Australian politics, society & culture

The Blast Zone

Film still from Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'. © Photos 12/Alamy
Film still from Andrei Tarkovsky's 'Stalker'. © Photos 12/Alamy

Nicolas Rothwell

Long read7300 words
 

The Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky, a deliberate and painstaking artist, went to great lengths to include in his late work Stalker, almost as its centrepiece, an elaborately composed tracking shot – a camera movement that captured many of the enigmas we face today in reflecting on the place of nature in our subjugated world.

Cover: September 2010
September 2010
Michelle de Kretser
Jimmy Barnes's 'Rage and Ruin'
Robert Forster
David Grossman's 'To the End of the Land'
Inga Clendinnen
Emily Maguire
Meeting Neil Armfield
Jana Wendt
Nicolas Rothwell
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
The Minogue Sisters
Peter Conrad
Taika Waititi's 'Boy' and Mia Hansen-Love's 'Father of My Children'
Luke Davies
Asylum Seekers
Robert Manne
Anna Funder

Stalker, which was made under the Soviet Union’s studio system in 1979 with limited resources, tells a science fiction tale in stylised fashion. The stalker of the title is a professional guide, who leads two pilgrims into a forbidden “Zone” where the laws of nature have been modified as a result of some past cataclysm. The realm they travel through is an industrial wasteland: there are decaying, half-destroyed buildings, weed-covered bunkers, rivers thick with foaming pollutants. At the centre of the Zone, and hard of access, is a single room, where one’s heart’s desires can be fulfilled.

The making of the film was a disaster: the crew spent the whole of their first year shooting the outdoor scenes, but they were using experimental Kodak stock, quite unfamiliar to Soviet laboratories. It was damaged in the development process, and had to be discarded: the project was begun again from scratch. Tarkovsky had found a striking location for his cinematic parable. He filmed the core sequence at a deserted hydro-electric station on the Jägala River, near Tallinn, the capital of Estonia – at that time a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. A handful of landscape shots showed panoramic views of the nearby Iru power plant’s cooling tower and left the viewer with the strong impression that some nuclear mishap lay behind the creation of the Zone – and so deeply was this idea ingrained in the imagination that when the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine exploded in April 1986, scattering radiation plumes across large parts of Eastern Europe, the first scouts to brave the plant’s wrecked periphery began referring to themselves as “stalkers” on their return from the burnt-out reactor’s desolate surrounds.

For all Tarkovsky’s enduring fame as a director, the film is hard to notch up as a success. Its plot is gossamer-thin, its acting performances wooden, its dialogue near-farcical. The visual language is what sets it apart: the constant travelling shots that focus on the scarred concrete, the mud and dirt, the rusted scatters of machinery, the undergrowth of livid green. Those shots have their distinctive rhythm, much like the repeated bird-calls and the wind-gusts caught on the soundtrack. They oblige the viewer to stare at the minutest details in the landscape: fragments, broken fragments of the world. Indeed there is nothing intact in the film’s Zone, and yet the journey through it, down its hidden pathways, amidst its waiting ordeals and dangers, becomes a journey into the heart of life. The emblematic tracking shot Tarkovsky placed at the centre of the film dwells not on the faces of his characters, nor on the sky or clouds. It, too, focuses on what has been demolished and destroyed: the camera’s eye moves above the waterlogged floor of an abandoned building. This is the antechamber to the magic “room” where all wishes will be answered. The water has swept over a tiled and decorated surface: plant-fronds stream through it; there is a submerged metallic object, which bears a resemblance to a prayer-scroll container; there is the torn image of an icon, there are tiny schools of fish in sinuous motion. It is such images as these, rather than the philosophical exchanges between the characters, that linger in the mind.

But today, three decades after it was filmed, and long after the final collapse of the Soviet system under which it was made, Stalker, like the other films of Tarkovsky, which are in truth all linked components in a single filmic meditation, speaks in changed voice. What now, when the art film as a form has died, are we to think of such a slow and solemn unfolding of images and ideas on screen? What are we to think of the director’s view of threatened nature, or of his evident conviction that divine tokens lurk in the landscape, or of the sense of fatal foreboding that industrial power complexes awoke in his heart?

