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Geoscientist Online

The Desert - Lands of lost borders

stutykThis handsome book is informative, well-illustrated, broad-ranging, and clever. The author, a geologist and professional writer, who in 2009 wrote a well-received book, ‘Sand: A Journey through Science and the Imagination’, has managed to weave together a whole array of different strands that serve to make deserts what they are. 

Using some of his own field experiences, coupled with a wide reading of the literature, he has succeeded in covering the science of deserts (including climate, geomorphology, and wildlife), while at the same time discussing the human inhabitants of deserts, art and literature, and some of the arresting characters who risked their lives in discovering and traversing the world’s dryands.

It aims, as the author explains, to ‘provide an evocation, a celebration, a consideration of our response to the desert, the idea of the desert’, for ‘deserts are landscapes of the mind as much as physical realities, places of metaphor and myth.’ Using examples from central Australia, the Namib, the Gobi, the Sahara, the Mojave and the Atacama, it examines such landscapes in the context of their place in history, as birthplaces of civilizations, evolutionary adaptations, art, ideology and philosophy. To be sure, it does not cover everything relating to this vast topic, but it provides a superb introduction to what makes deserts so fascinating and alluring.

To give an example of how different material is cleverly combined, consider his treatment of flash floods. The climatic and geomorphological conditions that produce them are described, there are some graphic descriptions from the literature, but there is also a description of an explorer who was killed by a flash flood in the Algerian Sahara, Isabelle Eberhardt. We learn that she probably had syphilis, was illegitimate, was a habitual user of drugs, was highly promiscuous, and cut her hair like a man.

Equally, some pervasive surface features - stone pavements - are explained scientifically, but are also placed in the context of the disturbance of desert surfaces in the Libyan Deserts by the narrow tyres of the Model T Fords used by great desert explorers like Ralph Alger Bagnold. Similarly, dust storms are introduced by a consideration of the life and writings of Mildred Cable and her colleagues in the Gobi, but this is followed seamlessly by a discussion of how the global importance of dust storms has been revealed by the latest satellite-borne sensors.

Lovers of deserts will love this book and will also learn much from it.

Reviewed by Andrew Goudie, University of Oxford.

THE DESERT. LANDS OF LOST BORDERS by MICHAEL WELLAND, 2015. Published by Reacktion Books, 400pp (hbk) ISBN 978 1 78023 360 4 List Price: £25.00. W: www.reaktionbooks.co.uk.