BEFORE WE SETTLE for a chat at Robert Macfarlane’s book-lined office in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he is a fellow, the author took me to meet a tree, one that’s listed among the most remarkable on the British Isles. Over the past century or two this Oriental Plane has spread over, across, under the lawns, its branches plunging down and then, as though having second thoughts along the way, abruptly turning skyward.
Standing under its vast shadow, my gaze follows the trajectory of the obvious, sweeping upward, and outward, failing to imagine the universe that flourishes underneath—and on which depends the overstory. Macfarlane with his insatiable curiosity, a yen for (occasionally foolhardy) adventure and an astonishing understanding of the inscrutable has taken a great leap from the peaks of Mountains of the Mind, his first book, into the abyss with his latest, momentous offering Underland: A Deep Time Journey. While I am overwhelmed by the green-gold canopy, Macfarlane journeys underneath where fungi lace roots into a social network through which trees communicate, sharing information and resources. This ‘Wood Wide Web’, buried in obscurity since millions of years is ‘conjured into visibility’ for Macfarlane by a fungi scientist, Merlin Sheldrake, under the Epping Forest fringed by highways in the urban metropolis of London.
Strange that we know less of the world a few metres below us than of the Mars and the Moon. The ground beneath our feet is mysterious and wondrous; but equally, it is a place of darkness and despair, discovers the author as he explores the epochs and cultures, the environmental and human history of the planet’s hidden depths in his book. In his earlier works—The Old Ways and Landmarks—Macfarlane opened our eyes to familiar landscapes: mountains, pathways, forests, valleys, meadows; and the language with which we relate to them. In Underland, he burrows deep inside the earth’s crust mapping new geographies of knowledge. Not unlike his affinity to peaks, Underland’s roots go back to his childhood in coal mining country in Nottinghamshire. “I knew there was this—unseen—world beneath me,” says Macfarlane. His father is a chest physician; as a child he recalls x-rays of soot-blackened lungs held up against the dining-room window. Macfarlane calls it “the body’s underland, the inside of the body and the inside of the land coming destructively together in the lives of these people”.
This is quintessential Macfarlane, his travel into the dark depths is equally an epic exploration of the darkness of our times and of the human heart. Humanity’s relationship with the underland is complex and contradictory. It is where—materially and metaphysically—we place what we love, and what we fear, including those which evoke both feelings, like the mortal remains of our dead. Macfarlane structures the book broadly in three competing, if overlapping, uses that humans have for the innards of the earth: ‘to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.’
He travels to a remote island in southwest Finland into the chambers of Onkalo, a ‘hiding place’ of high-level nuclear waste. The site will entomb this ‘darkest of matters’, in the hope that it will remain unearthed, built to outlive not just its creators but the species of its creators. Yet, in the same underland, a disused mine in this case, lies a treasure trove: the Barbarastollen underground archive of more than 900 million images intended to preserve Germany’s cultural heritage from disasters.
Fittingly, Macfarlane categorises such explorations in three ‘Chambers’: ‘Seeing’, ‘Hiding’ and ‘Haunting’. In this voyage, he takes us back to the bronze age in Mendip (Somerset) where hunter-gatherers tenderly entombed their dead, accompanied with objects like pottery cups and daggers to help them in their journey into the afterlife. Macfarlane visits sunken laboratories in Yorkshire, where in absolute dark silence, physicists observe the void to see-hear-sense-discern any evidence of the shadowy presence of dark matter. Underland is a lesson in delicious paradox: to see the light, we must descend into dark depths.
Beneath the glitter of Paris, Macfarlane slides through a disused labyrinth of limestone tunnels that extend 322 km, housing millions of corpses for which the city had no space. The catacombs today have inspired a cult of cataphiles; ‘lovers of the below’. The mood gets more morbid in the highlands of Slovenia where the chasm and caves of limestone are a place of death and persecution, a receptacle of thousands of bodies and those thrown to their death during the two World Wars.
The journey is dangerous. There are underground explorers who have never returned. Like young Niel Moss whose own breath filled the narrow shaft in the caverns under Peak District, with carbon dioxide. His body lies there interred in cement. The claustrophobia, as the author squeezes through the dark, deep and narrow, is palpable, ‘the clearance above is so tight that I again have to turn my skull sideways to proceed’. Macfarlane refers not only to the physical experience of being in a catacomb, but the claustrophobia of the Anthropocene. Indeed, the culture of the Anthropocene is central to Underland, shadowing each word and experience.
We shudder and shy away from the claustrophobia, averse to sink into depths, but how do we escape from the worlds we have made?
The underland is arising to meet us with horrifying consequences. Global warming-induced permafrost melt in Siberia exposed 19th century reindeer carcasses reviving dormant anthrax and is linked to a 2016 outbreak that killed a child and infected dozens of others. Plunging water levels in Elbe river in the Czech Republic exposed ‘hunger stones’ that were placed to commemorate the droughts of the distant past. Such ‘Anthropocene unburials’, says Macfarlane, are proliferating around the world speaking of a crisis already upon us.
When considering environmental damage humans have wrought, we usually think deforestation, acid rain, pollution, desertification and so forth. What Macfarlane unearths, and brings into sharp focus, is how the reach of human activity extends, perhaps even more destructively and pervasively, underground—the bedrock of all life.
What are the legacies we leave behind? ‘Are we,’ questions the author, ‘being good ancestors?’
In Underland, Macfarlane takes a detour from his usual route not just in going subterranean, but also in the tone which is deeply political. One of his most memorable journeys is to Norway where we meet Bjornor—one of the many remarkable characters he journeys with—and his pets—two cats and two sea eagles. Bijornor is a fisherman-activist fighting big oil for his people, for their livelihood, for the finest fishing grounds in the Arctic and the orcas that swim wild and free in the Northern waters. He is fighting for the soul of Norway. He tells Macfarlane, “To me the land does not stop when it dips into the ocean. It’s the knowledge about what is under the surface that for all times has kept these coastal people and this coast alive.”
Underland is an urgent recognition and response of how the ‘underland’ is a vital presence in our daily life and indeed shapes it. Like all his books, this one reflects Macfarlane’s fascination with language, illuminating unseen dark worlds with lyrical, haunting, compelling prose. The reading is intense yet easy—I couldn’t let go of the book, and the Underland wouldn’t let go of me. Underland has shifted my perception of the world, given new direction and vision to see through and both marvel and worry at the world below my feet.