Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor)
20 May 2019
Written for Hardback
Shelter. Yield. Dispose.
These three tasks, so says nature writer Robert Macfarlane, signify our relationship with the world beneath our feet, both across time and across cultures. Underland
is his lyrical exploration of underground spaces where people have sought shelter from warfare or hidden valuable treasures, are extracting minerals in mines or knowledge in research facilities, or are looking to dispose of waste. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, the other being Will Hunt’s Underground
. But first, Underland
For those who don’t know him, Macfarlane has been writing about “the relationship between landscape and the human heart”, bagging several literary prizes along the way. For him, Underland
is a conclusion to a personal story-arc of exploration that started up high with his fascination with mountains and descended from there. The book is based on more than a decade of exploration, usually in the company of experienced locals.
Think underground, and you will likely think caves, and there is plenty of caving here. Macfarlane takes the reader into the underground river Timavo in Italy, a starless river that speleologists have been exploring and mapping for decades. He is guided into the karst landscapes of the Slovenian highlands that hide a chilling legacy of ethnic cleansing dating to the second World War, when corpses were dumped down sinkholes by the thousands. He explores cave chambers in Norway’s Lofoten archipelago, whose cave paintings make it the Lascaux of the high North. And he traverses, and descends into, glaciers in Greenland. But he also ponders realms not accessible to us, such as the “wood wide web”, the symbiosis between tree roots and soil fungi. This might allow trees to exchange information with each other, even crossing species boundaries. The idea of this “underground social network” has been popularised by Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees
But equally fascinating are the human subterranean landscapes he enters: prehistoric barrows (cemeteries) in Somerset, and a modern rock-salt mine in Yorkshire where excavated chambers double up as laboratories for physicists probing the universe for dark matter. He joins urban explorers, so-called cataphiles, in Paris and London who roam the crypts, catacombs, wells, bunkers, tunnels, and drains under these cities, “shadow twins to the upper world”. And he gets a tour around the subterranean waste facility in Olkiluoto in south-west Finland, currently under construction, which will store highly radioactive spent uranium fuel rods for 100,000 years. A feat which brings with it a whole new suite of considerations – how do you warn the species of the future to stay away?
What make these 400+ pages of caving, crawling, and occasional claustrophobia such a joy to read are Macfarlane’s evocative descriptions. Here is a word-smith at work, who can go from profound (“To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork”) to funny (“If you wish to listen for sounds so faint they may not exist at all, you can’t have someone playing the drums in your ear”) with but a flourish of his pen. The things he has seen have etched themselves into his memory, and he is intent on burning them into the memory of his readers in turn. From the majestic and rarely witnessed calving of a Greenland glacier (“a blue cathedral of ice, complete with towers and buttresses, all of them joined together into a single unnatural side-ways collapsing edifice”), to the surreal dumping ground in mid-Wales where locals have been pushing car wrecks down an abandoned mine shaft (“The result was an avalanche of vehicles [...] a slewing slope of wrecks”). There are some truly memorable passages in this book.
Two themes run through this book, one already hinted at in the book’s subtitle. The first is that of Deep Time; the vast stretches of time in which geologists think when describing the evolution of our planet. “Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth”, writes Macfarlane. Whether it is caves that have been hollowed out by the lapping of the sea over milennia, or the palaeoclimatological archive that we are retrieving from glacial ice cores, going underground brings into focus the steady grind of our planet. Although a human lifespan pales into insignificance, Macfarlane resists apathy. Much like Bjornerud in Timefulness
, Macfarlane hopes that “deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as a part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years”.
Tying in with this is the theme of the Anthropocene, the newly proposed geological epoch based on the detritus that humanity is leaving in the rock record and Macfarlane asks what legacy we are leaving behind. Nuclear waste is obviously one of the longest-lasting, but there are other revelations in this book. I was, perhaps naively, shocked to read of the mining company that simply abandons worn-out excavators underground.
Each chapter opens with a black-and-white photo or illustration. I woul have loved to see more images, perhaps a colour plate section. A book of this calibre leans on poetic language to a certain degree, but nowhere did I find Macfarlane self-indulgent or flowery. On the contrary, the book provides its own beautiful raison d’être during an interview with plant scientist Merlin Sheldrake. Macfarlane ponders how to make sense of the implications of the symbiotic interaction between fungi and trees: “Perhaps we need an entirely new language system to talk about fungi... We need to speak in spores.” To which Sheldrake enthusiastically replies: “That’s exactly
what we need to be doing – and that’s your
job [...] the job of writers and artists and poets and all the rest of you”. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
So, how does Macfarlane's Underland
compare to Hunt's Underground
? It feels Macfarlane casts his mind outwards more, pondering deep time and the Anthropocene, while Hunt turns his gaze inwards, probing the more human side: religion, spirituality, and neurobiology. Macfarlane, as a nature writer, is more poetic in his writing, though Hunt, using a different tone, is an equally masterful storyteller. Underland
is carefully annotated and referenced, but barely illustrated – Underground
is the reverse. And even though both writers end up exploring under Paris and both touch on topics of biology and archaeology, it is striking how little they overlap. Clearly, the world under our feet is so vast there is space for more than one book. Why pick one? I heartily recommend them both!