Six Questions: William Atkins about Deserts and Islands

My interview with British writer William Atkins for The Island Review. His books “The Moor: A Journey into the English Wilderness” and “The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places” are available in the Sea Library.

Photo above: The Empty Quarter, Oman, by William Atkins.

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St Antony’s Monastery, Eastern Desert, Egypt. Photo by William Atkins.

Somehow, William Atkins’s books have sneaked into the shelves of my Sea Library. His debut The Moor (2014) is about moorlands of England, and The Immeasurable World, which came out last year, is a book about deserts, and yet they fit here.

“It was like nothing I had experienced save for being at sea,” writes Atkins, when walking among the endless dunes of the Empty Quarter in Oman. He visited seven deserts in five continents over three years. And before that he walked England’s moors from south to north.

In both books you are taken to wild and beautiful environments, infinitely empty, but full of voices. Atkins is drawn to these marginal landscapes: desert places, faraway islands. Like huge backrooms they are filled with prisoners, exiled poets, unwanted migrants, monks, explorers, party animals, desert rats, and anarchists. Kindness and little wonders sprout there, too.

Last autumn Atkins visited the New Caledonia archipelago in the South Pacific. A French territory since being annexed in 1853, it was the country’s backroom with deportee camps for thieves, murderers and political exiles. He was there on 4 November, the day an independence referendum was held. 43,6 percent voted for independence, which was not enough.

What draws you to vast places? 

I like the way the search for meaning in these places (flat, treeless, sparse), for the outsider at least, is at once intensified and simplified. You have to become a sort of beachcomber: every artefact – a feather, a bone, a cactus, a bullet casing, the prints of a fennec – assumes a heightened significance. And then that increased awareness of the particular is set against something so big that you have to abandon virtually all sense of scale.

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French penal-colony prison ruins, New Caledonia. Photo by William Atkins.

Remote places are hell to some and paradise to others. Throughout history and still today people are being forced into exile on islands, tundra, desert. But many travel willingly. How do you experience this two-faced landscape on your journeys?

It’s interesting that these environments that are seen as peripheral to human interests are so often stages for the conflicts that continue to shape the present. Deserts and moors alike have often been where we do our dirty work – unwitnessed, unjudged. But that freedom is also part of their appeal (see Burning Man). I like what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: ‘One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs and gleams.’ That mysterious ‘something/nothing’ is immensely precious to me. And the desert’s danger – its ‘nothingness’ – is inherent in its beauty. I’ve been reading recently about Louise Michel, the French anarchist who in the 1870s was deported to the penal colony of New Caledonia in the South Pacific, which to our modern eyes is a paradise – white sand, palm trees, and so on. Michel was almost unique in appreciating its beauty; most of her fellow deportees despised it and, quite naturally, were dying to get back to reeking bloody Paris.

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Volcanic headland, St Helena. Photo by William Atkins.

Do you compare travelling to islands, as you have been doing recently, to travelling in the desert? Are desert oases like islands in the sea? 

I like the idea that islands are to the sea as oases are to the desert. In Sudan the Sahara is sometimes called Bahr bela ma, ‘sea without water’. A while ago I went to the tiny south Atlantic island of St Helena (famous as Napoleon’s place of exile), and was reminded of Saint Peter’s island in Lake Biel in Switzerland, where Rousseau took refuge: he said it was the ‘happiest time of my life’, partly because of its very minimalism: one orchard, one house, one pond, and so on. A doll’s-house world, rid of all the plurality that makes the real world so difficult! That’s appealing for a writer (for this one, anyway). Deserts, conversely, in their apparent boundlessness and infinitude, offer no promise of comprehension. (Yi-Fu Tuan’s book Topophilia is excellent on this kind of thing.)

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Strawbale cabin, Sonoran Desert. Photo by William Atkins.

You experienced living alone in the wilderness in the desert outside Tucson. How was it? 

I was staying in a strawbale cabin, with no running water or power, built by the Cascabel Hermitage Association, an organisation cofounded by a hero of mine, Jim Corbett. Corbett was a rancher, environmentalist and also a founder of the Sanctuary movement, which helped undocumented migrants who had crossed into the US from Mexico during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s. Inspired by Leopold’s Land Ethic, he believed that the obligation to provide sanctuary ‘extends far beyond Central America and specific human refugees to the need for harmonious community among all that lives.’

As for the experience of dwelling in the desert, it was transformative in ways I’m still working to articulate. I tried to follow Corbett’s advice: ‘To learn why you feel compelled to remake and consume the world, live alone in the wilderness for at least a week. Take no books or other distractions. Take simple, adequate food that requires little or no preparation. Don’t plan things to do when the week is over. Don’t do yoga or meditation that you think will result in self-improvement. Simply do nothing.’

In The Immeasurable World you are accompanied by your “desert library”. What books are around you now?

Yes, I carted it around for a year in a little flight case. On my desk are Chekhov’s travelogue/exposé, Sakhalin Island, about his trip to the Tsarist penal colony (one island that nobody seems to have liked); Lyndsey Stonebridge’s excellent Placeless People, about the changing meanings of exile; Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland; and Tim Dee’s glorious Landfill.

Last word in your book is “water”. What does water mean to you? 

Life; love; the body; orange squash.

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William Atkins. Photo by Jonny Ring.