Frames Blog Federico Serrani

Desert, deserts

17 June 2024

by Jasmina Trifoni


The Desert of the Tartars, which gives the title to the most famous novel by one of our great 20th-century authors, Dino Buzzati, cannot be found on a geographical atlas. That desert – where the soldiers barricaded in the Fortress of the novel await the enemy invasion expected to appear from a dusty northern horizon – is a metaphor for life and the expectations for the future: all of us, even unconsciously, are waiting for extraordinary events that give meaning and unique value to our existence. The Desert of the Tartars is the leitmotif of this season’s Federico Serrani collection. And, while all previous collections have had a literary inspiration, this one conveys the photographer’s mind more strongly. Photography is a profession (and, first and foremost, a passion) that encompasses the spirit of adventure, the act of “doing,” but – and photographers know this well – a philosophical inclination towards effort, patience, the waiting for the perfect moment, and the ability to identify the extraordinary in a world where, today more than ever, the cacophony of images and stimuli flattens everything into a (forgive the oxymoron) “full desert” of banality.

This time, and contrary to all other posts for Frames, we are not telling you about photographers or stories and books on photography, but exploring the desert – or rather, the deserts – through a book that is an excellent essay full of facts and literary references, most of which with a bibliographic appendix that opens up infinite horizons, while at the same time being an original and captivating travel narrative. It is William Atkins’ “The Immeasurable World: Journeys in Desert Places” (Italian edition by Adelphi), in which one understands that it is difficult, if not impossible, to decode the very concept of “desert,” a physical and also spiritual place that lends itself to an infinity of interpretations and suggestions.
For pragmatic geographers, deserts have a precise definition: they are places with an annual rainfall of less than 250 millimeters and where precipitation, whether rain, fog, or dew, is less than potential evapotranspiration. The aridity index technically expresses this ratio as P/ETP, a formula used internationally to indicate the four categories of arid lands: hyper-arid, arid, semi-arid, and sub-humid. Combined, these cover over 40% of the planet’s land surface. Climatologists, the Cassandras of our century, warn that due to human activities, desertification is progressing at an unprecedented rate, 30-35 times faster than in other historical periods, according to a UN report, altering 70% of natural ecosystems and threatening the survival of hundreds of millions of people on every continent.

That said, Atkins ventures into the much more elusive territory of a “mental” desert, starting from ancient references to the desert in the Holy Scriptures and the desert that saw the birth of the very concept of “extreme” monasticism, with Saint Anthony retreating from the world to test his faith among the sands of Egypt, in a desert that is not empty but a place of (inner) demonic temptations. And, regarding the most famous Christian hermits, he points out that, until beyond the Renaissance, Europeans could not even imagine the desert. In Bruegel’s masterpiece, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (though many other equally famous paintings depict the same subject), the saint is besieged by evil in a green landscape, among trees. However, it is also interesting to note that just as the colors and rich geographical profusion led the people of India and Greece to think of gods as many, so the bare simplicity of the desert led others to think of God as one. The desert, in short, is monotheistic.
Atkins extensively reports the observations of great explorers from the more recent past. Among them, Wilfred Thesiger, author of “Arabian Sands,” who marveled at how “The desert satisfies me and gives me peace,” despite the fact that Bedouin tribes were of two types: “Both want your camels and weapons, but the second also wants your life.” Or the unjustly lesser-known Bertram Thomas, one of the first Europeans to cross the Rub’ al Khali (the Empty Quarter) for whom “The sands are a public diary… neither a bird can perch, nor an insect or a wild animal can pass without leaving its story.” Fatally true: I noticed with astonishment (and gradually, as the days passed, with indifference during my crossing of the Libyan Sahara a few years ago, when every morning I woke up surrounded by a dense lace-like pattern of animal tracks that had passed very close to me during the night). Despite its metaphorical immobility, the desert is a changing territory, modulated by the wind, offering always new and surprising sensations and landscapes. Although, as Atkins laments, traveling in the desert now means retracing the footsteps of someone who has already done so before, whether they are remote hermits, nineteenth-century adventurers, Tuareg caravans, or desperate migrants seeking a future in Europe (the recent, beautiful film “Io Capitano” by Matteo Garrone revealed to a largely unaware audience that crossing the Mediterranean by boat is not the worst part of that journey of hope).

Aware of not being the first to arrive, Atkins tells us about his travels in the deserts of the world, from the sands of Oman to the Great Victoria Desert in Australia which, for the aborigines, is a living place crossed by invisible ancestral paths – those Songlines made famous by Bruce Chatwin’s wonderful book – but was also a “sacrificial” territory, chosen for a series of devastating nuclear tests. The author also visited the terrible Taklamakan Desert in China, a destination for hermits (this time Buddhists) and the deportation of the most heinous criminals and opponents of the Emperor during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and then ventured into the territory in Kazakhstan, where desertification, with the disappearance of the Aral Sea, is proceeding at a pace visible to the naked eye. He also traveled through two American deserts, the Sonoran Desert of Western films and the Black Rock Desert during the great Burning Man event (with his crazy-apocalyptic description of that experience that dispels any desire to participate) to return, finally, to the origins, in the Egyptian Eastern Desert, hosted by an ancient monastery, not coincidentally dedicated to Saint Anthony: a place surrounded by walls, very similar to the mental image that one forms when reading Buzzati’s “The Tartar Steppe” of the Fortress in the desert.

The desert, the deserts – those of Atkins, Buzzati, and also of our expectations, whether geographical or mental places – never disappoint. Even, and perhaps especially, when they do not meet our expectations, for better or for worse. Because, quoting Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince,” “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”

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