The mural of the boy with the carbine rifle comes from a museum in a small town in western Kazakhstan called Aralsk. It was once a port town on the edge of the Aral Sea, until the Soviets drained the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, beginning in the 1960s, to irrigate cotton fields at an industrial scale. The sea in the past 50 years has shrunk by 90%, and when I last visited, more than a decade ago, the waters had receded some 100km from the town. You have probably seen the cliched images of boats resting in the desert. It may be obvious, but the consequence of the fervor represented by that mural turns out to have been the destruction of an ecosystem. Not that it was a foregone conclusion; history is all effects and no causes, to paraphrase Joseph Brodsky.
Along with the salt flats, cracked mud and sand of the seabed you can find hillocks of calcified and desiccated shells, moved first by water, then by wind and time to make their own dusty waves. Over geologic time, perhaps those may sift and pack to form limestone, and eventually marble. The stonecutters of Carrara will whittle their mountains of marble down to the sea, even as the Aral Sea turns to stone.
I’ve visited the Aral Sea several times, arriving from both the north to Aralsk, and from the south, to the Uzbek town of Moynack. Each time I’ve taken a walk on the seabed, away from the towns, the beached ships, the deep channels cut into the sea bottom in desperate attempts to keep the ports open, in the face of the sea’s retreat. Far enough out, there’s the wind, the sun, the dried mud and scruffy grasses. There you can sit, and squint, and listen, first to the wind, then to your breath, then maybe to your pulse. It isn’t silence that you’re hearing, exactly, but it isn’t anything else either.