Underland : a deep time journey

by Robert Macfarlane

Hardcover, 2019




New York : W.W. Norton & Company, 2019.


Hailed as "the great nature writer of this generation" (Wall Street Journal), Robert Macfarlane is the celebrated author of books about the intersections of the human and the natural realms. In Underland, he delivers his masterpiece: an epic exploration of the Earth's underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself.In this highly anticipated sequel to his international bestseller The Old Ways, Macfarlane takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind. Traveling through "deep time"--the dizzying expanses of geologic time that stretch away from the present--he moves from the birth of the universe to a post-human future, from the prehistoric art of Norwegian sea caves to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, from Bronze Age funeral chambers to the catacomb labyrinth below Paris, and from the underground fungal networks through which trees communicate to a deep-sunk "hiding place" where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come. Woven through Macfarlane's own travels are the unforgettable stories of descents into the underland made across history by explorers, artists, cavers, divers, mourners, dreamers, and murderers, all of whom have been drawn for different reasons to seek what Cormac McCarthy calls "the awful darkness within the world."Global in its geography and written with great lyricism and power, Underland speaks powerfully to our present moment. Taking a deep-time view of our planet, Macfarlane here asks a vital and unsettling question: "Are we being good ancestors to the future Earth?" Underland marks a new turn in Macfarlane's long-term mapping of the relations of landscape and the human heart. From its remarkable opening pages to its deeply moving conclusion, it is a journey into wonder, loss, fear, and hope. At once ancient and urgent, this is a book that will change the way you see the world.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Robert Macfarlane seems to have established himself as a modern mystagogue, encouraging an increasingly urban and urbane society that seems to have become almost hermetically sealed against the manifestations of nature, to wander beyond the confines of the city and engage with the natural world. In his previous books he has espoused the glory of walking in the countryside along ancient (and often now almost hidden) routes, or to wander among mountains. His Landscapes laid out the extent to which our language is strewn with references (all too often now sunk beneath our recognition) to our relationship with the land.

In this latest book, he explores the mystery, and frequent beauty, of the world beneath the surface, whether exploring deep cavern networks under the Mendips, or the labyrinthine system of tunnels that exists beneath Paris. In one section he visits a laboratory that is trying to explore the furthest depths of the cosmos and explore ‘drk matter’, counter-intuitively based hundreds of feet below the earth, to prevent extraneous ‘noise’ distorting the data under review. Macfarlane has a great feel for language, writing with a clarity and accessibility that does not hamper his passion.

I had never previously thought of myself as particularly claustrophobic, but I did feel myself squirming occasionally as he described the traverse of some particularly narrow underground passages, or his descent below ground through the hollowed bole of an ancient tree. I was interested to see that he occasionally deploys the word ‘claustrophilia’. While the concept is readily inferred, I had never encountered the term before, and note the Oxford English Dictionary strays from its usual neutrality to define it as ‘a morbid desire to be enclosed within a confined space’. While I enjoyed Macfarlane’s book immensely, I can honestly say that there is little likelihood that I will ever succumb to claustrophilia.

A term that he uses even more frequently is ‘Anthropocene’, which is gaining greater traction as the term that should be applied to the current geological era, and refers to the period in which human activity has been the dominant influence upon the climate, environment and overall ecology of the earth. Unfortunately, his verdict on the impact of humanity is bleak. Hundreds of thousands of species of plant and animal life are facing imminent threat of extinction; the retreating icecaps are freeing lethal methane deposits that had hitherto been safely sealed in; non-biodegradable plastic is proliferating now even into the most remote areas on the planet.

A word that I have always savoured (but never been confident about pronouncing) is ‘chthonic’, which OED cites as meaning, ‘Dwelling in or beneath the surface of the earth’. Macfarlane’s certainly explores the chthonic world, and revels in finding unexpected portals to take him below the surface, whether clambering through the hollow trunks of trees to savour their route networks, or resorting to manhole covers in Parisian streets. For every portal to the netherworld, he also finds devoted guides, whose enthusiasm matches his own/

One fascinating subject addressed in Underland is the extraordinary networks by which plant life are interconnected, rendering groups of trees able to assist each other, either by diverting additional nutrients to a sick or ailing tree, or by sending warnings of predatory attacks, all through the delicate mycorrhiza, linking plants and fungus across surprisingly wide areas.

