“We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet,” muses the Cambridge academic and writer Robert Macfarlane at the opening of Underland, a labyrinthine, occasionally terrifying journey into subterranean spaces which he has been working on for more than six years.
Travel writing usually moves across horizontal space — across countries, oceans, continents.
This book, however, also pushes “into the earth’s gullet”, as Macfarlane squeezes and slips through rifts and portals into networks of tunnels, caves, mines, catacombs, chasms, holes and abysses — discovering an extraordinary “topography of cavities and clandestine places”.
It’s an unexpected twist in direction for Macfarlane, whose abiding interest, in Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways, has been “the relationships between landscape and the human heart”, as he puts it. Like those books, Underland interweaves first-person accounts of his adventures with cultural and natural history alongside essayistic reflections. But there is more of a primal, claustrophobic shudder to the terrain he traverses here.
For those familiar with Macfarlane’s precisely lyrical nature writing it may be quite a shock when he first goes underground, caving in the Mendips. “The entry is awkward — a body-bending downwards wriggle before a drop into a pot that feels locked, a closed cylinder of space,” soon opening out, after squirming through a small gap, into an “awesome” underground gorge.
As with many of the journeys here Macfarlane feels a bit nervous, and he expertly conveys his trepidation on the page — you worry how (or if) he’s going to get out — as well as his wonder at what he finds down there.
The three “chambers” of the book gradually track further afield. In Yorkshire, Macfarlane descends a potash mine; in Epping Forest, he explores the entangled underland of trees and fungi. The second chamber takes us to Europe: into the
bone-filled maze of the Paris catacombs, where Macfarlane spends several days, sleeping there; then to an underground river in Italy; then to Slovenia. The final chamber moves north to caves in Norway, glaciers in Greenland, and to Onkalo in Finland, where a tomb for high-level nuclear waste is under construction, meant to last at least 100,000 years without maintenance.
“Time behaves differently in the underland, where it can be slowed or stayed,” Macfarlane writes. Many of the sites he chronicles, taking calculated risks, are places where things are hidden: either because of their preciousness and value, or their toxicity and danger.
There’s something crushingly inhuman about the huge vistas of “deep time”, moving thousands of years into the past and the future, these excavations open up. And they sound an extremely stark warning about what we are leaving behind us ecologically.
In Landmarks, Macfarlane celebrated “strong style, single words” and their power “to shape our sense of place”. He shows a keenness of perception throughout this book too, and a particular care in pinpointing what he sees around him on his trips. More than in previous books, Underland also cuts across scientific fields with sharpness and acuity, connecting a host of ideas from different spheres — from dark matter to ice-core science and the “wood wide web” — and giving them poetic resonance.
There’s an earnest energy, a striving to name and place, an aptitude for rapture, which can in its very accuracy, create a slight tonal monotony, especially in the book’s third section. Sometimes Macfarlane’s descriptions merely highlight the drama of his own perfectly executed search for the right word or phrase.
But it is a style which forces a re-engagement with landscape and one’s apprehension of it. All Macfarlane’s books are urgings to take a closer look at the environment we live in, and at the natural world especially. They are perception-shifters. And with its darker, delving subject-matter counterweighing its lyricism, Underland is a magnificent feat of writing, travelling and thinking that feels genuinely frontier-pushing, unsettling and exploratory.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, £20)