On Unworldly Places
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
When I was about 10 years old, perhaps a little older, my father would on occasionally wake my brothers and sister and I in the middle of the night to take us off on a night adventure to the petroleum refinery at Altona on Port Philip Bay. He was a civil engineer with an expertise in matters of corrosion. He had some business or other to do there and took us along for company no doubt, and, as far as we were concerned, for the adventure. I never paid much attention to what he was actually doing; something relating to electrodes, anodes and cathodes I seem to recall, which meant no more to me then than they do now. I was more interested in being in the car, in the dark cool of the night, enjoying the pleasure (as in those days it was) of passive cigarette smoking and my father's good humour. Soon, as we approached our destination, the smell of cigarettes was replaced by the acrid yet somehow no less appealing smell of petroleum. There was excitement in the flickering lights of the refinery, the silver and black pipes, the billowing plume of flame burning off the excess gases. And there was the great Cat Cracker, its delightful name fortunately having nothing to do with the cracking of cats (it was a construction used in converting raw petroleum into usable products), which, when it was built a decade earlier had been the tallest building in Melbourne and became a well-known local landmark. There was a tremendous excitement in these excursions, and in the unique underworld quality of the place, an apt setting as any for Dante's inferno.
Recollecting this I am reminded of an even stranger place, one with a still more unworldly and underworldly ambience - the Dead Sea. I flew over it on the last lap of my return from Australia a week ago. It is not dead, but is certainly dying, and it is sad to see, as I clearly could from the window of the plane, how it is steadily marching in the direction of a fate similar to that of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. The Dead Sea is a paradoxical place. There is an ugliness to it and at the same time a great, if uncomfortable beauty. In the intense heat the surrounding hills take on different pastel shades through the changing light, and entirely dissolve into a shimmering haze under the sun's mid-day glare. This landscape is so bizarre that it has sometimes caused visitors to experience strange visions and imaginations, like the twelfth century pilgrim, Fretellus who claimed to see in the clear water of the sea the ruins of ancient buildings, presumably the imagined remains of Sodom and Gomorrah.