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.
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.
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.