Robert Macfarlane
Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I have previously written that I consider Robert Macfarlane to be “able to assess risk before exposing himself to it” but having now read his immensely impressive Underland, my fears for his safety have increased. Blame my cossetted lifestyle maybe, but I can’t help the hair-raising sensation I have when I read of him descending into the black depths of tomb-potential sink-holes, caves and passageways or traversing jagged, snow-laden passes under leaden skies to locate - solo - a remote cave on the storm-wracked Norwegian coast beyond reach of mobile coverage.

I did once linger underground in Wales in a head-torches-off moment after a tight squeeze through a breath-emptying cave crawl. Vowing never to repeat it, perhaps I subliminally understand why these vicarious reading experiences press Macfarlane’s thinking into our own mental strata. Underland is subtitled A Deep Time Journey and part of this journey is geographically outward as well as geologically downwards because the writer is excavating impossibly old events before turning to face a post-Anthropocene future.

As with The Old Ways, Macfarlane’s format for the book pairs meditations on particular themes with accounts of his visits to places from where these themes arise - or where their energies are concentrated. Burial chambers in and limestone caves under the Mendips, a halite mine under the Yorkshire coast which is twinned with a dark matter ‘listening post’, Epping Forest which serves as a way in to understanding “the wood wide web” of the mycorrhizal fungi’s “underground social network”, the catacombs of Paris, the karst cave systems of north-east Italy, the war-scarred crags of the Slovenian highlands, the cave art of the Lofoten peninsula, a moulin on the Knud Rasmussen Glacier and a nuclear waste installation deep under the Finnish forests: these are some of the underland zones that Macfarlane lowers us into with his vivid writing and passionate vision.

Underland continues the exploration of what Macfarlane calls “the relationships between landscape and the human heart” and is specifically an exploration of man’s relationship to our planet’s sub-surface. In his introduction he explains a sort of change of direction:

If the image at the centre of much that I have written before is that of the walker’s placed and lifted foot, the image at the heart of these pages is that of the opened hand, extended in greeting, compassion or the making of a mark.

This consciously calls to mind images of prehistoric stencilled cave art where the outline of a hand reaches out to us from the deep past. He builds on this by taking us in turn to a place “where loss might be laid to rest”; one where you can “hear the breath of the birth of the universe”; another which prompts the question of whether or not we are being good ancestors; one where you can “encounter an idea so powerful in its implications that it unsettles the ground you walk on”; another where a poem stands guard at the site of a subterranean war-time atrocity which threatens a curse “as protection against its own erasure”; and a remote and forbidding “Hole of Hell” where red ghost figures have been dancing for 3,000 years. Many of these involve the author roping-up, donning his helmet and strapping on crampons.

There are few writers who can deploy sufficient clarity to explain how ice has a memory such that kilometre-deep ice-cores can function “as a means of foretelling the climate future” and then, in the next chapter, run a word-camera - in zoom and panorama - across a glacier’s calving face as a gigantic collapse occurs, so that we connect the two as he intended. In the final chapter, Macfarlane recounts how he read the Finnish creation myth, the Kalevala, in which the demi-god Väinämöinen is required to descend into the underland where materials of great energy are stored. Warnings are issued about not bringing any of this back to the surface. We don’t need to know the myth’s details. It’s sufficient for us the next day to accompany Robert Macfarlane as he visits Onkalo, Finland’s underground nuclear waste repository where material of terrible energy is being deep-buried in the hope of keeping us safe. Its intended lifespan is 100,000 years, which may not be enough given that the half-life of uranium-235 is 4.46 billion years.

Where Macfarlane’s The Old Ways was concerned with the journey outwards and the journey inwards, as a psychological exercise, Underland explores what the writer Glenn Albrecht termed solastalgia, “A form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”:

Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants.

This subject matter makes Underland a more sombre read than I found The Old Ways to be. Macfarlane’s trademark dazzling phraseology is still present. There is stone “obdurate in its fixity” and “a tinfoil sea”; there is a “buzz-saw of grasshoppers” and “ptarmigan churr”. Macfarlane remains intensely alert and receptive and I gain a near-leaping delight from his descriptive powers. The steady rhythm of his prose reliably unfolds a generosity of spirit. Yet this book’s sweeping focus has a wider reach than the literary and the aesthetic. His chapter on the Yorkshire halite mine which is shared by scientists listening for dark matter seems freighted with feeling, with his writing at its most awake and most tender. The chapter on old ice and the high ice cap of southern Greenland seems hefted with significance, precise and poised. There are verbal pyrotechnics but their deployment is apposite, calibrated. Their underground detonation far from daylight gives them a kind of stylistic penumbral gloom.

As is often the case with Macfarlane, the great networker, his writing is peopled aplenty with friends, scientists and thinkers, many of whom are one-off, larger-than-life individuals, treading fascinating paths and it is clear that the bonds he develops with many of them run deep and lend to the text where they appear a more cherished feel - and that’s for the good too.

There is also a newcomer in the style parade, typified by a verbless, telegraphic description used especially for describing sights and sounds, wind, birds, branches, the play of light and shade. It’s close to poetry but is plainer - perhaps close to haiku - and seemed to me to show economy when what I really wanted was flourish. I was initially disappointed, then came to see this as a consequence of the writer’s preoccupation with deeper themes and with a need to use the space available to cover these adequately, which is so much more than amply accomplished.

Underland was 10 years in the writing. What Macfarlane has hauled out of the dark is more than enough food for thought about our relationship with our planet.

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