Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Fade Out

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Fade Out

Article excerpt

An academic who forgot what her own research was about after contracting a tropical disease in the outback talks to Paul Jump about the experience, the impact on her work and the slow road to recovery

As a geographer, it was only when she lost the ability to read maps that Jenny Pickerill finally admitted to herself that something was seriously amiss.

This was despite the 30-page risk assessment that she had submitted to the University of Leicester for approval before setting out for the remote Kimberley region of northern Western Australia to interview indigenous environmental activists. It listed all manner of potential horrors, such as extremes of weather, encounters with poisonous snakes and man-eating crocodiles, collisions with wild cows and kangaroos and, most pertinently, a forbidding array of tropical diseases, including the one with which she was ultimately diagnosed.

The university had followed standard practice and checked the Foreign Office's list of dangerous destinations. Not finding Australia there, it was happy to sanction the four-month trip and Pickerill - an adventurous soul with previous experience of remote regions - successfully applied for a British Academy grant to fund it.

"I am really interested in grass-roots alternatives to industrialisation and capitalist solutions to problems," she explains. "The Kimberley is an area that is quite untouched in lots of ways but it is a target for the Australian government as a place for resource extraction. I was interested in what indigenous environmental activists were proposing as alternatives to large-scale mines and gas plants."

Her grant paid for her airfare but not much more: a research assistant and hire car were beyond her means. Hotels would have been, too, if they had existed in the far-flung villages Pickerill was planning to visit. But a close friend, the artist Naomi Hart, agreed to accompany her and, in a "random act of generosity", a relation of Hart's brother's friend agreed to lend her a tent and a rusty Toyota Land Cruiser (popularly known in Australia as a "troopy").

Although she took a satellite system capable of sending out an emergency distress beacon from anywhere in the world, Pickerill - who is now professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield - was grateful for Hart's presence since she didn't entirely trust the troopy not to "break down in the middle of a river crossing".

"I had travelled with Naomi before: she did some research with me when I was a postdoc in Australia many years ago and, because she is artist, she doesn't seem to mind traipsing over the landscape while I collect data," Pickerill explains.

After a week-long 1,900 mile drive up from Perth, Pickerill and Hart arrived in the Kimberley in March 2011. Pickerill's work was tiring and stressful: "Tracking down interviewees in the outback and trying to convince people in the middle of a land rights protest to talk to me was difficult."

Camping every night only added to the strain and Pickerill admits that "there were certain moments when I thought: 'What have I done? I am living out of a truck in the outback and I could really do with a shower.' "

For this reason, when, about three weeks into the trip, she first started to become forgetful and vague, she put it down to nothing more serious than excessive fatigue - and she rather enjoyed the feeling of being "really calm and mellow".

"But after a few more weeks I could not remember what my research was on," she says. "I carried on working but forgot to write any notes, and my interviews got shorter and shorter as I no longer knew what I was asking or what I was doing. I just wanted to curl up and sleep. I slept more and more and found I could fall asleep anywhere, even in the shower or walking along a path."

One option was to consult a doctor in the Kimberley. …

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