UNDERLAND: a Deep Time Journey – by Robert MacFarlane
a review by Kevan Manwaring
This remarkable book, which MacFarlane has been working on for about a decade has now irrupted, like an underground river, into broad daylight – astonishing us with its force and volume of news from the underworld. Underland: a deep time journey is a speleological journey into some of the world’s most astonishing underground spaces and systems. It charts a katabasis through its triadic structure (First Chamber; Second Chamber; Third Chamber) – a mythically resonant dramatic arc of descent, testing, and return. A guide of impressive interdisciplinary erudition, insight, and humanity, MacFarlane undertakes a kind of hero’s journey – in Britain, Europe and the North – while clearly emphasising the knowledge, skill, daring, and down-to-earthness of his guides. Most of the chapters recount meetings with remarkable people in remarkable places, and thus deconstructs the notion of the sole, male explorer striking Caspar David Friedrich type hero poses on lonely crags, or above fathomless abysses. This is a book about relationships, complex systems, interdependence, and consequences. Nothing is isolation. Everything is interconnected – mycorrhizzal networks of mutuality. The human is always present in nature and vice versa. MacFarlane parses the anthropocentric engagement with the underworld into three categories of usage – to shelter, yield, dispose:
The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.
The author explores iterations of these in some familiar and obscure places – from the Mendip Hills in Somerset, to the catacombs of Paris, the war-torn karst landscape of the Adriatic coastline, to the glacial fields of Greenland and the nuclear storage facilities of Finland. These extraordinary vertiginous deep-dives are framed by a fictionalised opening which serves as our own access point – a kind of fictive portal – into the subterranean. The literary and mythical haunt the scientific, geographical, and historical layers throughout – although MacFarlane does not make heavy weather of the intertextuality, being a sharp-eyed and cool observer. Not that his prose is cold, technical, or sterile. He brings alive each experience in a gripping, visceral way. Some sections are overwhelmingly intense and claustrophobic. This travel/nature-writing/memoir/cultural history is as riveting as any well-written thriller. At times it evokes the Sublime of the Romantic, John Martin’s apocalyptic vistas, and Tolkien’s Mines of Moria; at other times it conveys a chilling science-fictional aesthetic. The book is uncompromising in its clear-eyed assessment of the Anthropocene, of humankind’s unquestionable impact upon the planetary ecosystem and geological record. This is a book every Climate Change denialist should read. Yet it goes beyond a kind of literary activism to appeal to the most humanistic instincts – of caring for one’s children, grandchildren and future generations, about being deeply aware of the legacies we leave behind. It is a sobering time-capsule, a message in a bottle from the future – like the teleological warning on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, designed to communicate the extreme biohazard of the nuclear waste stored there in a 100,000 years time:
We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do.
This could be the premise of the book, although it is more than just a series of cautionary tales. It is imbued with profound wonder, appreciation, and praise-singing for the natural world, for human courage, and ingenuity. MacFarlane returns into the light with tales to set your hairs on end, but also with a sense of hope – a hand held out in friendship, in aid, in love across generations, across time.
Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2 May 2019
NB this is an extract. The full version of this review is to be published in TEXT: the journal of writing and writing courses in the Autumn. http://www.textjournal.com.au/