Reviews

Traveling Around And Into The Globe

A review of "Underland" by Robert Macfarlane.

Sometimes in the darkness you can see more clearly,” Robert Macfarlane writes, early in Underland: A Deep Time Journey. In the pages that follow, Macfarlane leads us into many dark places, from caves and mines to tombs. It is an inversion of both his first book, Mountains of the Mind, and subsequent meditations on the surface world. The new book took Macfarlane, a fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, over six years to write. The result is a visionary map through places few of us will ever experience.

Macfarlane divided Underland into three chambers, or sections. The first brings us through English undergrounds: the caves of the Mendips, a potash mine where physicists try to see the birth of the universe, the web of communicating fungi and tree roots below Epping Forest. Then it is onward through Europe, among the bones walled into the Paris catacombs, along a subterranean river in Italy, and deep into Slovenian karst pits filled with present danger and historical suffering, the vertical cave shafts filled with the bodies of people once inspired to die for fascism or communism. Finally, the book turns north, to explore ancient rock paintings and go to sea in Norway; to climb into the brilliant blue and quaking dark of Greenland’s glaciers, and to finally plunge beneath Finland, into an ossuary for nuclear materials that will remain lethal to living things for longer than humans have existed as a species.

Macfarlane does not enter these underlands alone, but follows the people who know them best. Thus alongside subterranean beauty and the claustrophobic panic of “bending body to fit space, curling against the cold stone,” we meet a mycologist named Merlin Sheldrake, who explains how trees and mushrooms communicate across distance below ground. In Norway, his guide is a white-eyed fisherman turned activist against oil development, who feeds two pet sea eagles from a massive wooden throne on the coast, and who from the strain of imagining the ocean sterilized by off-shore drilling, becomes catatonic and retreats into an asylum once a year. Under Paris, a woman Macfarlane calls Lina guides him for days, sleeping and crawling, sometimes into places so tight and awful “my heart shivers fast, and my mouth dries up instantly,” Macfarlane writes, a somatic recoil from spaces “my body does not want to enter.”

What Underland seeks, however, is more than just testing in the face of fear, or the insights of ice-core science, dark matter physics, and plant biology, although all are bountiful and engaging. Macfarlane is after time —  deep time, the “dizzying expanses of Earth history” recorded in “stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates.” In them, Macfarlane wants to show how “a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and million to come.” It is, he argues, a necessary and radical project in the Anthropocene, this current era in which people are so changing the Earth the consequences will be forever interred in the stratigraphic record. We are marking deep time, as Underland documents. Macfarlane wants us to ask if those marks —  oil wells, drifts of plastic bottles, and radioactive isotopes —  are the right legacy.

In attempting to think both backward and forward for millions of years, Underland hints at an ongoing frustration with what language cannot do, or at least has not yet done. When writing about the communicative lives of fungi, Macfarlane wishes for “a language that recognizes and advances the animacy of the world,” invoking Robin Wall Kimmerer’s explanations of how Potawatomi grammar gives active verbs to things rendered static nouns in English. Later, contemplating nuclear waste, Macfarlane thinks of the ancient Finnish saga Kalevala, with its tales of magic powers buried underground that, if surfaced, can both enrich and destroy. “I have a swift, chilling sense,” he writes of “a messaging system, the warnings of which we have not heeded or even heard.” Words can pass down generations, but to what avail?  

Language, Underland seems to say, is the imperfect tool for the work of the Anthropocene. But it is also what we have. Macfarlane’s language is inventive and restless, blending things wrought by people and other, grander, slower forces. It is a book in which ice sweats and stone pulses. Things not of human making emerge in quick, evocative bursts: “Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow.” Or, in Greenland: “Dark blue of the channel, sharp blue of the cloudless sky. Daytime moon above a shield-shaped mountain.” This clipped cadence, by the end of the book, is turned away from phenomena made in by deep time to things crafted by people: “Concrete walls, unnaturally smooth. Green side-lights diminishing in size… Utilities cables droop between brackets.” At the level of syntax, humans have become like stones or ice, after a book in which stones and ice have memories and voices and sometimes fearful capacities to act.

The cumulative result is a book that accommodates not just explicit points about human life and geological time, but makes a mood for readers. We surface from its pages covered in a residue of feeling, of dread, loss, tenderness, and terrible hope. This perhaps is the wild edge of Macfarlane’s ambition: to take English and use it to re-enchant our world, to make us see movement and dynamism and force where we might otherwise observe nothing but passive stones and dirt, and to contemplate how the Earth is so often “beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.”

Sometimes the power of this point is muted, slightly, by the book’s use of a universal we. “Deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift,” Macfarlane writes, but some of us, like Kimmerer, come from cultures that already see this way. Nor are all of us equally complicit in forming the plastic flotsam and nuclear waste Macfarlane details. Not all people make ice sweat, nor will all of us will live equally with the consequences of it melting. But for readers not raised to think with stones, Underland is a profound guide to literally feeling the Earth. Underland, from its formal inventiveness to the striking elegance of its prose, opens its readers to a new mode of perception; we see ourselves not as we are now but as the ancestors we will become. Such emotion is its own kind of argument, a way of seeing in the dark.  

NONFICTION
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane
W.W. Norton & Company
June 4 2019

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