Review: Underland

Underland: A Deep Time Journey
by Robert Macfarlane

My friend Gilles Thomas first told me about this book because it contains a chapter about the Paris Catacombs. But aside from hearing other friends’ praise of Macfarlane, I had no preconceptions about this hefty tome.

Macfarlane won me with his introduction: It’s not often an author will tell you why he wrote a book, or why it’s important. I loved his voice from the start. He seemed whip-smart, gentle, curious, and insightful.

But then I stalled at the beginning of the first chapter. What were all these sentence fragments? They seemed like jagged slivers of thoughts, jutting out of the landscape he was describing. I choked on a few unfamiliar words. “This won’t be an easy read,” I told myself.

The author’s constant presence also gave me pause. Here was not a transparent narrator who existed only to relay the story. No, Macfarlane was very much a part of the story. But I soon realized that — far from inserting himself like an attention-hungry child — he was there because he had experienced everything he was describing.

Between his crawling through tiny tunnels, trawling in rough seas, and rappelling into glaciers’ underbellies, I came to admire Macfarlane’s grit and desire to literally sink himself into his research. By the end of the book he seemed to me like a literary Indiana Jones.

What struck me also was his description of the people he met through his adventures. He seems to have found the most kind, welcoming, knowledgeable experts on the planet with whom to explore each of his topics. (Or maybe he just magnified these traits in them?) For being a book about the Athropocene — the age of man — and the destruction we humans are visiting on our planet, he sure painted a kind portrait of our species, at least where these individual specimens were concerned.

The book is divided into three main categories, or “chambers”: Seeing, hiding, and haunting. (The reader should know that this taxonomy may not make sense until after they have finished the book.)

Macfarlane begins his journey in the Mendips, in Somerset, not far from his parents’ home. He enters a burial chamber, under one of the many mounds that dot the landscape. We know little about the people who made this, he tells us, except for the care they put into burying their dead. “We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most,” he muses.

How interesting that he should begin here, with death. But how wise too: It’s a topic we can all relate to, and all of us can conjure a mental image of burial. Burying our dead is a last act of of devotion. So why not begin by exploring our connection to the underland as a repository for human love?

Next he whisks us to Boulby, in Yorkshire. Here we go into a working potash mine deep under the Atlantic seabed — which in its depths also houses an astronomical observatory. His astronomer-guide is disarmingly affable as he zips in a golf cart at unsafe speeds through tunnels, explaining along the way how the entire mine is oozing shut.

Here, too, we find burials: The machines that bore through the stone have short lifespans — so once they die, they are simply abandoned in an exhausted corridor to be reabsorbed by the earth. Not so tender an entombment.

It is here, “shielded from the surface by 3,000 feet of halite, gypsum, dolomite, [and] mudstone” that the friendly physicist is peering into the universe through a computer screen in search of dark matter.

“To perceive matter that casts no shadow, you must search not for its presence but for its consequence,” Macfarlane writes. “’As if – in the analogy of the poet and dark-matter physicist Rebecca Elson – ‘all there were, were fireflies / And from them you could infer the meadow.’” How can Macfarlane wrap his head around such a tricky concept, and then convey it with such simple beauty?

As has been the case for millennia, looking up at the stars also raises questions about God. Macfarlane’s astronomer-host shares his take: “Well, if there were a divinity then it would be utterly separate from both scientific enquiry and human longing. … If there is a god, we should not be able to find it.” Talk about being comfortable with life’s Great Mysteries.

Our next stop is the understory of Epping Forest in London. This was my favorite chapter, in part because of the marvelous Merlin Sheldrake. “My childhood superheroes weren’t Marvel characters,” quotes Macfarlane, “they were lichens and fungi. Fungi and lichen annihilate our categories of gender. They reshape our ideas of community and cooperation. They screw up our hereditary model of evolutionary descent. They utterly liquidate our notions of time. Lichens can crumble rocks into dust with terrifying acids. Fungi can exude massively powerful enzymes outside their bodies that dissolve soil. They’re the biggest organisms in the world and among the oldest. They’re world-makers and world-breakers. What’s more superhero than that?”

Maybe Merlin cast a spell through his sheer enthusiasm, because Macfarlane’s writing is as lush here as the mossy woods he describes. And the spell was contagious, because soon I was imagining my own little local woods in entirely new ways. (Again: There is so much we humans don’t understand!) But it filled me with a deep sadness too, when I considered that my species is killing these forest beings and their ancient wisdom.