Soon after the completion of Stalker, Tarkovsky left the Soviet Union and never returned. In his last years, he was afflicted by lung cancer, the disease that was also to claim his wife, Larissa, and his favourite actor, Anatoly Solonitsyn. Solonitsyn was exceptionally close to Tarkovsky and took the lead role in several of his films, including Stalker. This coincidence has led to speculation that the making of Stalker and the choice of set for the Zone proved fatal for all three – and indeed there are only a few members of the film’s first location crew who are still alive today. Vladimir Sharun, the sound designer for the production, recalled his experiences with Tarkovsky in a reminiscence for the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda almost a decade ago: “We were shooting near Tallinn in an area around the River Pirita with a half-functioning hydro-electric station. Up the river was a chemical plant and it poured out poisonous liquids. There is even this shot in Stalker: snow falling in the summer and white foam floating down the river. In fact it was some horrible poison.”

During his brief spell in Western Europe as a director in exile, Tarkovsky collaborated on a documentary with his Italian friend Tonino Guerra. Its key exchanges were filmed outdoors, in a verdant landscape, with Tarkovsky lounging against a tree, almost as if he felt the desire to become one with its trunk and bark, and it is in this posture that he sets out his ideas about nature, art and life: how beauty lies in the balance of parts in a composition, how art is only necessary to us because we seek harmony in an imperfect world. We have no harmony: if we lived in such a state, art would be pointless, the urge to make it would pass away. This leads him to his ideas about the aims of art, and those ideas, the ideas of a man who felt light’s flow could reveal the play of time, may resonate with our circumstances today, when such a superfluity of creative projects surrounds us and the point of this rich banquet seems ever more obscure.

Art, says Tarkovsky, is not about finding out about the world. No: knowledge limits us, it distracts us from our main purpose in life. The more we know the less we know: getting deeper, our horizons become narrower. As was clear even to his colleagues in Soviet times, Tarkovsky was a man of faith. His attention to the natural order stemmed from his sense that the spirit of the creation could be found lurking in its humblest parts. He was not a taxonomist of plants or trees, the flow of streams and rivers held no interest for him. What captivated him was the hidden pulse and breadth of life he felt he could make out, in all its patterned, fateful splendour, in the images he filmed: even the slightest, most transitory things – the gleam of sunshine on running water’s surface, the waving of pale seed-heads in the wind, the dim light on flaked paintwork inside silent buildings. The tracking shot at the heart of Stalker, moving slowly above the submerged floor, with its icons and its emblems, picks out a torn-off day-marker from a calendar: it bears the date of 28 December. Seven years after the filming, that day was the last full day Tarkovsky spent on Earth. The inscription on his gravestone at the Russian cemetery of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois in Paris reads: “To the man who saw the angel”.

In the course of his life Tarkovsky saw many things, but one thing he could not see was what time would do to him. Over the past three decades, the very idea of making high-art films on such a scale has almost vanished, together with the Cold War, the confrontation between rival cultural blocs and the notion of prestige state studio productions designed to serve as emblems of the progressive order. If the crisis of ideologies that once shadowed our whole world has passed, so too has the appetite for such grandly conceived, symbol-laden cinema, just as the mood has changed for writing: the vogue now is, of course, for entertainment, sensation, genre, storytelling on the intimate scale, for visual narratives that strive to capture the fine grain of individual experience. If a landscape of the kind Tarkovsky set at the centre of his works appears on screen today, it is as likely to be digitised as to be the product of immersion in the heart of the natural world. The emotional charge of the natural order shown on the screen has changed as well. No longer is nature viewed as a distinct realm, the place where man’s sway stops and older laws prevail: nature is a threatened world, a subset of man’s dominion, a place to be pitied and preserved – and this shift transforms the way we see mid-twentieth-century films made in a landscape setting, and lends them a nostalgic tone they did not initially possess.

