Despite the long shadow humanity throws over its own future, ‘Underland’ is for the most part an engrossing account of our ever-changing relationship with the subterranean landscape, writes
“An aversion to the underland is buried in language,” writes Robert Macfarlane in Underland.
“To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being ‘depressed’ or ‘pulled down’. ‘Catastrophe’ literally means a ‘downwards turn’, ‘cataclysm’ a ‘downwards violence’.”
Thus, he says, we are rarely inspired to look down; the human instinct is to look around, or up, as Macfarlane documented in his magisterial Mountains of the Mind (2008).
But even our fascination with the world’s upper reaches is a relatively recent development. Before the Age of Enlightenment, only a madman would seek to find beauty amid the highest peaks.
Our reluctant obsession with the underland, however, is far more ancient, and manifests itself in many different and sometimes contradictory ways.
“Into the underland,” Macfarlane writes, “we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
Underland unfolds in three parts, each representing a new underground chamber which Macfarlane explores — an exploration that is at once physical, mental, psychological, and emotional.
In a wide-ranging opening section, he touches on the various ways in which humans have engaged with what lies beneath.
“Why go low? It is a counter-intuitive action, running against the grain of sense and the gradient of the spirit. Deliberately to place something in the underland is almost always a strategy to shield it from easy view.
"Actively to retrieve something from the underland almost always requires effortful work.”
Down through the millennia, humans have used the underworld for tombs and sacred spaces, to bury treasure or the killing poisons of radioactive waste, to daub their idealised version of the upper world on the walls of pitch-black caves.
The underland has served as the homes of our earliest ancestors; as a metaphor for hell; as the setting — in The Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh, or in Dante’s Divine Comedy — for the triumph of the indomitable human spirit.
And, should the worst come to the worst, as is the worst’s wont, and the planet succumbs to man-made disaster, it is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, buried deep beneath the ice on the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, that will serve as the repository of the natural world’s eventual regeneration.
Drawing from a wide range of inspirations and sources, Robert Macfarlane weaves an utterly absorbing account of humanity’s obsession with that vast and largely unexplored space beneath our feet.
There is, at times, a danger of information overload; but Macfarlane is a patient and meticulous writer, as befits a man who is gripped by the concept of ‘deep time’.
“Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates.
"Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. […] We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.”
That brink, of course, is the tipping point of climate change, and a recurring motif is Macfarlane’s quoting of Dr Jonas Salk, who rhetorically asked: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’
While there is much that is comforting and uplifting in Underland’s exploration of our historical engagement with the world below, and particularly in terms of Macfarlane’s eye for the telling detail when recording the impact of an inquisitive and restlessly curious humanity on the largely unchanging landscape, his writing on the melting permafrost, for example, is deeply depressing.
Long buried spores, believed extinct, are being released into the atmosphere; Cold War toxic waste is leaching to the surface; glaciers are evaporating at an unprecedented rate.
That we are living through the ‘Anthropocene era’, in which humans have evolved to the point where they can significantly impact the Earth’s future, should be a source of pride. Instead, writes Macfarlane: “It is,
perhaps, best imagined as an epoch of loss — of species, places, and people — for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.”
The importance of language is a recurring motif. One of the most fascinating chapters details the difficulty in burying radioactive waste deeply enough for the millions of years it will take for it to be rendered safe, and, crucially, how best to devise a language, or some as yet unimagined mode of communication, that will alert future species, or perhaps some alien Howard Carter, to the danger of plundering these particular tombs.
And yet, despite the long shadow humanity throws over its own future, Underland is for the most part an engrossing account of our ever-changing relationship with the subterranean landscape, and one which also embraces those who predated us.
“The earliest-known works of cave art in Europe — taking the form of painted ladders, dots and hand stencils on the walls of Spanish caves — have been dated to around 65,000 years ago, some 20,000 years before Homo sapiens are believed to have first arrived in Europe from Africa. Neanderthal artists left these images.”
All told, Underland represents a fabulously Kaleidoscopic view of the world as Robert Macfarlane sees it, a singular vision that somehow incorporates Minecraft and the ‘mirror’ city beneath Paris, dark matter and Mithraism, post-human architecture and Virgil’s Aeneid, neo-Nazism and the secret life of fungi.
And there’s more, much more: in a chapter on the ‘understorey’ of forest life, set in the ‘relic greenwood magic’ of London’s Epping Forest, Macfarlane writes about ‘the wood wide web’, a relatively new concept which proposes that forests are not composed of individual shrubs, trees, mushrooms and grasses, et al, but is instead a single entity facilitated by a tree-fungi mutualism which allows a forest to divert resources from healthy specimens to ailing trees along an underground fungi network, which network benefits in turn by siphoning off the nutrients it requires to flourish.
As is perhaps inevitable in a book of 420-plus pages, there are longueurs; the lengthy chapter on the invisible city beneath Paris, for example, might have been shorter, as Macfarlane, with an experienced cataphile, or guide, spends days beneath Paris investigating its subterranean nooks and crannies.
Indeed, anyone who suffers from claustrophobia might want to skip this chapter entirely; Macfarlane captures the experience of underground living, and the lung-clenching trauma of finding yourself trapped in rock, a little too acutely for comfort (“I feel my skull scrape on rock as I ease through, my head turned sideways for clearance, my face pressed against the stone-sand …”).
Ultimately, Underland is rooted, as all of Macfarlane’s books are, in the relationship between the natural landscape and the human heart; if this book is more concerned than usual with what is hidden and obscure, it is because Underland is a deep dive not only into the depths of our planet’s underworld, but a plumbing of the labyrinth of the human mind.
It is an intoxicating blend of geology and psychoanalysis, physics and philosophy; if a more interesting book is published this year, it will have been a very good year indeed.