Books about nature fill a display at my local book shop, as rich and beautiful as the world they describe. Nature writing icon Robert Macfarlane’s latest book begins with a last gasp of this familiar beauty – ‘Swallows curve and dart, feathers flashing... This upper world is very beautiful.’ He then goes underground to an ancient and unfamiliar beauty.
Underland is an epic, perspective-shifting exploration of this world beneath our feet. It cuts paths through science, geography, anthropology, poetry, myth and experience. We are pulled underneath Paris, Arctic ice, forest floors; into deep caves and underground rivers; ancient funeral chambers; even to underground research stations that look into space. The roles of the underworld across time and culture – ‘to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable and to dispose of what is harmful’ – are seductive, terrifying, often invisible.
The book is a glinting ice core pulled from the earth, revealing mystery and memory just as ice reveals historical temperatures and atmospheric composition. Like the book, ‘ice is a recording medium and a storage medium.’ Macfarlane is our shaman and guide as we communicate with the ‘dead and the buried, across gulfs of deep time’ from the early universe to the Anthropocene.
Macfarlane’s earlier books recount journeys along old ways, in wild places and up mountains. In Underland he shows us, paradoxically, that ‘darkness might be a medium of vision’ too. ‘Force yourself to see more deeply,’ he urges. Underland helps us see new things without being worthy or dry. I learned about places, times and people – but I also experienced them.
‘It is more arduous to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned,’ Macfarlane quotes from Walter Benjamin. Underland looks deep in time, honouring those anonymous beings; things absorbed into the earth; buried memories wrapped in rock and water. Etymological explorations evoke Macfarlane’s regular ‘Word of the Day’ on Twitter, and his The Lost Words collaboration with artist Jackie Morris. Words too are surfacing after millennia of burial.
The chapter on Epping Forest was timely for me: I’m interested in meaningful networks and collaboration in a changing world, and I’ve been taking guidance from emerging research on forest networks. Underneath forest floors, there are fungal networks that enable trees to ‘talk’ to each other and work as a resilient system. Their mutually reinforcing way of working could be replicated in human systems, Macfarlane suggests. I’m enjoying exploring this. But the research seems ‘merely to provide a materialist evidence-base for what cultures of forest-dwelling peoples have known for thousands of years’ – that forests are collaborative and interconnected, and that we ignore this knowledge at our peril.
Macfarlane’s thoughtful, iridescent style means the book’s cold realities catch you by surprise – ‘Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.’ These facts balance the luminosity that surrounds them. Other facts are more peculiar: some rock is tidal and reacts to the pull of the moon. There are creatures that live in deep, lightless underground rivers. These findings feel like exotic treasures – or more suited to alien worlds.
Macfarlane meets physicists who search for dark matter. Like them, he works at the ‘boundary of the measurable and the imaginable.’ Nature writing is not only beauty, personal story, names – for as physicist Richard Feynman said, ‘knowing the name of something is not the same as knowing it.’ Underland is vast, cross-cutting, questioning. It offers signposts, connections. At times I had to surface for breath. Macfarlane describes how his own ‘sense of nature feels differently reckoned: further disturbed, further entangled.’ Mine does now, too. Underland is a journey; a witness; an invitation not just to protect our strange and life-giving earth but to be awed by it.
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