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.

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.

Review: “The Immeasurable World” by William Atkins

Book by British writer William Atkins is about seven deserts in five continents, and about desert per se, divine and infernal.

“The Immeasurable World” is William Atkins’s second book. His debut, “The Moor” (also available in the library), is about the vast moorland of England. Now he travels to Oman, Australia, China, Kazakhstan, United States and Egypt.

Author doesn’t visit the desert places on his own, he is accompanied by locals or those who have been there before. Voices from the collected “desert library” come along, too, as does a light sense of a heartache. There is one time when he wanders alone too far away and gets lost for a few panicky hours.

Atkins’s deserts are not empty. They are filled with people, traced with history. They are stained with present-day blood. Not that long ago nuclear bombs were tested in the Great Victoria Desert in Australia, poisoning the Aboriginal land and families. The Sonoran Desert in Arizona is a burning topic about the Mexico and United States border. Even if you manage to trespass into the States, it’s like walking from a frying pan into the fire: you still have to cross the desert. Some dead bodies are being found, covered in toothpaste, desperately trying to hide their skin from sun, when still alive.

There are oasis, too. In Black Rock Desert in Nevada, USA, a harsh place for any human soul, author spends a week in the Burning Man festival. Post apocalyptic fun, freedom, kindness, and a couple screwing in a sand storm. All these desert stories will stay like grit between your teeth for longer than you thought they will.

I love what William Atkins does with his sentences. He builds loaded lines and then blows them all away with an added “whatever”. His gaze is sharp, observations filled with humour. At one point he tries to guess the eye colour of a woman, always wearing sunglasses (“Red possibly.”). You laugh but the very next moment have to deal with such undiluted reality check, that you put three dots with your pencil right next to the paragraph, as if gasping for air.

It’s easy to be with the author, and often fun, too, but he will not let you forget, that you are in a desert. Desert is a front line, the devil’s domain, where early Christian hermits, the Desert Fathers, withdrew from society to face demons and seek Christ.

Desert is also beautiful. Silent. Infinite. Describing the vast landscape, it’s impossible not to compare it to the sea. “It was like nothing I had experienced save for being at sea.” But after the Burning Man festival when Atkins rests by the Pacific Ocean, he sees that water is alive. Desert is an ancient seabed, dead for thousands of years. In the chapter about the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, it dries out in front of locals’ eyes.

And yet desert is home for animals that leave footprints at night, and plants that persist; a refined ecosystem, thriving in its own wonderful way. When spending a night in The Empty Quarter in Oman William Atkins drops a date stone in the fire, but his guide, propping on one elbow, reaches into the flames, extracts it and throws into the dark desert. “No offer of life was to be wasted.”

“The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places”, William Atkins, Faber & Faber, 2018

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Britu rakstnieka Viljama Etkinsa grāmata ir par septiņiem tuksnešiem piecos kontinentos un par tuksnesi kā tādu, dievišķu un ellīgu.

“The Immeasurable World” ir autora otrā grāmata. Pirmo, “The Moor” (arī pieejama bibliotēkā), viņš velta citiem plašumiem – Anglijas tīreļiem. Tuksnesī Etkinss neiet viens, bet vienmēr ar kādu vietējo. Līdzi dodas arī viņa “tuksneša bibliotēkas” grāmatu balsis un tikko nojaušamas sirdssāpes. Vienreiz gan viņš dodas viens un gandrīz apmaldās.

Autors tuksnesim nenoloba nost ne cilvēkus, ne vēsturi, ne mūsdienas. Austrālijas Lielajā Viktorijas tuksnesī vēl salīdzinoši nesen tika izmēģinātas atombumbas, apstarojot aborigēnus un saindējot viņu svēto zemi. Sonoras štata tuksnesis Arizonā, bioloģiski daudzveidīgākais pasaulē, ir joprojām aktuālais stāsts par ASV robežu ar Meksiku. Pat ja izdodas nelegāli iekļūt Savienotajās valstīs, ir vairākas dienas jāšķērso nokaitēta panna. Mirušos mēdz atrast noklātus ar zobu pastu, izmisumā mēģinot slēpt ādu no saules.

Ir arī oāzes. ASV Nevadas štata Blekrokas tuksnesī, kas cilvēkam ir nepanesams, Etkinss nedēļu pavada Burning Man festivālā, kur valda postapokaliptiska luste, brīvdomība, sirsnība, un smilšu vētrā cilvēki uz zemes kniebjas. Grāmatas tuksnešu stāsti vēl ilgi šņirkst starp zobiem.

Man patīk, ko Viljams Etkinss dara ar teikumiem. Viņš uzliek uz lapas nopietnas rindas un blakus pieraksta “whatever”. Viņš sasmīdina ar novērojumiem. Piemēram, mēģinot uzminēt vienmēr saulesbrillēs tērptas sievietes acu krāsu (“visticamāk sarkanas”). Bet tad uzraksta kaut ko tik sīvu, ka tu ar zīmuli piepunkto klāt daudzpunkti, it kā tā varētu ielaist lapās gaisu. Ar autoru būt kopā ir viegli, bieži ļoti jautri, bet viņš ne mirkli neļauj aizmirst to, kur mēs atrodamies.

Tuksnesis ir pārbaudījums. Te radās kristietība, Ēģiptes tuksneša tēviem, pirmajiem kristietības mūkiem, pametot sabiedrību un apmetoties klinšu alās. Tuksnesī tālab, ka tā ir velna valstība.

Tuksnesis ir arī skaists. Kluss. Bezgalīgs. Aprakstot ainavu, Etkinss ļoti bieži min jūru. Ar ko gan vēl tādus plašumus lai salīdzina? Tomēr pēc festivāla atgūstoties pie Klusā okeāna, autors raksta, ka ūdens, atšķirībā no tuksneša, ir dzīvs. Tuksnesis ir pirms tūkstošiem gadu nomirusi jūra. Nodaļā par Arāla jūru Kazahstānā tā izžūst vietējo acu priekšā.

Taču tuksnesis slēpj smalku ekosistēmu ar radībām, kas nopēdo smiltis, un augiem, kas iztur. Nakšņojot Omānas “tukšajā kvartālā”, Etkinss iemet ugunskurā dateles kauliņu. Viņa pavadonis, atspiedies uz elkoņa, izbaksta kauliņu laukā no oglēm un klusēdams iemet to tumsā. “Neviena dzīvības iespēja te netika izšķiesta.”

“The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places”, William Atkins, Faber & Faber, 2018