‘The axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite’ [book review]

A review of The Immeasurable World by William Atkins

The final and perhaps most relevant title in my desert-themed month of reading, William Atkins’s The Immeasurable World is travel writing with a difference. Unlike many travel books that recount a single, extraordinary journey, Atkins’s traces his pursuit of the desert through six different countries on seven separate occasions, all the trips loosely linked but ultimately readable as standalone encounters. Also unlike many travel writers, the journeys he describes are brief and supported – far from setting off on his own into the wilderness, he is accompanied by guides or newfound friends on the kinds of trips that require an investment of research or money but could be undertaken by almost anybody. These are not the madcap, hair-raising adventures of an ‘explorer’, but rather the musings of an ordinary man captivated by one of earth’s most beguiling landscapes. The book’s subtitle, A Desert Journey, is, I would suggest, a little misleading. Instead, The Immeasurable World is more a desert meditation.

William Atkins The Immeasurable World

Beginning with a brief prologue, Atkins draws us into his deepening fascination with the desert, an environment he first begins to explore in connection with Christian monasticism. His encounters with landscapes of sand and grit are inspired by the books he reads about them, following in the footsteps of the great desert explorers like Bertram Thomas and Wilfred Thesinger, pursuing Mildred Cable across China, reading scripture in a Coptic monastery. His scope is wide-ranging, taking us not just to the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter – perhaps the most classic desert landscape in the world – but also the mud flats and dried-up seas of the Aralkum in Kazakhstan, the temporarily populated playas of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, and the rocky, cave-riddled peaks of Egypt’s South Galala Mountains. In going after the meaning of the word ‘desert’, he manages to push its definition far beyond the boundaries of what anybody might expect.

I have always been fascinated by deserts, but I have tended to think of them in the classic fashion: red or yellow sand dunes, the occasional dust storm, caravans of camels and a dizzying lack of water. Atkins writes mesmerizingly of the landscapes such as these that he finds in Oman, China, Australia and the USA, but one of my favourite chapters was undoubtedly the one on Kazakhstan, where the Aralkum desert is encroaching on (or being expanded by) the drying up of the Aral Sea. The landscape he describes is grey, muddy and bleak, and there is something both fascinating and desperately poignant about his meetings with local villagers and the remnants of that giant inland sea. Throughout the book he is careful to record the effect that humans have on the desert, an environment we all too often – and, it has to be said, with good reason – regard as threatening, even murderous, but which is, like all other natural landscapes on this earth, infinitely fragile.

This is one of the main messages I took away from the book: that nature is a powerful, mysterious force, capable of creating kilometre-high dust storms and sand dunes that ‘sing’, but that by this stage our human influence has extended to every corner of our planet, often with disastrous results. The desert has long been used by us as a place of retreat – see St Antony in the desert, and the Coptic monasteries peppering the mountains of eastern Egypt – and exile, as in the lonely sands of China’s Gobi and Taklamakan. We have also traditionally employed it as a boundary: between the USA and Mexico, for example, ‘geography [is] enlisted as both cordon and executioner’. More troublingly, though, we have used these vast, empty spaces to bury our secrets, paying little heed to the wildlife or humans that do try to eke out an existence there. Atkins encounters military bases in Oman, prisons in China, and, most disturbingly, nuclear testing sites in Australia. His exploration of the British nuclear testing programme and its aftermath, in particular the effect on the Anangu people of the Great Victoria Desert, is an account both horrifying and moving.

For an environment so traditionally thought of as hostile to human life, The Immeasurable World takes a surprisingly human take on the desert – an element of the book that I particularly enjoyed. It doesn’t necessarily make for happy reading, as indeed almost all the places Atkins visits are in one way or another immensely troubled regions, but it took this book out of the realm of descriptive travel writing and shifted it to another plane. While there is no doubt that Atkins can observe the world around him and construct a beautiful sentence based on what he sees, it is his thorough research into environmental and social history that makes his writing so captivating.

Although I greatly appreciated the human aspect to the book, one chapter did go perhaps a little too far for me. In the aptly named ‘Matter Out Of Place’, Atkins attends the infamous Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and, though he provides a fascinating account of an out-there event I have never attended – and likely never will – it was for me a bit too human, a chapter that had a desert setting but little to do with the landscape itself. Atkins beautifully conjures the heightened atmosphere of the festival and the miraculous way in which it rises from and is subsumed again by the desert, but I found myself breathing a sigh of relief – as I sensed he did too – when he left the crowds behind and returned to his solitary wanderings around a casita near Tucson. Advised by a friend to sit and do nothing in order to understand the wilderness, he does more or less exactly this, communing with the landscape and rendering it on to the page in heat-heavy, meandering, delicious prose.

Written with immense depth, perception and a vivid turn of phrase, The Immeasurable World is an unusual and moving account of one man’s wanderings. Part academic exploration of the various environments we call ‘desert’, part a personal quest for something unnamed and never quite found, it is a love letter both to the barren parts of this planet and the people who seek to understand them.

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