Underland by Robert MacFarlane – a fascinating passage into the underworlds.

Described by the Guardian as” A dazzling journey into deep time” this is a story about the worlds underground, which seems naturally more sinister in tone than his other books – perhaps because of the connotations with death, Hades and the spectres that haunt the underworld.

It delves deep, both physically and metaphorically. This is a book about deep time, the ways in which we bury our secrets, our past and our dead.

Divided into three sections: Seeing (Britain); Hiding (Europe) and Haunting (The North), with each break filled by a coda of sorts entitled burial Chamber 1, 2 or 3, MacFarlane’s book takes us on a journey across continents as he delves under the surface of our world. Even the structure of the book follows the path of our ancestors rituals with the dead – which makes it all the more fitting that the very first chapter is about Burial, as we journey with the writer and the poet Sean Borodale deep into the caving systems of the Mendip hills in the South West. 

The style of this chapter is echoed through the text – in almost every chapter we’re guided around with the writer as other individuals – some old friends, some experts in their field, impart their knowledge and observations about the worlds we inhabit. Like his other books, I came away with this with pages of notes on things I’d learned and things I plan on researching further, like the ways in which trees communicate with one another through the ‘Wood Wide Web’ and the science behind glaciology. 

Although it’s packed with fascinating snippets of information and many references to other pieces of literature, it’s also stylistically ‘moreish’, with MacFarlane’s lyrical prose an absolute delight. We are making this journey with him, receptacles for his personal experience. Many of the journeys, although beautiful, are terrifying in parts – particularly the navigating of the city underneath the streets of Paris, a symbol of rebelliousness and danger which almost kills him.  “I am in a vertical shaft and above me is a suspended wall of clay and earth, perhaps ten feet high, into which hundreds of human bones are embedded.”

“Fear slithers up my spine, spills greasy down my throat. Nothing for it but to follow. I lie flat, loop pack to foot, edge in head first. The clearance above is so tight that I again have to turn my skull sideways to proceed.”

The use of this extremely personal narrative voice gives pace and depth to the text, engaging the reader as we delight in the explorations. 

This is more a book about our relationship with the world, each adventure a jumping point for a more advanced commentary.  It’s a fitting book for our time, as it becomes increasingly more concerned with our relationship with the world around us. In the exploration of the starless rivers that are carved through the Julian Alps, MacFarlane relates how the karst landscape became the burial ground and hiding place for the bodies of those murdered in WWII. We are taken to ‘Hiding Place’ in Finland, where high-level nuclear waste is to be deposited, where a tomb is being built as an experiment of post-human architecture. One of the most moving sections of the book is where he visits Kollhellaren, the site of cave paintings in Norway, a place described as one of the thinnest between epochs where MacFarlane is overcome by the emotion of being in such a place where “Here in the shadows, space and time spill into one another.” 

The glaciers in Greenland are so magnificent, they get two chapters. Ice is the star here, described in such detail, its beauty, its power and how it holds the secrets of the past “Ice has a memory. It remembers in detail and it remembers for a million years or more…Ice has been consistent in its technology over millions of years…” I found this the most interesting exploration – perhaps because I’ve never seen a glacier but have always been fascinated by the idea of ice and what it buries. The notion of how “the colour of deep ice is blue – the blue of time” left me reeling for a while. 

It seems very fitting then that the book ends by allowing us to come up for air, with the last chapter entitled ‘Surfacing’. Here, MacFarlane is back home with his son, exploring the spot where nine springs flow from the bedrock. The final lines are of human contact, as he puts his palm to that of his son, marking how “his skin strange as stone against mine.”, an image that recalls the depths of time in the book – the world carved out in rock underneath us, the cave paintings in Norway and the explorations of Parisian catacombs. We are all connected by our past which lies in the rock underneath our feet.

 

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