His outlook for the planet may be bleak, but the overwhelming impression that I drew from this book is of Macfarlane’s relentless zest to explore new aspects of the world, whether by ascending to the heights, as recounted in his previous book, Mountains of the Mind, or by delving deep below, like Orpheus venturing to the world of the dead in search of Eurydice. Fortunately, Macfarlane always makes it back to the light, and the tales he brings are as enticing as those in an earlier age from more conventional explorers like Marco Polo of John Mandeville.

This is an engrossing and engulfing book, and one whose impact I am still trying to digest, and I am confident that I will be rereading it again several times.
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LibraryThing member Ken-Me-Old-Mate
Here is Robert McFarlane doing that thing that he does so well.

I always wonder if he’s ever had a regular job because he seems to be able to wander to amazing places whenever he wants and he seems to know other people with interesting lives.

Did he start out climbing shelves in Tesco’s warehouse? I don’t think so, if anything he was born fully formed under an oak tree in an ancient forest. He seems of the land itself.

I think this is what makes him so special, he seems without artifice or guile. I really think that how he comes across in his books must be how he really is, how else could he write in such a moving and heartfelt way without ever coming across as insincere.

This book is both enlightening and uplifting and at the same time depressing as it chronicles some of the momentous changes happening on this earth right now that can only end badly.

I hope I never hear of him on one of those mindless minor-celebrity-humiliation programs that pass for entertainment for people who pass as literate.
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LibraryThing member labdaddy4
A very complex book - looking at our world and what impact man has had - and is having - through the exploration of spaces - even “worlds” - that are hidden from common view, the authors “underland”. The author writes very beautifully, descriptively, even poetically about the variety of places he has explored. The book is intriguing, observant, and depressing all at once. Overall the author does not seem to be too optimistic regarding man’s impact on our planet.… (more)
LibraryThing member neurodrew
I started this when traveling back from Las Vegas, finished it quickly because it was fascinating. MacFarlane must be in excellent shape, because he describes crawling in narrow openings, climbing and rapelling in deep caves as well as visiting mines and sites for storing nuclear waste. Very hard to summarize, but evocative writing about burials, limestone caves in Italy and Slovenia, a gamma ray observatory in a salt mine, traversing the sewers under Paris (including crawling a few feet under train tracks, and feeling the thump of the wheels), visiting claves in glaciers in Greenland. It is hard to call this a travel book, and hard to categorize as history. I will keep this book and possibly read it again.… (more)
LibraryThing member SChant
I enjoyed it, but it does become a bit like watching someone's endless snaps of his adventure holidays - eventually your mind wanders while retaining a polite smile. The most interesting sections were the human underlands - exploring the Paris catacombs, being overwhelmed by ancient art in hard to reach caves, bouncing along in a van through halite caves in an undersea potash mine.… (more)
LibraryThing member GailNyoka
There’s an entire world under land which most of us know nothing about. But we begin to learn it, accompanying, and guided by, Robert MacFarlane, in Underland.
MacFarlane takes us on under-city adventures with explorers to whom a sign of ‘access prohibited,’ is an invitation to enter and search within. He carries us away to the world of deep caves and crevices, underground waterfalls, places of interment – the sites of atrocities. We enter the worlds of nuclear waste disposal, scientific exploration, the channels of communication through the forest floor.
At times beautiful, at times disturbing, the accounts of these hidden places are extraordinary, the language and wonder of these journeys, compelling.
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LibraryThing member nmele
I don't know what is so compelling about Macfarlane's stories of exploring the world beneath the surface, sometimes deep beneath the surface, but his book is powerfully compelling. For one thing, he ranges from early cave art to the deepest mines and excavations on earth, from hard rock excursions to glacier exploration. His chapter on exploring the city beneath Paris reminded me of my own explorations of underground New York as an undergraduate: tunnels under the campus of Columbia University, abandoned subway stations, and so on. Just a fascinating journey beneath the "everyday" surface of the earth that yields insights into deep time and the mysteries of war, faith and creativity.… (more)
LibraryThing member PDCRead
Mankind has long looked to the heavens seeking fortune, inspiration and direction. Numerous cultures have all considered the underworld to be a place where a river carried the dead away from the surface, where death abounded, hell, hades and other places were thought to exist. It was somewhere to be avoided. Yet, people have worked underground for thousands of years, tracing and extracting the minerals and ores in the ground, However, it is not something that most people do on a regular basis in the UK now our mining industry is gone. We do head beneath the surface though as millions of people think nothing about going on the tube under London and other capital cities to get to work. However, very few get to go to where Macfarlane is heading.