Tarkovsky’s films appeared in the West, to great acclaim, in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember going to see them at late-night re-run cinemas in European capitals and admiring them, in the way one admires, when young, the things one knows one should admire, even though the lengthy depictions of the natural world in each film in turn left me puzzled: why such passionate fondness for the streams and meadows and silver birch forests of the Russian hinterland? I had not yet found a direct pathway into the landscape: a landscape that could be an active presence, more than a stage-set. The nature I had in my thoughts in those years was neutral. If it was beautiful, it was also embellished with ideas, above all the idea of the Romantic sublime: it was a space where man’s imagination was free to roam. But for Tarkovsky, nature was transcendent, and for multiple reasons: not only was the Russian landscape imbued with the breath of life, it was also a symbol of resistance to the Kremlin regime, and this aspect of his films, which westerners sensed only dimly, was instantly apparent to Soviet audiences. The sheer act of singling out the features of the natural world was enough: the bark of trees, plant blossoms, horses in the fields, the light filtered by the changing motions of the clouds, sequences of shots treating such things were instantly understood as subversive. They were not friendly to the communist state’s great goals, they did not celebrate the large-scale exploitation of the natural kingdom, they did not show crop-covered countryside dotted by combine harvesters, or excavators dragging their chains across a stepped and tiered mine open-cut – and it was precisely because of this choice of imagery that the distribution of Tarkovsky’s films in his own country proved so problematic, and that he lived such an austere and straitened life.

In retrospect, it seems ever clearer that one of his principal subjects was the fate of the Russian countryside and the entire continent stretching east beyond the Urals: a vast wilderness, punctuated only by mining and engineering centres, criss-crossed by exiguous highways and unending rail-lines. When summoning these long, symphonic films to mind today, it is hard to recall their fierce quality of dissent. Yet their treatment of their subject matter, which once seemed vital only to dissidents and internal opponents of the Soviet system, has gained a relevance in the wider world. The nature Tarkovsky depicted as under threat is under threat everywhere.

There is, for instance, a disquieting parallel between the landscape of the Soviet Union and the landscape of this continent: both large, resource-rich, increasingly exploited, their inland reaches occupied chiefly by the residents of mining centres and remote indigenous communities. The location set selected for Stalker, in the vicinity of Tallinn, now forms part of a prosperous and independent European state, and much of the wasteland Tarkovsky filmed has been carefully rehabilitated. But it would be very easy to remake Stalker today in an equally baroque and devastated landscape in the Australian north-west – in the Pilbara, at once the grandest, most majestic stretch of country in the desert zone and the most transformed by human hand. How many perfect sets exist for such a film: the loading cantilevers at Finucane Island, the salt-piles on the road into Hedland, the ruins on the beach at Condon, the gouged-out deposits at Shay Gap. For half a century, the Pilbara’s iron-ore mines have been worked; the trains have crossed the landscape, the towns have grown. And much the same pattern can be seen in the goldfields: townships, road trains, haul trucks, tailing dams. So it is in North-East Arnhem Land and within the national park at Kakadu; so too on the west coast of Cape York and the Kimberley – and the fate of the Dampier peninsula north of Broome as home to an LNG processing plant is almost assured. The increase in mining and resource development in the far north and centre over the past decade has changed that landscape’s character. And what remains of the wild, the bush, if it endures only on our own terms, in a few delimited areas we lock up? What value do we place on those areas we keep, as against the regions we destroy? What presences are still there for us, in the desert and the remote bush, in the condition we find them in today?

*

When I was growing up, I knew a good deal, like most people, about the bush, from books and photographs and even brief trips to the north and into the rural hinterlands of Victoria and Queensland. And I knew, of course, what I was supposed to make of this landscape lurking around the cities – its domestication and its inherent dangers, its monotony and its fundamental dryness – so it was something of a surprise when I began travelling through the western deserts and found myself struck by the rapidity and subtlety of the variations in the country. Sky, trees, dunes, plants – how changeable they were, how strongly they invited the eye to read them, to trace their patterns, to write their narrative. You could imagine the landscape as a kind of tale, or musical composition, or as a shifting, elaborately plotted film, and soon, as this affinity became more evident to me and more persuasive, I began seeking out not just books from the inland, but films as well, early films above all, that showed the natural world as it had been decades into the past: newsreels, features, documentaries: The Back of Beyond, Where Dead Men Lie. I would gaze into their flickering flows of images as if the pulse of light and dark inside the camera could take one back in time.

