Review: Underland, A Deep Time Journey.

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Underland by Robert MacFarlane (Penguin/Hamish Hamilton)

In the early 1980s I was 14 and we went on a geography field trip to the Dales. I wasn’t what you’d describe an intrepid teenager, yet I found myself on high tightropes in tree top assault courses and caving. We went down Long Churn; I am convinced I almost drowned getting up a waterfall and out. Almost 40 years later and only five sentences into this book I remember distinctly the feeling of being “far from the human realm…when only ten yards below it”. A most uncanny feeling, being underground, and scary too…the big stalactite filled caves were breath taking, awesome in the true sense of the word. The squeezes just terrifying. I’m reasonably glad I experienced it, but I never want to go down there again.

The thing is, I’m as fascinated by the under land as I am disquieted by it (my degree is in archaeology, which rather requires you getting at least a bit underground, and also meant I was delighted to find the Red Dancers of Lofoten in this book). I’ve felt weird and far from the human realm in spaces created by people; Newgrange and West Kennet Long Barrow, the copper mines on Great Orme spring to mind – as well as Long Churn.

In Underland Robert MacFarlane explores every kind of underground space and network. There is so much in this book – it’s worth taking it slowly. The journeys are fascinating and often difficult. Underland deals with uncomfortable scenarios – recognising what we are about to lose, how close those losses are, as well as the physical challenges of cold, of hard travelling, and moving about the under land. More than once I had to put this book down and remind myself I wasn’t actually underground, and even Robert has a moment in the Paris catacombs; In the approach to the Salle du Drapeau he describes waiting to follow Lina, the guide, into “…a tiny floor level opening perhaps eighteen inches high, where I thought the tunnel ended. My heart shivers fast, and my mouth dries up instantly. I do not want to enter that opening”. Neither did I – I had a feeling of dread even in the reading of it, but in we went anyway.

It’s not all clambering in caves and the like – though there is quite a bit of that. MacFarlane also examines the under land of the forest, the glacier, and the sea. I loved the chapter in Epping Forest with Merlin the mycologist. I’m utterly fascinated by trees and the amazing things we continue to discover about them; that they communicate with each other, even go to sleep and wake at the same time, that they can send immune signalling compounds to each other. The trees are a “super-organism” and the forest is a community of everything, all dependent on each other; fungi, flora and fauna, humans. Humans are part of it, not apart from it.

The other thing I love about a forest is you can feel you’re in the under land even when you’re not. I’ll still get inside a hollow tree if I can, or little clearing bound by trees and shrubs, and just stand there, quietly being part of it all. This is a recurring theme among the people Macfarlane spends time with and who explain the Under land to him. They are all highly connected to their world – from the scientists studying dark matter deep under Yorkshire to Bjornar Nicolaisen fighting to protect the fjord from deep drilling oil extraction. All have a deep (no pun intended) understanding of the importance of these largely hidden under-places, which are in danger and need to be fought for before they are catastrophically gone – particularly forest and sea, and the deep ice.

The ice chapters in this book were the most difficult to read. Exploring the Knud Rasmussen glacier in Greenland MacFarlane explains in detail just how badly the ice is being affected by climate change. Things from long ago which have been buried by ice for decades or longer are coming back to the surface. Like malevolent ghosts in an M.R. James story they bring horrors back from the past. Anthrax ridden reindeer corpses infected 23 people and a child dies, epidemiologists predict smallpox releases. Toxic waste rises from an old U.S. military base (the final chapter of the book is about the burial of nuclear waste). I found these re-emergences quite terrifying – almost like the climate’s revenge. Unprecedented temperatures mean that by June the sea ice is melted and the temperature in Nuuk – the Greenland capital – has hit 24 degrees. I can remember when 24 degrees was pretty hot even in the UK.

The glacier remains a fascinating, beautiful and dangerous, ‘other’ place, and even as it is shrinking its power is astonishing. Yet another journey into the underneath sends my pulse racing; a descent into a moulin. Going down into an ice mill, a semi frozen whirlpool, the team decide on gestures they’ll use as the noise is too great for verbal communication (I always imagine ice to be silent, but of course it’s always moving, creaking, breaking up, water running across and into it). One of these signs is for ‘get me the fuck out of here!’. MacFarlane makes the descent into the blue ice; its beauty is striking and hypnotic “down here there is no colour or time other than blue”. It may not be our surface world – it’s alien and strange – but we must look after it or things will go badly for us.

It took me quite a while to read this book, I had to take breaks to absorb everything, to think. It is dense and lyrical, filled with physical science and anthropology, folklore and legend. It communicates the weird beauty of the under land and grief for what we are losing. I’m not sure if this started as a book about loss, but that is what I took away from it. There is a passage towards the end which refers to the Mycenae Lookout section in Agamemnon; the lookout is to raise the alarm when Troy falls – but when this happens after many years of watching, he cannot find the words. This is where we are now:

The Anthropocene confronts us with huge challenges […]. We find speaking of the Anthropocene, even speaking in the Anthropocene, difficult. It is, perhaps, best imagined as an epoch of loss – of species, places and people – for which we ae seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.

Underland was published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton in May 2019, it won the Wainwright Prize in the same year.

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