Underland

W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.
$27.95, 384 pages.

UNDERGROUND is a direction in Cartesian space. Underworld is a domain of myth. Underland is an actual, breathable place below Earth’s surface, ranging in depth from the life-giving humus of our soils to the death-dealing radioactive waste being stored in Earth’s deepest recesses. Robert Macfarlane helps us understand this underland by guiding us downward to see what humans have discovered, exploited, created, and celebrated there, and by playing the role of shaman to help us make meaning of it all.

Three times he takes us downward below the life-scented air of a warm, English summer day, below the riven trunk of an old ash tree, and below the moist soil into a cool, earth-scented limestone cavern. His tree trunk becomes our portal between familiar and unfamiliar, between the sunlit upper canopy of swaying branches and the dark under canopy of roots clamped hard against rocky earth. “The passage is taken; the maze builds. Side-rifts curl off. Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely— and so too is time.” Foreshadowing the book’s Anthropocene culmination: “Things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden. When confronted by such surfacings it can be hard to look away ”

Each of the book’s three descents leads to a different chamber, giving Underland a three-part structure spanning Britain, Europe, and the North. In each place visited, Macfarlane’s friends and local guides help him explore what lies beneath, and help humanize each reading experience.

Part I is the chamber for seeing. Guided by a beekeeper, walker, and poet named Shawn, we tour a cavern system in limestone hills of Somerset, England, exploring life and death in Bronze Age funeral barrows, spelunking caverns, and abandoned quarries. In a deep salt mine in Yorkshire, a young physicist searches for glimpses of cosmic dark matter on his laboratory instruments. In Epping Forest, London, our guide is Merlin Sheldrake, a plant scientist exploring the dark soil animating his research forest.

Part II is for hiding. Lina, Jay, and Bradley guide us through the catacombs beneath Paris, hundreds of miles of tunnels and voids excavated over a span of six centuries to procure stone for buildings above. Now the depths are tombs for bones from reclaimed cemeteries, junkyards for junk, farms for mushrooms, archives for whatever, an underground landscape for exploration, and a meeting place for festivals. In the Carso near Trieste, Italy, Lucian guides us through underground rivers before moving east to Slovenia where the beauty of the white mountain summits is juxtaposed against a sinkhole landscape used to hide the extrajudicial killings of twentieth-century dirty wars.

Part III is for haunting. Roy and Bjornar, two fishermen from Norway’s fjord country, guide us to primitive cave art in the Lofoten archipelago and to the oil-rich continental shelf near Andøya. The next stop is Kulusuk in southeast Greenland, where villagers Matt, Helen, and Geo, and ice-core scientist Robert, guide us downward into the Greenland ice sheet, where its history and future threats are revealed. Our final stop is the deepest. Descending by elevator, a Finlander named Pasi guides us to Onkalo, which means “hiding place.” This excavated granite chamber on Olkiluoto Island is  a repository for the astonishingly toxic, high-level radioactive waste that will outlast us well into the post-human future.

This final descent offers the content key to Underland. Burying our most shamefully dangerous corruption of nature in our deepest continental rock helps us understand what the Anthropocene really means. For Macfarlane, it’s not the present geological epoch as seen now, but the present geological epoch as seen from some distant future, a “‘paleontology of the present’ in which we ourselves have become sediments, strata and ghosts.”

There is a dangerous comfort to be drawn from deep time. An ethical lotus-eating beckons. What does our behaviour matter, when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the Earth in the blink of a geological eye? . . . We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite — deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy.

In this passage, Macfarlane revisits what Henry David Thoreau concluded in the middle nineteenth century: that the residues of civilization are but sediments covering the rock of deep time. Thoreau writes: “My instinct tells me that my head is an organ for burrowing.” Macfarlane writes, “We have now drilled some 30 million miles of tunnel and borehole in our hunt for resources, truly riddling our planet into a hollow earth.” Looking backward from the distant future, he continues: “Our modern species-history is one of remorseless accelerated extraction, accompanied by compensatory small acts of preservation and elegiac songs.”

The literary key to Underland is its author’s surprise that a downward, rather than upward, path leads to more meaning. He began writing to explore the “personal mystery” of “why I was so drawn to mountains as a young man that I was, at times, ready to die for love of them.” This gradually “unfolded into a project of deep-mapping . . . a downwards trajectory.”

This katabatic descent, this “descendental” and transcendental approach, was Thoreau’s as well. Entering “the maw of the cave” in northern Norway in search of Neolithic ocher-painted dancers, Macfarlane recognized “an unmistakably theatrical space, a place for performances and meaning-making.” Upon seeing them: “The dangers of the journey to reach the dancers ebb from me, the joy of their movement ebbs into me and I cry there . . . weeping for feelings I cannot name.”

Macfarlane’s repeated descents into rock, water, soil, and ice make Underland wilder than his earlier book, The Wild Places, chock-full of gripping adventures akin to Jules Verne, Jack London, Jon Krakauer, and Cheryl Strayed. For example, when descending into a moulin on the Knud Rasmussen Glacier in northwest Greenland, he writes: “I spin out from the face and into the torrent, which crashes down on my head with cold pummelling fists . . . trapped in a perpetual motion machine.”

Technically, I found two misleading points about glaciology: Ice is not blue because light bounces from crystal to crystal, but because longer wavelengths are selectively absorbed at the molecular level. Crevasses are not “expressions of turbulence in the flow,” because the flow is laminar.

The end of Underland is also its bottom. Whether below ice, water, soil, rock, or human residues, Macfarlane’s lyrical and heartfelt prose guided me downward to understand that special place.

Robert M. Thorson is a midwestern native turned western geologist turned eastern academic. He professes and writes at the University of Connecticut. 

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