In due course I came across Desert People, a detailed account of the life lived in the mid 1960s by a nomad group in the vicinity of Patjarr rockhole. Desert People was made by the director Ian Dunlop for the Commonwealth Film Unit, and though it stays within the conventions of the documentary form, it is a film that pays close attention to the look and texture of the landscape; it captures the country by capturing the behaviour of the people living in it. Its slow, overlapping shots build into a punctilious record: hunting, seed-gathering, winnowing in coolamons – the interactions of a single family, followed for days on end, seemingly alone in a broad stretch of desert. Even now, when so many films detailing Aboriginal life have been made, and hardly a community in the remote centre remains without its own embedded media unit, churning out sophisticated mementoes of each dance festival and sports weekend, Dunlop’s short black-and-white film stands out. It is austere and measured; its form seems exceptionally well matched to the life of its subjects.

Desert People won the first prize at a festival of scientific films in Padua, and was even shown in Sydney on short-run commercial release. Dunlop became increasingly prominent in his chosen field; he worked extensively on ethnographic projects in tropical north Australia, but the desert stayed vivid in his mind. Years later, in a lengthy interview, he described how he had felt a sense of communion with nature there, “a huge sense of freedom”. He felt a love for the western desert; he recalled it in the most precise fashion, as if Aboriginal ways of looking at the world had sunk in on him. What he chiefly remembered about the country he had filmed in was “the sparseness of it: in the desert everything is important, each clump of spinifex, each flower, each wind ripple, each animal track over the sand assumes great importance and great beauty.”

Untouched nature! For all this, there was a high degree of artifice involved in the making of Desert People. Its simplicity was the result of the most elaborate planning and design. This backstory figures in an engaging memoir written by Bob Verburgt, one of the Commonwealth patrol officers responsible for overseeing the western deserts in those days when the nomadic life was coming to its end. They Called Me Tjampu-Tjilpi recounts the standard quota of bush adventures, but there is a quiet note of melancholy in the narrative, which is replete with strange encounters and peculiar events. Verburgt describes his meeting with Dunlop in Adelaide, and their convoy journey out from Alice Springs, in a party that included a sound engineer, cinematographer and two interpreters. Five days later, after passing through Warburton mission, they reached the country where Verburgt had made contact, some months before, with the nomad family the team hoped to find once again and film. “I went on and started a fire in a spinifex-covered gully. Soon I had a smoke rising several hundred feet into the air. Late that afternoon an answering smoke was seen roughly five miles to the west of our position.”

And so the subjects and the makers of Desert People approached each other, cautious, slow. Verburgt endeavoured to explain the workings of the camera to the nomad group; he showed them still photographs he had taken at their previous encounter. All seemed set – but things in the bush rarely go to plan. Verburgt’s advice to the film crew to secure their belongings went unheeded. On their first night camped out, dingoes stole their shoes, as well as a crucial exposure meter housed in a leather case, which was eventually recovered some while later, rather the worse for wear. After the first two days of filming, one of the old men in the nomad group told Verburgt he had fallen sick: the lens of the camera was like an eye staring at him; the motor running film through the machine was like a monster’s growl. Of these upsets, there is no trace at all in the finished film, which has the calm perfection of a descending fugue. Wind blows through the landscape, giving the leaves and grasses a constant motion; the characters perform their daily tasks in unhurried manner, almost lost against the wide, bare horizon. At the time of its making, those involved in the project recognised something of its significance: they believed no film crew would ever be in a position to record such lives again. And in the decades since, those expectations have been borne out. The last few desert dwellers have made their way into remote communities; the camps and rockholes in the back country are silent today: marauding camels tear up the sparse vegetation; there are few other signs of life.