His journeys into the nether regions of our planet will take him to the catacombs of Paris where his guide knows the numerous passages so well that she doesn’t need a map. Squeezing through tiny gaps, pulling his bag behind him, he will not see the sun for a week. He will venture deep underground in Finland visiting a nuclear waste site. Here they are burying copper and steel tube holding waste uranium, that will have to be buried for thousands of years and sealed behind a million tonnes of rock. The engineer’s joke that they might find the last lot that was buried in the rock they were blasting.

People have been entering caves since time immemorial, some caves are easy to enter, though not straightforward to reach and they reveal art that is millennia old. The caves he visits to see this amazing art are not always the easiest to find, and it is not always the easiest thing to see on the walls as he discovers. Each cave he enters challenges his perception of the underground landscape, having to descend vertically in almost pitch back, wading through underground rivers that might flood with no warning. He sees first hand how the same forces that shape our coasts and mountains, also transform the Underland. Most memorable is an underground chamber where there are dunes of black sands.

In Greenland, he climbs mountains and abseils down a moraine in a glacier and it is as cold and frightening as I’d expect. Secrets from under London with Bradley Garret from the London Consolidation Crew are revealed as they head to places that they really shouldn’t be going. Underneath forests are more than just roots, as Macfarlane understands how trees talk to each other through the Wood Wide Web. One of the deepest points he reaches is to see the place where they look at the stars…

The way into the Underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree…

It is through these and the other locations he takes us, that we get to hear the stories of these places that never see the sun. As will all of Macfarlane’s books, there is a wider message that he is talking about in what has been called the Anthropocene and that is about the damage that we are doing to this, our only planet. The reason he can abseil down the moraine on the glacier is because of global warming and the implications for humanity should the repositories hold the nuclear waste leak or rupture do not even bear thinking about. If you have read any of his previous books then this is a must read. It is not as uplifting as those books as it is much darker given the places he visits and the subject matter but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling. It is not one to read if you suffer from claustrophobia. I like the way that he can link seemingly unrelated subjects from classical history to modern day physics with that common thread of being under the ground. Macfarlane has a way with words that carry you as he heads deep Underland to see our past and glimpse our future. I have been anticipating this for over a year now and it was well worth the wait. If there was one tiny flaw, I would have liked to have seen some photos included of the places he visits.
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LibraryThing member willszal
As you might have gleaned from the title, this book is the de facto sequel to Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.”

During my time with this book, I found myself asking the question of whether or not MacFarland’s current topic of exploration (for there are many) was appropriately on-topic to be included in such a book. In other words, “Underland” is an expansive book covering a range of disparate topics which may be similar enough to be included in one compilation; it doesn’t quite hold together.

That said, like the journalism of Michael Pollan, the calibre of MacFarland’s storytelling makes it a good read regardless.

This book is about the spaces that humans access under land (and water)—ranging from caves, to sewers, to scientific research sites, to glaciers, to nuclear waste storage.

“Underland” is a graphic masterpiece. MacFarland crafts expansive and unfamiliar landscapes. Although written in prose form, the book exhibits a poetic aesthetic.

It is also a book that explores the relativity of time, or, in other words, Deep Time. On the timescale of the half-life of uranium waste, civilization is vanishingly small. On these longer timescales we are also much more open to a cyclical conception of time, as opposed to the ubiquitous myth of progress. One example of this is that the workers creating an underground nuclear waste site would joke that they would find casks of nuclear waste from some long-lost civilization during their excavation (I hear rumor that the similar myths have propagated surrounding the Long Now’s ten-thousand-year clock).

