Proust Nature Questionnaire – Arita Baaijens

ARITA BAAIJENS is an explorer, biologist, photographer and writer. She is forever curious about the world and explores both physical landscapes and Mindscapes, those last remaining white spots on the world map that Google Earth is not able to find. Fellow Explorers Club, Royal Geographical Society and WINGS Worldquest, who selected her for the Wings Humanities Award 2014. She has completed over 25 desert expeditions on camel throughout Egypt and Sudan. She is the first woman to have crossed the Western Desert of Egypt solo on camel and the first Western woman to travel the Forty Days Road on camel twice. In Mauritania she photographed the last surviving female caravaneers. Currently Arita Baaijens travels and works in Siberia and Papua New Guinea, to research traditional cultures and sacred landscapes at risk. In 2013 she was the first to circumambulate the Altai Golden Mountains in the heart of Eurasia: 4 countries, 101 days, 1500 km on horseback. In March 2015 the Spanisch Geographical Society honored Arita Baaijens as Traveler of the year. She proudly carried the WINGS flag twice.

Baaijens is a pioneer, innovator and connector. She uses deep mapping and story telling to open people’s minds to different possibilities of explaining the world.

Arita Baaijens has produced radio documentaries, a virtual reality film (2016) and video dispatches about her travels. She has published numerous features about her journeys (see attachments) and to date has published seven books, including the award-winning Desert Songs: A Woman Explorer in Egypt and Sudan (AUC Press 2008). She is one of 50 explorers portrayed in “Modern Explorers” (2013, Thames and Hudson). Her book Looking for Paradise (Atlas Contact, 2016) was short listed for the prestigious Dutch Jan Wolkers Award. Baaijens’ photographic work has been exhibited in museums and gallery’s in England, Sudan, Egypt and the Netherlands. Her 2016 exhibit Search for Paradise in the Ketelfactory Gallery, Netherlands, drew many visitors and caught the attention of the media. It included photography, film, soundscape, a deep map and public lectures. Baaijens is in demand as a speaker both in the Netherlands and abroad, and has presented two TEDxtalks. She is a regular speaker on television and radio. 100+ interviews in magazines and newspapers.

3 words to describe Nature? 

Miraculous, Resilient, Omnipresent

3 things Nature taught you? 

Joy. The meaning of the word Sublime. Also: We need nature, but nature doesn’t need us.

3 most treasured Nature spots? 

Treasured spots are always Nature spots! The first spot that comes to mind is a lonely and incredibly beautiful and also terrifying spot in the Western Desert of Egypt. It’s an ‘eagles nest’, an outcrop on the edge of a steep and endless limestone cliff. At this spot the surface falls away on all sides but one, the view is incredible. Behind me empty desert, chalk hills, loneliness. And far below sanddunes wherever the eye turns. Incredible, the sand stretches further than the horizon, all the way into Libya. Spectacular, the spot is a strange and horrifying beauty. I have always felt that this is what our planet must have looked like in the days that man was not yet born. Untouched. Scary also, because my water was almost finished when I reached this sport and if I could not find a safe way down the steep cliff that would have been the end of me and my camels .

Second place that comes to mind is the Ukok plateau in south-west Siberia, the Altai Mountains. A very lonely and remote spot, an iconic and sacred glacier valley surrounded by high mountain peaks covered with ice and snow. It is right on the border with Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. Rivers are being born there! Rivers that carry water for 7000 km north to the Arctic Sea. 9 months of the year it is impossible to be there, too cold, too windy, too dangerous. In the summer months the top layer of the frozen soil melts, which creates small streams and dangerous swamps. Many beautiful lakes. View of mountains, tundra and clouds is majestic. Genesis all over!

the Third spot is my garden and tiny hobbit house in the country side. I couldn’t live in Amsterdam if it weren’t for this tiny refuge in the country side. It is a strange place, a green oasis tucked away between a high way and the biggest petrochemical industry area in the Netherlands.  And yet, the green oasis which is part of very old agricultral land has survived and I feel extremely grateful whenever I go there.

When you look at the ocean, it makes you feel…? 

To be honest, Oceans don’t attract me very much. I do like to scuba dive in the Red Sea, it always reminds me of my time in the mother womb. Safe, warm, nourishing, beautiful. If I meet the ocean standing on the beach then something funny happens.  ‘I’ stop to exist, ‘it’ expands, I am the waves and all it contains. I guess the oceans are the alpha & omega of all that is. I wished scientitsts and researchers would leave the depths of the ocean alone. Allow the ocean to keep its secrets, give it privacy! As an explorer I much prefer to stay on land.

When you see a forest, it makes you feel…? 

The forest, strangely enough, is also not my favorite environment. Claustrofobic, I need empty spaces, views in 360 degrees. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t love forests, I do! Trees are my friends. They supply oxygen, literraly and figuratively speaking.

When you see a volcano, it makes you feel…? 

Wow!! Here are forces at work that we humans don’t control. Volcanos keep us in check and remind us of our hubris

When you see a sunrise or sunset, it makes you feel…? 

Since I became a desert explorer I learned about the power and the magic of a sunrise and a sunset. And I completely understood why the ancient Egyptians worshipped Ra, the sun god.  In the desert I would wake up 2 hours before sun rise, feed the camels, eat breakfast, load the camels and go. That first hour of walking with the camels, pure bliss. As soon as the sun announced its arrival and the first sliver appeared above the horizon I knew that within two hours she would make me suffer. But I always welcomed her with a song (it was no conscious decision to sing, it just happened): ‘Here comes the sun,’ na na na, etc The sun creates the day and brings life. Then, after a long and hard day walking in the heat, I again enjoyed the last hours of day light and would watch, with relief, shadows appear. Those wonderful shadows recreated the 3D world that had disappeared between 9 am till 3 pm. I never ever would miss the spectacle of the sun saying good bye, I would watch in silence how the world I knew would come to an end. After the last sliver of red had fallen of off the earth (that’s how it felt) the sun would set the clouds on fire before it finally disappeared. She left me the moon, the stars and sometimes complete darkness. Nighttime. 10 hours of blissful sleep!

When you hear thunder, it makes you feel…? 

Alive and in awe, the gods are speaking!

When you hear the wind howling, it makes you feel…? 

Hard to describe, it is a mix of awe, joy, feeling extremely alive and alert, and yet infinitely small,  just the way I like to feel.

Are you an Ocean, Mountain, Forest, or Desert person? 

Empty spaces: desert, steppe, tundra, you name it. As long as it is untouched and vast and dangerous for humans

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Nature to your well-being? 

10

Share with us a childhood nature memory? 

I grew up near a huge forest. We would go there on Sundays, my parents on their bicycles, my brother and I on the back seat. We would bring snacks, lemonade, sweets. I would disappear in the forest. Trees were pillars of my castle. Moss was the softest carpet imaginable. Dew drops were jewels. It was so quiet! Of course the birds sang and the insects buzzed. But the play of light and shadow, those high trees… created a solemn atmosphere. I would choose a big stone that was covered with soft moss and grass: my throne. And I of course was Alice in Wonderland.

photo credit: Barbara Hanlo

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