Robert Macfarlane’s new book Underland delves under the skin of the world
From a potash mine in England to an underground river in Italy, Macfarlane travels the world in search of hidden mysteries
Robert Macfarlane loves to enrich your vocabulary. He also loves to blow your mind. He does so both on Twitter as well as through the sumptuous doorstoppers he delivers every few years. On social media, this takes the form of regular tweets on a chosen “word of the day". It could be “aestivation", the opposite of hibernation—a state of torpor or dormancy or retreat during a hot and dry period, or it could be “raimapo", a word for a “land that is covered in wild flowers", from a language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of south-central Chile and west-central Argentina.
Since early August, his “word of the day" tweets have been aestivating, but if you are interested in beautiful, uncanny words, and their deeply emotive contexts, look no further than his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey.
The prolific Macfarlane’s books can be loosely classified as nature writing, though right from his first, Mountains Of The Mind (2003), he has been as interested in the wonder and terror of being human within the realm of nature as he has been in nature itself. In the critically acclaimed books that followed—each in conversation with the last one—like The Wild Places (2007), about the way wilderness survives in the ordered English countryside, or The Old Ways (2012), about man-made trails around the world, Macfarlane crafted nuanced narratives of human striving on a planet that is both a refuge and a terrifying other-world. In some ways, his obsession with words that exactly depict natural processes or aspects of nature stems from his need to seamlessly combine description with emotion.
In Underland, Macfarlane leaves the world of open spaces and heads into the subterranean—the phantasmagoric realm of deep time where continents shift, fossils reside, secrets are buried and history hides. In many ways, Macfarlane, a lyrical chronicler of hill and dale and wide open seas, is out of his element here, but this forces him to strive to make sense of the shadow world that lies under our feet. He does so by following a trail of evidence of this mirror realm rising unexpectedly to the surface due to humankind’s present status as an eco-geological agent on a planetary scale. As a result, Underland is his most dreamy as well as most political book yet.
Macfarlane is no polemicist, so his critique of anthropogenic hubris is often delivered through a series of wry juxtapositions. For instance, early in the book, he travels to a vast potash mine in Boulby in England’s North Yorkshire, by the North Sea. The mine sends out radiating burrows of tunnels and roads, called drifts, under the countryside, but they also stretch out under the sea, passing under shipping lanes. Here, giant machines, described by Macfarlane as lizard-like in appearance, are used to excavate potash from the remains of a vast, evaporated seabed 250 million years old.
The mine is as good an example as any of human agency reshaping the earth. And yet the mine is also home to a physics experiment called DRIFT, which seeks to detect the existence of dark matter in the universe, in a hermetically sealed lab deep inside the drift. This proximity of market-driven exploitation and curiosity-driven exploration sums up the twin urges of human behaviour that inform the Anthropocene.
Elsewhere, Macfarlane is our guide to the fascinating underworld kingdom of lichen and fungi. These super-organisms, which are both older and more extensive than we can guess, stretch out underground all around us, “world-makers and world-breakers", as a plant scientist describes them to him. We are introduced to the concept of the “wood-wide-web", where a subterranean social network driven by fungi operates in mysterious, inhuman ways; connecting forests, quenching life, and creating new life from death. While Macfarlane is introduced to its secrets in the middle of London’s Epping forest, far away, he writes, a woodpecker “yaffles". Words.
Throughout the book, as the narrative oscillates between the present, the deep geological past and an uncertain planetary future, Macfarlane uses language as a tool to excavate meaning from nature, but he also critiques it as the source of the human urge to extract what lies beneath. A Cambridge fellow who teaches literature and the geo-humanities to MPhil and PhD students, Macfarlane is well placed to do so. At one point, while dissecting the “underland of language", he writes: “The real underland of language is not the roots of single words, but rather the soil of grammar and syntax, where habits of speech and therefore also habits of thought settle and interact over long periods of time. Grammar and syntax exert powerful influence on the proceedings of language and its users. They shape the ways we relate to each other and to the living world. Words are worldmakers—and language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene."
Even though he sees language thus, sometimes the magnitude of his experience forces Macfarlane back to descriptive metaphor. So, when witnessing a gigantic calving of the Knud Rasmussen glacier in fast-melting Greenland, Macfarlane describes it as a city collapsing. As massive chunks of ice calve off, Macfarlane sees a falling cathedral, a bus, wagons, a freight train. While these edifices collapse due to climate change, permafrost ceases to remain permanent and ancient burials of methane, anthrax and immunization-resistant superbugs emerge, pointing to our grim future.
Beyond all this, Underland is also a riveting yarn. As in his other books, Macfarlane takes the reader on journeys all over the map. He visits the Timavo, an underground river in northern Italy that burrows under a karst landscape riven by sinkholes. Some of these, which open out to vast underground caverns, were considered by ancient Romans as gateways to Hades. He visits a 2,000-year-old Mithras shrine in one such sinkhole, and ruminates about how a culture that lived on permeable karst gave rise to the some of the most haunting myths of the underworld. Elsewhere, he wriggles through a precarious ruckle (roughly, a boulder cave-in) and goes caving in a limestone cavern in Mendip in Somerset, England, or on a three-day walk through the catacombs under Paris. In doing so, he also introduces the reader to claustrophobia, probably the most dominating feeling of being underground.
Macfarlane’s books can call for a subtle juggling act for the reader, balancing the profound, the literary and the exploratory, and, in Underland, what stands out is his generosity of voice. He invites the reader in, to share in the profound discoveries he makes. Through him, we meet other generous people: scientists, explorers, activists, cavers, climbers, sailors, teachers, miners. We go on wild van rides through dark mines under the sea, to a sea-tossed cave in Norway to see Bronze Age stone art, or to a cave being built into the bedrock of Olkiluoto Island off Finland, where nuclear waste will be stored, hopefully securely, for the next 100,000 years.
From the dawn of cultural expression, humans have always burrowed and buried. As Macfarlane puts it: “Sometimes we bury materials in order that they may be preserved for the future. Sometimes we bury materials in order to preserve the future from them." The rich and captivating Underland tells that age-old tale of concealment and discovery.