We leave England and travel to the next section: hiding.

The chapter on invisible cities was my least favorite, to my surprise. Am I perhaps burned-out on the catacombs of Paris? Or maybe because these quarries are entirely man-made — and so separated from nature — they lacked the magic of a burial mound or the living forest. But again: I have to give Macfarlane his props for following his guide through catholes whose mere description gave me the willies.

In Italy’s Carso region we plunge into the earth again, this time to explore a network of underground rivers. Macfarlane lodges with a lovely couple who must be among the most gentle and learned individuals on earth. (How does he find these people?!) Still, it’s not his host who guides him underground, but rather a portly smoker whose battle cry is “Allora.”

Macfarlane evokes mythology here, describing the Ariadne’s thread that marks their way out of the natural cave system as they explore the tunnels and dip their hands into pristine water. The reader can practically smell the tobacco as the cheerful guide wanders deeper and deeper into the earth. “Allora.” What would happen if the old fellow had a coronary? Again, the willies.

Next we drive over mountains into Slovenia, where the caves and tunnels — some natural, others man-made —sheltered soldiers at war. (In one chilling paragraph, Macfarlane describes a small hollow from which soldiers fired mortars. They would have gone deaf almost immediately in that enclosed space, he writes. That idea has stayed with me: The catastrophic damage to two men, in an instant, that they’d carry for the rest of their lives — if they survived.)

The last section — haunting — resonated least with me. For this I don’t blame the author, but rather my limitations as a reader. (I apparently lack the imagination to follow him wholeheartedly to Norway and Greenland, places that have never appealed to this hothouse flower.)

Oddly, some of the images from this section are also the most vivid in my memory: Like the night he spent in a cave in Lofotens, Norway among the paleolithic paintings, sobbing amid the ochre-red handprints on the walls. Perhaps he was exhausted from his arduous and terrifying solo trek through icy passes, high above churning water. But more likely, he was overcome by the immensity of human experience over deep time — and its commonality too. (Is there a more human connection to the past than a handprint?)

In Andoya, Macfarlane hops in a boat for some traditional fishing. Here we learn about deep-sea oil exploration. Depth charges. Depleted fisheries. And Norway’s economic dependence on the “black gold” that is wreaking all this havoc. He describes his host’s bellowing laughter, which comes often and easily. But this same man has twice been institutionalized for catatonia after fighting the oil interests almost literally to the death. Like the deaf soldiers in Slovenia: The cost of war is high, even if you survive.

Then we’re off to Greenland to explore “the blue of time” in Kulusuk, and to watch time unravel at the Knud Rasmussen Glacier. Macfarlane is awestruck as he describes the impossible color of the ice. The Arctic fox that comes to camp. The shadows playing tricks on his mind, morphing into hunched polar bears. The thunderous sounds of “calving” — chunks of glacier plunging into the sea.

His narrative darts between awe and terror. What a gorgeous, otherworldly landscape, especially when illuminated by the northern lights! But this landscape is disappearing quickly as the glaciers melt — and things long-buried are reappearing just as fast (reindeer with anthrax, for example, and God knows what other pathogens). Even the sounds are changing, the villagers in Kulusuk tell us.

This is how we end up rappelling with Macfarlane into the very heart of a moulin — a deep shaft through which flowing water speeds a glacier’s progress across land. He describes the safety gear he puts on, and the hand signals he uses to communicate with his companions (arms crossed over the chest mean “Get me the fuck out of here”). Then he descends into the maelstrom of churning water. Who among his readers would have such courage? His mere description of being soaked and battered by ice-water left me shaken.

His description of Olkiluoto in Finland left me shaken, too. “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a visitors’ centre. ‘Welcome to Olkiluoto Island,’ says Pasi Tuohimaa. ‘You made it!’”

His host seems unnaturally cheerful and outgoing — considering how reserved Finns tend to be, especially when they’re standing in a place that will soon hold literal tons of nuclear waste. Macfarlane deftly explains nuclear fission: The incredible heat it produces, the waste it creates, and the lethality of the resulting spent rods.

Tuohimaa explains that humans can safely be around spent uranium after some 500 years. Not under our beds, maybe, but certainly in the living room. Still: uranium’s half-life is millions of years away yet, Macfarlane asserts. What a legacy we’re leaving for future generations!