Glaciers give us yet another look at time—the Greenland ice shelf has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and may disappear entirely within the timespan of the next century. Time can pool and rush.

MacFarland sets a decidedly anarchic tone to his exploration, often flouting the law. This sense of counter-culture might add to the appeal for disenchanted Westerners young and old. The dying earth sets the stage, and creates the conscious shock necessary for a different paradigm. I look forward to reading more books that inhabit this new worldview.
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LibraryThing member DerekCaelin
Robert Macfarlane's voice reminds me of Kim Stanley Robinson's, and for me this is a compliment. He is lyrical, focused both on the human and the scientific.

The passages about underground cities moved me the most. I don't think I have it in me to visit places so dark, and claustrophobic, and hidden from the world above. I was also fascinated by the focus of the book on Deep Time. How do humans storing nuclear waste plan to tell those who are to come 10,000 years hence that the thing we buried is harmful? Language, iconography, all are insufficient because they will stay the same and the world marches on, forever, until the meanings that were transmitted can no longer be understood.

I was saddened and inspired by this book. Wood reccomend.
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LibraryThing member camharlow2
‘Underland’ is a lyrical and thought-provoking book that explores nature and space. But the space is not above our head, but under our feet. Macfarlane looks at how nature exists below the earth’s surface and how little we understand and know about it. He moves on from this to how humans have exploited the natural underground with prehistoric cave paintings, to burials, to mining, to the search for dark matter in the universe, to burying nuclear waste safely for millennia. He charts a revealing path through these seemingly disparate subjects, drawing on his personal experiences, with a confidence and ease that is compelling and even examines how some ancient myths of the underworld seem to foretell and have resonance with our actions today. This really is a warning call for all to consider how we treat nature.… (more)
LibraryThing member Andjhostet
As someone who loves caves, I thought this would be a very interesting topic: writing about below ground places. The catacombs of Paris I found particularly interesting. However a lot of the book was a bit dry. Occasionally, the author got way off track, like when he rambled about a fisherman in Norway for a long time, or ice burgs in Greenland. The writing was pretty good at times, but a lot of this book lost my attention for large portions of it.… (more)
LibraryThing member SGTCat
There are a lot of interesting facts included in the book and I learned a little about a lot. It's a nice book for opening doors to new interests.
LibraryThing member mdoris
This was another amazing book by Robert Macfarlane!

He allows you to be an armchair adventurer tagging along with him by going to impossible places. In our daily lives we mostly view things above the earth's crust (except perhaps parking garages below ground) but Macfarlane takes us to places below ground that make you view the world so differently. It creates a conceptual difference reading this book. He takes you to caves and cave art, to glacier's moulin (the funnels that plunge below glacier surface like whirlpools), to deep underground storage units for storing nuclear waste, to the catacombs below Paris, to cave art in remote Norway (Lofotens) to the communications of tree and plant roots.

I read this book very slowly and jumped off often to You Tube clips to bring the places or events into a visual focus such as watching calving of glaciers in Greenland and the cave treks in England where the tragic accident of Neil Moss occured in 1959.

In his writing Macfarlane is never far from his environmental concerns for climate change, the plastics in the sea, the need to make our geologic time be known as Anthropocene.

Marfarlane is such a gifted and poetic writer and captures many levels of the experiences he expertly shares with us. What a great book this is!
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LibraryThing member Ma_Washigeri
Well I admit to being a bit overwhelmed by Rob Macfarlane's abilities at climbing, caving, sailing, reading the history, geography and biology of land, and gaining access to sensitive sites - and he can write so well too. But it also resonated personally at many points: the handprints and dots in caves in northern Spain, Boulby mine in Yorkshire, tops blown off mountains and tunnels within in northern Italy after war - these are the bigger resonances but there are many others are smaller levels.… (more)
LibraryThing member SonoranDreamer
The content of this book was unexpected. I thought I was going to be reading about natural caves and human relationships with them. This book was about that and more. The book was mostly about exploring caves, which I am not very interested in, but this book is worth reading anyway. It was about the damage of civilization to the natural world, it was about politics, it was about climate change, and it was about resistance to the dominant culture that is causing all the damage.… (more)



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