which is really just an idea of the infinite.
Image © Oday Hazeem
The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places is available from Faber & Faber in the UK, and from Penguin Random House in the US.