Desert People has also been greatly changed by time’s passage. It is a film plunged now in the past’s depths. It does not show a vanishing realm anymore: its entire world has gone. Almost all the individuals the crew filmed are long since dead: though, as chance would have it, one of them died only recently, and he lived a life of unusual, emblematic prominence. This was Ian Ward, the little boy in the film, whose mother chose his European name in honour of his brief association with Dunlop. He became a leader in the Ngaanyatjarra community of Warburton: he stood out among his own people and in the mainstream as a man of clear thought and strong will. But there was a dark, despairing edge to his assessment of his people’s place in the world, and it came eventually to predominate. Grief and sadness shadowed him, and they were on his trail on Australia Day two years ago, when he was detained after a random breath test by police in Laverton, a mining township on the desert fringe. From there he was conveyed the next morning in a run-down corrective services van with faulty air-conditioning the 360 kilometres to Kalgoorlie, but he was near-unconscious by the journey’s end, and was never revived: the autopsy found that he had been cooked to death. After his childhood in a world quite measureless, and his brief encounter with the recording camera’s lens, he had gained a fate: he was fixed forever; he had entered time.

There is much more to tell about those days when western eyes first came to the rockhole site of Patjarr, which is also known, almost interchangeably, as Karilywara, but the most striking aspect of its history is the way that different worlds have constantly been colliding there; mainstream and Indigenous experiences and ways of seeing, exploration stories and postcolonial revisions, the struggles of ecologists and of Ngaanyatjarra leaders; everything comes into play, everyone is drawn by the country into speaking, writing, painting – there are images and words strewn through the landscape. And Dunlop and his team were filming, in fact, in the aftermath of a series of rather more bookish, intellectual field-trips, when Verburgt accompanied well-known figures from the world of anthropology, such as Norman Tindale and John Greenway, both of whom wrote extensively about their visits; and one prominent American researcher, Richard Gould, even embedded himself for several months with the same family group, before producing an ethnographic portrait of their lives: Yiwara – Foragers of the Australian Desert. It was published in the United States, in a dustjacket of bright, disquieting green, and was promptly banned by the council at Warburton because of the photographs of secret initiation rituals included in the text. Yet despite this transgression, Yiwara is a work of mournful splendour, which catches a great deal of the mood of the desert, its landscapes and the sense Gould felt of a world defined by its people, the nature of whose presence there was soon to undergo the most dramatic change. Few people have seen, let alone read, Yiwara in this country: it is a book that somehow seems to disappear. I owned a copy once, and I hid it so effectively I have never been able to rediscover its place of concealment, but I still remember the quality of its final sentences, and the impression they conveyed of an author who had come to a state of internal balance with the desert and with its receding past.

*

Shortly after my first sighting of Yiwara, and my discovery of Desert People, I was able to make some journeys of my own north from Warburton Ranges to the small community set up at Patjarr, in the south-east corner of the Gibson Desert nature reserve – and I too came to know that landscape round the rockhole, which has more the appearance of a long, still stretch of river than a soakage or a spring or dam. Those visits, though they were visits to men and women with whom I scarcely had a common language, became a large part of my life, and they remain vivid in my memory today. They endure: what gave rise to them fades. For during the past decade and a half, much has changed in that small society: illnesses, upheavals, fatal accidents, the cycle rushes on, and as a result of these great sadnesses, sadnesses piled one on top of the next in swift succession, a number of the people who once spent their time there have moved away.

But I still often see one of the women I knew best at the old community. She lives at the Yeperenye Hostel now in Alice Springs: her need for renal dialysis treatments obliges her to live in town, far from her own country – and when our paths cross, we think back to the days when we would drive through the bush on long trips together, north into the depths of the Gibson; or when I would trail after her on long walks through the country west of Patjarr. She used to lead the way, at a fast, determined pace, striding ahead for what seemed like hours at a stretch – then, abruptly, she would stop, and grip her iron crowbar tight and start to probe the sand for lizard burrows; or she would look for bush fruits to gather up, or kneel to check for signs that honey ants might be nearby. And on those excursions with her, I found myself paying more attention to the grain and detail of the landscape: each blade of spinifex, each shadow, each bird, each insect-track. From time to time, she would pause in the shade of a desert oak, or by the bank of a dry creek, and talk about her late husband, a Pintupi artist of whom she was extremely proud. She would pull out a faded, crumpled photograph of him from her purse and display it, then smile and trace out the patterns of his most famous paintings on the burning sand: then she would shrug, and that was the signal to head back home.

