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: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet which I will be reviewing next. 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 (see Mountains Of The Mind: A History Of A Fascination) and descended from there (see his books The Wild Places, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, and Holloway). 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: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World.
“He joins urban explorers […] in Paris and London who roam […] under these cities, “shadow twins to the upper world””
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” (see e.g. Global Undergrounds: Exploring Cities Within or Subterranean London: Cracking the Capital). 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 (see e.g. The Planet in a Pebble: A Journey into Earth’s Deep History). “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 (see The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change and Our Future), going underground brings into focus the steady grind of our planet. Although a human lifespan pales into insignificance, Macfarlane resists apathy. Much like Bjornerud (see my review of Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World), 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”.
“[…] going underground brings into focus the steady grind of our planet.”
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 (see The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit). Like others before him, such as Alan Weisman in The World Without Us or Jan Zalasiewicz in The Earth After Us: What Legacy Will Humans Leave in the Rocks?, 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, which cost £3.2 million, 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, as there are some striking photos included in this BBC interview. 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!
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own however.
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