What is the relationship between the work of scientists and that of writers, artists and poets? Whether describing the evolutionary purpose of underground fungal systems or trying to identify the best way to communicate the dangers of our buried nuclear waste to future generations, celebrated nature writer Robert Macfarlane asks, explores and, dare I say, answers the question in his latest book, “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” (W.W. Norton & Co., June 2019).
The anticipated follow-up to his 2012 best-seller, “The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot,” “Underland” is ambitious in its scope, global in its interests, and, for a book that spends so much time in the distant past, surprisingly urgent.
Divided into three loosely connected parts — Seeing, Hiding, Haunting — and traveling from Britain to France, Italy to Slovenia, Norway to Greenland, each section speaks to what Macfarlane describes as humanity’s three uses for underground spaces: to shelter the precious (memories, matter, messages), to yield what is valuable (information, wealth and resources, visions), and to dispose of that which is harmful (waste, trauma, poisons, secrets). Macfarlane’s writing is highly readable, while rich with science, myth and history.
Considering the breadth of Macfarlane’s vision, “Underland” could have been much longer than its nearly 400 pages. Notably absent are ruminations on the various fascinating cave-dwelling creatures or deep-sea life — strange beings that exist without sunlight. Light, too, is Macfarlane’s hand with various representations of “bad place” afterlives, including the evolution of the Christian concept of hell. Macfarlane smartly keeps readers moving around the globe and through the epochs, focusing on the lesser-known stories from the underland: visiting one of “the quietest places in the universe,” where a physicist searches for dark matter in a mine-turned-laboratory a mile beneath the surface; exploring subterranean fungal systems, the biggest and among the oldest organisms in the world; traveling to sinkholes, caves and ravines in the Slovenian highlands, which served as the site for the controversial “foibe massacres”; and more.
“Underland” is undeniably dark, and Macfarlane is quick to point out a long and cross-cultural aversion to places with which the strongest connotations are “dirt, mortality, and brutal labor.” The author remarks on the vertical nature of inequality: “wealth levitates and poverty sinks.” He notes the populations of people struggling with addiction and homelessness living in Las Vegas storm drains, and the hundreds of daily-wage workers cleaning India’s sewers.
The dangers associated with underground work and exploration cannot be overstated, and Macfarlane’s descriptions of his own treacherous journeys while researching this book, as well as the accounts he shares from others, rival the best horror writing. It is impossible not to squirm as Macfarlane recounts the tale of Oxford philosophy student Neil Moss, who, in 1959, while exploring Peak Cavern in Derbyshire, England, found himself jammed in a limestone shaft that tightened around his body each time he tried to move, oxygen depleting with every breath he took.
Or Macfarlane’s own journey through the Parisian catacombs, where he slithered through a passage with an opening just 18 inches high. In excruciating detail, he describes having to lie flat and turn his head sideways to squeeze through, dragging his pack, which had been tied onto one foot, behind him. The guide, a claustrophiliac, explained that he mustn’t shout or the ceiling might collapse on top of them. He snaked through the coffin-size tunnel until he felt the Metro rumble above them and the stones began to tremble.
A global darkness is also present in “Underland,” one in which the quiet horrors and real-world implications of climate change are revealed. Macfarlane describes how ancient methane deposits are finding their way to the air due to melting permafrost. Anthrax spores are being released, and forests in Eastern Siberia are being consumed by the softening ground. There is some evidence to suggest that fungal networks may help trees adapt to climate change, but, in general, the prognosis is grim. He explains how global temperature change has contributed to a kind of “unweather,” a term for a climate so strange it seems to come from another era.
But that is not to say that “Underland” is without light, beauty and — dare I say — hope. Macfarlane’s writing sings particularly when he meets with the scientists, guides, interpreters, explorers, mine workers, fisherman and friends who populate the book.
Perhaps the most surprising moments of beauty include Macfarlane’s descriptions of ancient burial sites. Twelve thousand years ago in Israel, a woman’s body was placed in a limestone cave and draped with martens, the leg of a wild boar, 86 tortoise shells and the open wing of a golden eagle. Six thousand years later, a woman who died in childbirth is buried next to her infant son, his body placed on the white wing of a swan.
“Is this what death feels like,” Macfarlane muses after diving into an underground pool, “or birth?” I’m reminded of Kevin Young’s poem “Crowning,” in which the narrator, after viewing the birth of his child, describes “the long cord still rooting/you to each other, to the other/world, into this afterlife/among us living.” Deep time, in rock and in ice, is both birth and burial. Robert Macfarlane, by taking us to the deepest places on Earth, shows us light and humanity.