Those forays had a strong influence on me. Often as I was driving the long road between Patjarr and the outposts of the western world, I became aware that the way I saw the country round me had been shifting, that I was looking at things differently, I had begun to pick out and distinguish the individual components of the landscape and the sky in fine detail. Above all I remember one evening around sunset, as I was driving down the old Gunbarrel Highway, south to Warburton, amidst storms. There was a large bushfire burning, far off to the west, behind the ranges. The reflected glow from its flames lit up the clouds, the veils of rainfall drifting earthwards were stained blood-red, each element of that complex scene hung before my eyes in a perfect, otherworldly focus, quite unlike anything I would have been able to see before, or hold inside myself – it was a composed image, resolved, I am tempted to say almost cinematic.

The track led on. The turn-off came: the Great Central Road; a few dips and ridges more, and I could see the lights of Warburton. I slowed, and cruised in, dodging the dog-packs. In the low-slung besser-block house where I was staying, just across from the Native Title Unit, I found a friend of mine, Andrei, an artist who was on a desert quest-journey of his own. He was emptying his exiguous back-pack; he was unshaven and pale.

“I just had a very strange experience,” he said. “I’ve driven across from Wingellina – I was thinking about it all the way along the road.”

“So you must have come to some conclusions,” I said.

“Tell me about it!”

I settled back. It was a striking tale. He had been staying with a friend of his, a nurse, who was also an aspiring artist and film-maker, and each evening after work it was their habit to head out of the community on short drives, to watch the sun go down and look for locations where they might make their great desert film one day. Once, on the back-track that leads past Surveyor General’s corner, they had found a large outstation, quite deserted, its neon lights glowing like a stage-set in the murk; once they came on old, deep mine-workings from the days when lone prospectors were digging for chrysoprase. But this time they drove north for a good half-hour, to a set of rocks with a westward view. They were off the little track; they scraped up the ridge: the troop-carrier caught on a rock.

“And we were trapped, completely,” said Andrei. “It happened very fast, everything. The sun went down. We looked behind us; we lifted up the seats: nothing. There was no jack there; someone had taken it. And then we realised we had no water. It became clear instantly. I understood how serious things were. I had to laugh: laugh at us, at the way we live. You plan, you plan everything, and some detail you can’t guess at steals up. And then almost at once, as I thought that, a dreadful weariness spread through me: my arms were tired and heavy, my head ached, I was numb, I could scarcely walk. Suddenly my throat was dry and parched, the air was hot and humid – I had a desperate need for water. I wanted to lie down right there on the ground, on the red rocks, lie down and cradle and rest my head – every instinct to fight and live had gone. I wasn’t frightened. I felt a kind of clarity, quite unlike anything I’d felt before. It was the point of dusk: the light was soft, it was as if there were threads of silk light linking everything around us. I could make out every blade of the spinifex grass, every stunted leaf on the bushes, every crack and groove on the bark of the corkwood trees. The whole world had an order, a completeness, like a perfect piece of music.”

“An epiphany! What then?”

“Well,” he said, “we got out of it, of course, or I wouldn’t be here telling you. We looked under the seats again and there was a lone crowbar there: one of the old ladies must have left it behind after hunting. We wedged it beneath the wheel; we drove off. And then we doubled round: we cut our old wheel tracks somehow and followed them. When we reached the community, they were already thinking about coming after us: we would have been fine. It was just one of those panics. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of my namesake and what went through his mind at Austerlitz.”

“Your namesake?”

“You’re always saying how much you care about Russian literature and here we are: your first big test and you don’t know anything! Prince Andrei, of course, in War and Peace – when he’s wounded: ‘What’s this? Am I falling? My legs are giving way.’ Above him there was now nothing but the sky – the lofty sky, not clear yet still immeasurably lofty, with grey clouds gliding slowly across it. ‘How quiet, peaceful and solemn. How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last. Yes! All is vanity, all is falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace …’ That was how it was, for me, in those moments – those moments when I knew for sure my life was coming to its end. Things opened up for me; the world opened. I could not truly see until I had lost myself.”

