The Immeasurable World - Will Atkins

Staff Pick

Like seas, deserts tend to be monotonous, disorienting, blinding, and endless. People can disappear in them without a trace. And unlike mountains, deserts don’t offer the incentive of a peak to scale—the goal is simply to make it out alive. So why explore a desert? For one thing, they’re not all the same. Some get as much as 35 cm of water a year, others as little as 5 mm. Some are gray, some pink—the sand covered with “a rind of ferric oxide.” Atkins, interested in “the axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite,” reports from the Empty Quarter, covering parts of Oman, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia; the Great Victoria Desert in Australia; the Gobi and Taklaman in China; Kazakhstan’s Aralkum; the Sonoran and Black Rock Deserts in the American Southwest; and the Eastern Desert in Egypt. Each essay is beautifully done and reflects the particular region’s character, belying that desert monotony. In some, Atkins focuses on the natural landscape, in others on native culture, history, the foreign (usually British) explorers, or new rituals, like the Burning Man festival. Overall, his emphasis is spiritual. He views Middle Eastern deserts, especially, “through a biblical filter.” He stays in monasteries, delves into China’s Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and writes empathetically and poignantly about the British nuclear tests that left the Great Victorian Desert a radioactive wasteland, robbing Indigenous peoples of a landscape so sacred they made no distinction between the desert and the Ancestors. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book, but Atkins leaves many indelible moments: an eagle blinded by an atomic flash, the stages of dehydration, an evaporated lake like “an eyeless socket,” the untold numbers of migrants lost in the Sonoran Desert, bodies that have “simply been erased,” the geography once again “enlisted as cordon and executioner.”

The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places By William Atkins Cover Image
ISBN: 9780385539883
Availability: Backordered
Published: Doubleday - July 24th, 2018