Read an extract from The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places
Deserts cover one third of the Earth, often desolate and forbidding places but with a timeless allure. From explorers, prophets and travellers, these sandy expanses have captivated the hearts and minds of humankind throughout history. It is this fascination that writer William Atkins explores in his latest book, The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places. In our extract below, we meet the author at the beginning of his journey.
I started accumulating a library of desert travelogues, mostly by nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century travellers. I read them without system or coherence, least of all geographical. I was impelled by a sort of urgency, as if ransacking their pages for the code to deactivate a bomb. Sometimes I’d resort to Deuteronomy:
He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness.
T. E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – was quoted so ubiquitously that it was barely necessary to own a copy of his first-hand account of the Arab revolt, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. But his fellow Arabists – Charles Doughty, Harry St John Philby, Wilfred Thesiger, and especially Bertram Thomas – joined the heap. A single book, one voice alone, was insufficient to hold my attention for long. It was a modern disease. I’d wake up in bed or on the sofa, ringed by half a dozen old books, each splayed face-down at the point where I’d moved on or nodded off, primed for the next round. As bedfellows went, they were a shabby, irascible, not-always-likeable bunch. Even among the women, the metaphor of sexual conquest was near-ubiquitous: time and again the feminised desert was unveiled, exposed, vanquished and finally penetrated. My bedding was dusty with dried binding-glue.
It was in this way that I came to think of all these accounts as a single narrative: the deserts of the world as one. It wasn’t an unprecedented approach.
In his translation of The Arabian Nights, I found a footnote by Richard Burton reporting that the ‘Desert Quarter’ in the original Arabic was given as ‘Rub’a al- Kharáb’, which he believed alluded to ‘the Rub’ al- Khali or Great Arabian Desert’. In rhetoric, Burton explains, ‘it is opposed to the “Rub’a Maskún”, or populated fourth of the world, the rest being held to be ocean’. Charles Doughty, in the Old Testament prose of his 1888 Travels in Arabia Deserta, writes that, in Arabic lore, ‘two quarters [of the world] divided God to the children of Adam, the third he gave to Ajuj and Majuj (Gog and Magog), the fourth part of the world is called Rub’a el- Khaly, the Empty Quarter’.
I had to remind myself that ‘the desert’ was more than a metaphor. For geographers, deserts are simply places where the average annual rainfall is less than 250 millimetres, and where precipitation, by rain or fog or dew, is exceeded by potential evapotranspiration (loss of water through evaporation and the transpiration of plants). The Aridity Index gauges this ratio as P/PET and this formula is used internationally to define the four categories of ‘drylands’: Hyper- Arid, Arid, Semi- Arid, and Sub- Humid. Collectively these areas make up more than 40 per cent of the world’s surface. The model desert journey is a progression from the sub-humid to the hyper- arid – from the Nile to the ‘Inner Mountain’, as the South Galala Mountains were known to the Desert Fathers – and it was this centripetal tendency that interested me. French travellers in the Sahara in the nineteenth century sought what they called le désert absolu. In the Vitae Patrum, the collected sayings and biog raphies of the Desert Fathers, published in the seventeenth century, we learn of the paneremos (Gr.): at once the place of uttermost lifelessness, and the locus where the desert’s identity was most purely asserted, and that point furthest from the periphery. Polar explorers have an other term: the Pole of Maximum Inaccessibility. This it seemed was the ultimate objective of every desert traveller: the axis where the absolute coexists with the infinite.
William Atkins grew up in Hampshire and now lives in North London. After studying Art History, he went on to work in publishing and edited prize-winning fiction. He now works as a freelance editor while studying and writing about Britain’s marginal landscapes. His previous book, The Moor, was shortlisted for the 2015 Thwaites Wainwright Prize.