Some days later, this conversation still vivid in my thoughts, I drove on down the southern road, which I hardly knew: the track that leads through deep gorge country, past Baker Lake and the Yapuparra outstation turn-off, beneath a flat-topped hill seen and named by the explorer Frank Henry Hann in 1903 on one of his periodic, despairing thrusts across the sand-dunes. Up ahead of me, at a bend beside a dry creek-line in the shade of a large bloodwood, was a white Landcruiser, parked, its doors open. The driver was kneeling in front of the bloodwood’s trunk, notebook in hand. I slowed. He made a sign to stop. I recognised him: he was one of the old doctors from the travelling health-service team.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?” he called out. “Don’t you think? The contrast – between this, this immensity” – he spread his hands, and gestured vaguely westwards – “and this. The precision of it; the humility.”

There was a blaze on the tree, and a metallic sign.

“It’s a survey mark,” I said.

“Not at all. It’s a Beadell plaque! It’s almost a religious object.”

We introduced ourselves. He gave me an appraising look.

“You do know the story, don’t you?” he said. “About the Beadell roads, and Len Beadell, and the kind of man he was: how he came out into the deserts, with his Gunbarrel Construction Crew, in the ’50s, and made every highway and every track we drive on today. He’s a figure of great importance to me. In fact, I’m retracing his steps and checking all of his co-ordinates and descriptions. I’d like the road network he built to be listed on the heritage register some day.”

“You want the roads to be preserved and protected?

So no one would be able to drive on them?”

“Absolutely – although of course it would be impractical, from some points of view. At any rate, we can pay tribute to Beadell. I’m making plaques of my own, to record my own recording. Here, have a look!”

He held out a little square of aluminium, stamped with figures and letters, for my inspection – “Connie Sue Highway inspection survey …” I began to read the words out loud, but the plaque glinted in the sun and dazzled me. I formed a picture in my mind of a dystopian future, in which every tree and every rock and prominence in the desert or the remote inland has a metal plate affixed to it, recording the visit of some exploration or re-enactment party traipsing through the bush – and indeed that vision will soon be well on the way to fulfilment, if the trends of recent years are prolonged, and the need our species feels to mark and emblazon nature continues to express itself.

“And have you spent much time on the Gunbarrel roads?” asked the doctor.

“A reasonable amount,” I said. “In fact, now you bring it up, I imagine I’ve probably spent more time in the company of Len Beadell, in recent years, than any other human being – at least if you consider him still to be present in some sense, along the roads he worked on.”

“So he’s almost your closest companion then! And what brought you to devote yourself to deserts – what lures you out to where there’s nothing, and it’s all around?”

“And what if I were to tell you the truth?” I said. “Or something like it. On the principle that truth is reserved for those people in life you’re sure never to meet again?”

“Why not?” he said, encouragingly.

I thought back. I reached down, into old memories, and told him something of the days when I was growing up, in foreign countries, and how I used to haunt the cinema, wherever I found myself: how the cinema seemed much more ordered than the world outside; how even then I noticed that there were films that lasted a long time in the mind; and I could see the image winning out against the word. I went into detail: the flavour of that time, the way it had seemed, the way it looked in retrospect. I began telling him about the particular film-maker whose work most caught me up, and drew me on.

“He was Russian,” I said. “And when I started travelling in remote country and had no bearings, I found I remembered him: the way he valued each object, each living creature, each component of the visual field for its own sake. There was no hierarchy – and that seemed a crucial clue for out here.”

“You mean he taught you to look – to see on the desert’s own terms?”

“That was his lesson, in a sense. The great film he made was a fiasco – but it had a splendour to it. It was a nature study, only it was a study of the way things are in a new world: a special zone, formed after a nuclear disaster, a place where everything is wrecked and desolate, and there’s nothing easy for the heart or for the eye to take. Yet there’s still the presence and the pulse of life – and life’s faintest trace is always the most beautiful; the harshest landscape is the loveliest.

Just like the bleak, white salt lakes on this road, or the bare claypans, or some burnt patch of spinifex – you scrape down, you find insects moving, you look about, you see the spores of lichen; you stay quiet, and soon enough there’s some hawk that flies over you, or some scatter of painted finches hanging round.”

“Very metaphorical!”

