In his book Underland: A Deep Time Journey, author Robert Macfarlane not only takes the reader to unfamiliar regions of the planet, but explains many of the underlying social, political and economic issues that threaten the unique landscapes he so elegantly describes. In my experience, few “nature” writers are willing to take this risk, fearing they might seem pedantic or partisan, thereby alienating certain readers. Macfarlane understands that landscapes, even those miles below the earth’s surface, cannot help but be enmeshed with the political. He obviously loves those landscapes more than selling books. And as a bonus, the writing is consistently elegant.
I have spent very little time in caves or caverns and have wondered how I would react to tunnels, shafts and other tight places; the “journey into darkness” the author evocatively describes in his explorations underground. In careful exacting prose, Macfarlane truly conveys a sense of how claustrophobic and challenging this hidden realm can be. And yet these explorations show that the earliest humans were drawn to this strange, dark netherworld and imbued it with significance, using it as a repository for art and totems, as a burial site and as a symbolic space to contain myth and magic. As the author puts it: “The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.”
This is particularly relevant in our time of ecological disruption. Macfarlane examines in often painful detail how moderns have appropriated and exploited this underworld realm; for adventure, extraction and now storage of poisonous waste deemed too dangerous to be left on the surface. He does not shy away from recognizing the mounting crises associated with the Anthropocene and the warming which also penetrates to those deep, buried places. Melting glaciers and permafrost are reminders of how profoundly we have disturbed the notion of “deep time.” They force us to question whether, as Jonas Salk asked, we are “being good ancestors.”
The book is organized into three sections and each corresponds to a geographical region; Seeing takes place in Britain, Hiding covers the rest of Europe and Haunting is placed in what the author terms the North. And while most of the settings are geological- labyrinthine ice caves, caverns holding ancient cities, underground rivers- Macfarlane also introduces us to varied but ecologically connected issues such as the symbiotic interplay of fungi and tree roots, buried laboratories where scientists are searching for dark matter, fish stocks threatened by oil development and a churning Maelstrom in the North Sea.
It is this variety of wonderous landscapes, of fascinating people, of diverse cultures and their expressions throughout history, which keeps this book so entertaining. Had I walked by it in the store, I’m not sure I would have stopped to investigate. But I thank the person who gifted it to me for broadening my readerly horizons and would heartily recommend it to those needing some adventure and knowledge about a massive territory we too rarely consider.