Original Research

‘Journeys into Dirt’ in Robyn Davidson’s Tracks (1980) and Patrick White’s Voss (1957)

Isabel Rawlins, Myrtle Hooper
Literator | Vol 43, No 1 | a1806 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v43i1.1806 | © 2022 Isabel Rawlins, Myrtle Hooper | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 19 April 2021 | Published: 25 January 2022

About the author(s)

Isabel Rawlins, Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Zululand, KwaDlangezwa, South Africa
Myrtle Hooper, Department of English, Faculty of Arts, University of Zululand, KwaDlangezwa, South Africa


The 2019 Association for the Study of Australian Literature Conference took as its theme the subject of ‘dirt’, and inspired this paper which examines the ‘journeys into dirt’ by explorer figures in Patrick White’s 1957 novel Voss and Robyn Davidson’s 1980 memoir Tracks. Drawing on theory of dirt developed by material ecocritic Helen Sullivan and by philosopher Olli Lagerspetz we demonstrate that the narratives of their travels show them engaged in transformative encounters with the Australian desert. In doing so we challenge Tom Lynch’s reading of the two texts as ‘traversals’ which portray the desert as ‘alien, hostile and undifferentiated void’. Using Keith Garebian’s distinction between ‘desert’ and ‘garden’ we examine how these explorers find and respond to ‘the garden in the desert’. Davidson couches her memoir as an exploration narrative and treats the desert as a ‘lived space’ which she ‘writes home’; having learned how to ‘be’ in it, and so to ‘recover’ the garden in the desert. Like her, Voss and his companions experience the desert as beautiful and inspirational, even, at times, nurturant and sustaining. Since Voss’s orientation is spiritual and transcendent, however, White’s treatment of the desert shows conceptual and corporeal boundaries between human and environment shifting and fading in their interaction with it. In both texts episodes occur of immersion in dirt – dust in Tracks and mud in Voss – which serve to illustrate and to emphasise the interconnectedness we humans have with the essential, elemental environment of dirt.


deserts; journeys; travel narratives; dirt theory; ecocriticism; Voss; Tracks


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