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.
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.
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!
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.
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.