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Good Reads  Palaeontology

Underland A Deep Time Journey

Nature Writing
By: Robert MacFarlane(Author)
488 pages, 24 b/w photos
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Winner of the 2019 Wainwright Prize for UK nature and travel writing, this is a beautifully written and contemplative travel companion to our planet's many subterranean realms.
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  • Underland ISBN: 9780141030579 Paperback Aug 2020 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 5 days
  • Underland ISBN: 9780241143803 Hardback May 2019 Out of Print #244868
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

The renowned naturalist's highly anticipated sequel to the international bestseller The Old Ways: a haunting voyage into the planet's past and future.

Hailed as "the great nature writer of this generation" (Wall Street Journal), Robert Macfarlane is the celebrated author of prize-winning books about the intersection between the human and the natural world. In Underland, he delivers his masterwork: an epic exploration of Earth's vast subterranean landscape in myth, literature, and his own travels.

Delving into what is known as "deep time", the dizzying expanse of geologic time that stretches away from the present, Macfarlane takes us on an exhilarating journey to Arctic sea caves, Bronze Age burial chambers, the catacombs of Paris, the underground networks by which trees communicate, a Dark Matter research lab searching for the origins of the universe, and a Deep Geological Repository designed to store nuclear waste for half a million years to come.

Underland reveals our shifting relationship with the world beneath us: the viruses and lethal gases we've unearthed, the toxic dangers we've buried, the millions of miles of holes we've dug in our fevered search for oil and gas.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Beautifully written and contemplative travelogue
    By 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!
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Robert Macfarlane is the author of The Old Ways, The Wild Places, and Landmarks, and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Guardian. He lives in Cambridge, England.

Nature Writing
By: Robert MacFarlane(Author)
488 pages, 24 b/w photos
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Winner of the 2019 Wainwright Prize for UK nature and travel writing, this is a beautifully written and contemplative travel companion to our planet's many subterranean realms.
Media reviews

"Robert Macfarlane is a magician with words. In Underland he shows us how to see in the dark. His writing is like a vortex [...] Once caught, you're pulled deeper and deeper with each page"
– Andrea Wulf, best-selling author of The Invention of Nature

"Devastating, lyrical, blazingly vivid [...] An examination of the darknesses invisible beneath our feet. The book's great power comes from Macfarlane's deliberate turn away from despair and toward a deliberate, loving, and luminous sense of awe"
– Lauren Groff

"Robert Macfarlane's writing reminds us of the astonishing variety of things you can see when you go at walking speed, and of how strange and rich the world is"
– Philip Pullman

"The great nature writer, and nature poet, of this generation"
Wall Street Journal

"Exquisite. [Robert Macfarlane] evokes so vividly places to which I and probably you will never go, and at the eeriness of the places themselves and the sense of vast scale they restore to us at a time when it can feel like the world has shrunken around us"
– Rebecca Solnit

"An epic descent into a series of underground and underwater landscapes"
Financial Times

"Beautifully written and wise, this haunting book is a treasure [...] It reads like a seamless dive, crawl, and trek through deep time, in sense-rich landscapes, accompanied by fascinating views of the human saga. Its unique spell is irresistible"
– Diane Ackerman

"Beautifully and bravely balanced [...] This is a radical book in every sense. It goes as deep as it can, unafraid of the risk that what it finds will turn everything on its head"
The Oldie

"Thrilling and soulful, raw and erudite. Robert Macfarlane writes of his astonishing subterranean explorations with wondrous, indelible power [...] Underland is a profound reckoning with humankind's self-imperiled position in nature's eternal order. It is a book of revelations"
– Philip Gourevitch

"Robert Macfarlane has long provided us with some of the most distinctive and sensitive thinking about how humans understand and experience the terrestrial world. Underland [is] his most urgent, universal, and expansive book yet"
– Francisco Cantu

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