“It gets more so. The idea, in the film’s story, was that in that zone there was a single, hidden room, amidst all the rubble and the radiation – a room where you could find your heart’s desire – and as the years go on, and I look back, it occurs to me that the desert – the whole desert – is something very like that secret room, where your inmost wishes, which you can’t even recognise yourself, come true.”

“How strange,” he said then. “How coincidental! And perhaps I should tell you, more truthfully, what brought me down this trail.”

He settled back. I sat down beside him and leaned against the bark of the bloodwood tree. I shielded my eyes. The sun beat down.

“Time covers things so fast,” he went on, softly. “So fast! History comes and goes. You probably don’t even realise there were nuclear explosions here, in the desert, half a century ago – or if you do, I dare say you know next to nothing about them: the way they were planned, then carried out; the achievements; the mistakes. Maybe you’ve heard of Yami Lester – the blind man, who became well known and who spoke at the hand-back of Ayer’s Rock. When he was a young boy, living with his family in the bush, they were downwind of one of those tests, at the Emu Junction site. You can go there today; it’s not hard to reach: it’s in the Woomera restricted zone. There’s a little concrete pillar, quite elegant in its design. It says ‘Totem II – A British atomic weapon was test exploded here on 27 October 1953’. But it doesn’t give much detail about what happened then – about the black mist that sprang up from the surface of the sand, and rolled up from the south, and enveloped Yami and all his family, and spread further still, and left desolation in its wake. I was a child then myself, far away in the south. When I became a doctor and I was doing my training in Adelaide, I was extremely idealistic: I had the grandest ideas about helping people, preserving life. I decided to specialise in nuclear medicine: radiation treatment. That was the time when the McClelland Royal Commission began conducting its hearings into the effects of the Maralinga tests. It was my field. They asked me to take part. I listened to the testimony. Beadell was there, giving evidence: that’s when I first crossed his tracks. And I think it was a necessary kind of relief for me, to become interested in his journey, in that way there always has to be someone, up in front, just as you said, to lead you on. Beadell hadn’t paid too much attention to the tests and what happened afterwards: that was clear. It was all an adventure for him, like everything out bush, really, for people in those days. But I knew: I knew, when I was sitting in the hearings of the Commission, what the shape of the rest of my life was going to be. I knew I was going to spend it travelling between desert camps and run-down outstations, between old, dying men and women, watching them fade away.”

He broke off; he turned to me.

“And do you think death is the end of the line? I have to ask.”

“That’s quite a question,” I said, “from a medical man!”

“When I was studying,” he then said, “and learning about the body and its intricacies, I almost believed we couldn’t die: there would be no point to such a thing of beauty, such a wondrous mechanism, if it was all to pass away and come to dust. There would be no point. But coming out here made me change my mind. Once I took it for granted that we would survive mortality; that nothing collapses except the crude house of the body, and the spirit lives on, somehow – and even when that belief went, I still liked to think we were all one, and connected with everything around us: the plants, and trees, and rocks.”

“But now?”

“Now? You can see me as I am: no disguises out here. I travel the bush, I visit communities and tend to their needs as best I can: and at every turn I see in my mind’s eye that black mist, sweeping through the landscape, sweeping up every last thing that sustains us in this world.”

“So you drive out here to escape – into the emptiness?”

“Escape – and also confirm. It has a comic aspect, don’t you think? We believe that we can master nature: but we are our own first victims. Nature has become the sign of sadness for us. How much we destroy just by being! It’s too unbearable to look at for very long.”

While he had been speaking in this way, a low cloud-base had formed on the horizon and was approaching, at some speed, from the west. It had covered nearly half the sky already, and beneath it there was a blur, a shadow, elusive, in which coils and light-shafts seemed to whirl. The wind began to pick up; the temperature dropped.

“Have you been noticing that formation,” I asked, “over there?”

“Indeed I have,” he said. “A sandstorm coming: quite a big one. Time to keep moving. The right end, really, I think: the perfect ending for our talk.”

Nicolas Rothwell

Nicolas Rothwell is an author and a journalist for the Australian. His books include The Red Highway and Journeys to the Interior, and his coverage of Indigenous affairs has earned him a Walkley Award.
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