“Among the great struggles of man,” wrote Salman Rushdie in his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), “there is also this mighty conflict between the fantasy of Home and the fantasy of Away, the dream of roots the mirage of the journey.” It is this paradox of humankind’s desire for fixity and mobility that informs much of Alastair Bonnett’s (Professor of Social Geography at Newcastle University, UK) book Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies (2014). We are a place-making and place-loving species which is driven by as much a wild desire to escape to anywhere as it is by a need to anchor itself to a certain somewhere. We love “remarkable” places. And this fascination of ours, says the author, is as old as geography itself. The evidence is found in the volume Geographika (c. 200 BC) written by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-194 BC) – geographer, astronomer, music theorist, chief librarian at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. The book makes a tour of “famous cities” and “great rivers”. Likewise, The Geography of Strabo, an exhaustive compendium of destinations written in the first century AD for Roman imperial administrators. It even speaks of the gold mines of India, dug by ants “no smaller than foxes”, possessing pelts “like those of leopards.” Here is how the account goes:
Nearchus [an officer in the army of Alexander the Great] says that he saw skins of the myrmekes, or ants, which dig up gold, and that they are like the skins of leopards. Megasthenes [Greek ethnographer and explorer], however, speaking of the myrmekes, says that among the Derdai (Dards), a populous nation of the Indians, living toward the east and among the mountains, there was a mountain plain of about three thousand stadia in circumference; that under this plain there were mines containing gold, which the myrmekes, in size not less than foxes, dig up. These animals are excessively fleet, and subsist on what they catch. In winter they dig holes and pile up the earth in heaps, like moles, at the mouths of the openings. The gold-dust which these creatures obtain requires little refining. The people of the neighbourhood go after it stealthily with beasts of burden, for if this is done openly, the myrmekes fight furiously, pursuing those that run away, and if they catch them, kill them as well as the beasts. In order to prevent discovery, therefore, they put pieces of the flesh of wild beasts in different places, and when the myrmekes are dispersed in various directions, the men take away the gold-dust and dispose of it in its rude state at any price to merchants, for they are not acquainted with the mode of smelting it.
Anyway, that was exaggerated. But the main question is – why do unusual and distant locations interest us so? Bonnett says:
Unruly places have the power to disrupt our expectations and to reenchant geography. They force us to realise how many basic human motivations – such as the need for freedom, escape, and creativity – are bound up with place.
In his fiercely “topophilic” book, following the tradition of ancient geographers, Bonnett journeys through forty-seven disorienting places – from disappearing islands to forbidden deserts – that may revive our geographical imagination and make the world a little more mysterious in our eyes. The selections are organised under eight headings: “Lost Spaces”, “Hidden Geographies”, “No Man’s Lands”, “Dead Cities”, “Spaces of Exception”, “Enclaves and Breakaway Nations”, “Floating Islands” and “Ephemeral Places”. We are in need of unexpected and inscrutable regions now more than ever – for this is the era of all-knowing Google Maps. I will mention two of Bonnett’s disorienting places over here: “Sandy Island” (a Lost Space) and “Zheleznogorsk” (a Hidden Geography).
SANDY ISLAND –
Sandy Island is a non-existent – “phantom” – island that was supposedly charted in 1774 by Captain James Cook at approximately 19° S latitude and at just less than 164° E longitude, that is, somewhere in the Coral Sea in the south Pacific, off the northeast coast of Australia. The island was displayed in maps from 1776 to 2012, that is, when it was “undiscovered” by an Australian surveyor ship. Bonnett writes on this event:
On November 26, 2012, Google Earth blacked out Sandy Island and later stitched over the spot with generic sea. Today on Google Earth the place where Sandy Island once was is crowded with dozens of photos uploaded by map browsers. Unable to resist the creative possibilities, they have scattered the ex-island with images of clashing dinosaurs, moody urban back streets, and fantastical temples.
The story of the disappearance of Sandy Island was a minor global sensation. If Sandy Island doesn’t exist, then how can we be certain about other places? The sudden delection of Sandy Island forces us to realise that our view of the world still occasionally relies on unverified reports from far away. The modern map purports to give us all easy access to an exhaustive and panoptic God’s-eye view of the world. But it turns out that ventures such as Google Earth are not just using satellite photographs. They rely on a composite of sources, some of which are out-of-date maps.
Zheleznogorsk is a closed town of about ninety thousand people in Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia where visitors are vetted by the security services before being allowed to enter. The locals find it difficult to start a business in this nuclear and space centre. How does the gated community survive? Bonnett explains:
Although its anchor industry, plutonium production, has been shut down, Zheleznogorsk has learned to reinvent itself in a number of ways, and there are plenty of other types of manufacturing that are attracted by complete privacy. Zheleznogorsk now nurtures a range of high-tech and “sensitive” forms of production. Three-quarters of Russia’s satellites are produced in the city, including all of the GPS satellites. Israel, Indonesia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan have all bought satellites made in Zheleznogorsk. Another niche that is opening up for the town is storing nuclear waste. An underground laboratory is being built that will investigate how much nuclear waste can be buried in the surrounding hills. It’s the type of project that would be controversial elsewhere but that is facilitated in Zheleznogorsk by the pliant mindset of the locals, who have learned not to question those in authority…
Read the whole book for more!