At Olkiluoto, “being responsible” to these future generations means forming a multidisciplinary committee to create iconography, to warn of the danger that lies deep in these storage facilities. But Macfarlane muses that a more effective tack might be telling stories about this place that are passed down from generation to generation, like the strikingly prescient Kalevala.

And who knows? Maybe life will still flourish there, like the lichens that are thriving at Chernobyl. It just won’t be human life, is all.

The final chapter was the most beautiful, most personal, and most poetic. Here Macfarlane brings us on a stroll with his son — a child who will one day, inevitably, die. Forethought of grief seizes the author for a moment … “and then life and hue pour back into the world as quickly as they were drained from it, and the leaves flicker greenly on the trees again.” It is a beautiful, metaphorical resurfacing from all the dark places we’ve been — from deep in time itself — back into the here and now.

I was awed and sad when I finally closed the book for the last time on the evening of August 30. Awed, because Macfarlane had taken me to far-flung places (both out in the world and inside the mind) I’d never even imagined. Awed, by his prose and by his intelligence. Awed, because he’d made me consider the ground I walk on every day in a whole new way.

But this book also made me sad — because no matter how carefully I read some chapters, I could not retain even a fraction of this book’s vast knowledge. And sad, mostly, because of the degradation Macfarlane exposed with all his digging.

Will we manage to stop the destruction before we also destroy ourselves? Or will the Athropocene be the last geological era that hosts human life on Earth? Macfarlane leaves it up to each of us to answer that question — through our observations, and most importantly through our actions.

Cover image: Nether, © 2013 by Stanley Dorwood


We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most.

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Among the relics of the Anthropocene, therefore, will be the fallout of our atomic age, the crushed foundations of our cities, the spines of millions of intensively farmed ungulates, and the faint outlines of some of the billions of plastic bottles we produce each year – the strata that contain them precisely dateable with reference to the product-design archives of multinationals. Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

To understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark.

We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.

As the Pleistocene was defined by the action of ice, so the Anthropocene is seen to be defined by the action of anthropos: human beings, shaping the Earth at a global scale.

Science is full of this stuff: full of happenstance and stumbles and getting knackered and crazy in the field or the lab. It’s so weird to me how science always presents its knowledge as clean.

We stay in that sunshine, on that marvellous summit, for an hour and an era. We don’t talk much. Up there, language seems impossible, impertinent, sliding stupidly off this landscape. Its size makes metaphor and simile seem preposterous. It is like nowhere I have ever been. It shucks story, leaves the usual forms of meaning-making derelict. Glint of ice cap, breach of whales, silt swirls in outflows, sapphire veins of a crevasse field. A powerful dissonance overtakes my mind, whereby everything seems both distant and proximate at the same time. It feels as if I could lean from that summit and press a finger into the crevasses, tip a drop of water from the serac pool, nudge a berg along the skyline with my fingertip. I realize how configured my sense of distance has become from living so much on the Internet, where everything is in reach and nothing is within touch. The immensity and the vibrancy of the ice are beyond anything I have encountered before. Seen in deep time – viewed even in the relatively shallow time since the last glaciation – the notion of human dominance over the planet seems greedy, delusory. Up there on that summit, at that moment, gazing from the Inner Ice to the berg-filled sea, the idea of the Anthropocene feels at best a conceit, at worst a perilous vanity. I recall the Inuit word I first heard in northern Canada: ilira, meaning ‘a sense of fear and awe’, and also carrying an implication of the landscape’s sentience with it. Yes. That is what I feel here. Ilira.

Twelve thousand years ago in a limestone cave above the Hilazon River in what is now northern Israel, a grave was prepared for a woman in her forties. An oval hole was dug in the cave floor, and its sides were walled with limestone slabs. Her body was placed in the grave, curled against the northern side of the oval. Two stone martens, their brown and cream fur sleek in the low light, were draped over her: one across her upper body, one across her lower. The foreleg of a wild boar was laid on her shoulder. A human foot was placed between her feet. The blackened shells of eighty-six tortoises were scattered over her. The tail of an aurochs was put near the base of her spine. The wing of a golden eagle was opened over her. She had become a wondrous hybrid – a being of many beings. At last, a single large plate of limestone was pulled over the hole, closing this compound creature inside her chamber.

All cities are additions to a landscape that require subtraction from elsewhere.

Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human morality looks absurd – crushed to irrelevance. Assertions of value seem futile. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin.

Review © Heather Munro.