A few years ago, I received a small envelope courtesy of the British postal system and of the kind heart of a lovely English friend. It was the size of a greeting card but suspiciously puffy. I opened it quickly and in addition to a card filled with its own heartwarming message was a tiny book, perhaps 4 x 6 inches in size and just 34 pages long, titled The Gifts of Reading, by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a beautiful piece of writing about the bonds of friendship, the shared joy of reading, and about loss. This was my first encounter with Robert Macfarlane. Of course, I immediately looked him up. Short biographies tend to describe him as a “nature writer”, but there is so much more to him—and his latest work, Underland, is a stunning example of this.
I’ve had Underland on the bedside table in my room for months. I think I ordered it at about the same time as I began reading The Overstory, Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction. There’s a quality these books share that connected them in my mind. Something about the inverted symmetry of their subjects and titles; and something about their ambition—taking on gorgeous, complex narratives of stunning breadth, one fictional, the other not—but also, their inspired visions of miraculous, mysterious Earth: a place of birth, destruction, deep time, complexity and entanglement.
Reading Underland was a pleasure from the very first page. When I dug into it, it was with the intention of devouring it. But I soon slowed down. It’s such a rich work that it seemed best to patiently savour it all. It’s a big book that I lost myself in over many nights, and despite the fact that its subject matter at times is as much elegy as it is ode, reading it gave me great peace.
In the introductory pages of his book, Macfarlane describes how, in the underland:
“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what us valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.
Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives)
Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions)
Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets)
Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
It’s immediately apparent to the reader that the promise of Underland is not only documentary and scientific, but also poetic, lyrical and enveloping. The author’s exploration and description of the execution of these three tasks throughout history form the bones of the book. The reader is taken on a deep journey through time and across continents.
Thus are we introduced to the Mendip hills of Somerset England and their Bronze Age and Neolithic funeral barrows, and subterranean passages and caverns created by both nature and thousands of years of mining activity.
Macfarlane writes: “[…] We give bodies and their residues to the earth in part as a means of safekeeping. Burial often aspires to preservation –of memory, of matter—for time behaves differently in the underland, where it might be slowed or stayed.”
* * *
Then we are taken more than half a mile under the earth—undersea, in fact, off the coast of Boulby, Yorkshire—into the scantily lit tunnels of a potash mine, as Macfarlane races around in a jeep with a mine-safety specialist. Though this part of the book touches upon the theme of what the underland yields in a very concrete way, I will always remember it for the gorgeous, metaphysical detour it takes when Macfarlane introduces us to the laboratory of physicist Christopher Toth:
“More than half a mile under the earth, in a laboratory set into a band of translucent silver rock salt left behind by evaporation of an epicontinental northern sea some 250 million years earlier, a young physicist is trying to look into a void […] The physicist is searching for evidence of the shadowy presence at the heart of the universe [..].”
Christopher Toth is searching for what is named “dark matter”.
The science of dark matter is abstract and perhaps metaphysical—at least to a mind like mine—but the author seems comfortable in his conversations with the young physicist. In fact, some of the most poetic and spiritual insights of the book are found within the discussions between these two special humans.
Speaking of Toth, the author writes:
“It is a paradox of his work that in order to watch the stars he must descend far from the sun.
Sometimes, in the darkness you can see more clearly.”
Macfarlane’s explorations bring us next to the part of his book he calls “The understory” (mirroring and extending the world brought to life by Richard Powers’ in his novel, The Overstory, as well as the work of Peter Wohlleben), which takes the reader, in the company of Merlin Sheldrake, to the extraordinarily complex, wonderfully entangled realm of the “wood wide web”, or “underground social network”: a bustling community of mycorrhizal fungal species that link all species of trees, forming a non-hierarchical network of cooperation and community between numerous kinds of plants, to their mutual advantage.
From the lush, hidden life of the earth’s forests, Macfarlane makes a 180 degree turn, heading to Paris, where he has set his sights on what is perhaps the ultimate man-made underground web— the invisible city beneath Paris:
“Much of Paris was built from its own underland, hewn block by block from the bedrock and hauled up for dressing and placing. […] The residue of over 600 years of quarrying is that beneath the south of the upper city exists its negative image: a network of more than 200 miles of galleries, rooms and chambers, organized into three main regions that together spread beneath nine arrondissements. This network is the VIDES DES CARRIÈRES—the “quarry voids”, the “catacombs”.
Strangely divorced from the natural world, this section of the book lingered a long time in my mind, evoking the vivid, claustrophobic and vertigo-ridden experiences of the group of fearless adherents to a subculture of urban exploration who allowed Macfarlane’s entry into their hidden environment, acting as his guides and protectors.
The next part of Underland introduced me to the term described as: “a topography formed by the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum […] characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves.”
It is what’s known as karst.
The author explores a labyrinth of caves in the company of Lucian and Maria Carmen, a couple living outside Trieste, Italy, on the border of Slovenia, in an area where rises “a long elevated plateau of limestone known in Italian as Il Carso”. Underneath this area runs a river called the Reka in Slovenian, and the Timavo, in Italian, “a river of rapids and meanders that in places flows more than 1000 vertical miles below the light”, one of many starless rivers.
It is perhaps in this section of Underland that my general ignorance was most exposed, because I knew nothing of this area and its history. As Lucian explains to Robert Macfarlane:
“The Carso is […] the archetypal “underland” […]. Here we have caves, 10 000 caves, in which humans have lived, worshipped, healed, killed, sought protection from one another and from the world, wrought terrorism, and dug for ice. In prehistory, people built forts here—but they also retreated literally into the hillsides. The Romans constructed cave temples dedicated to the underground god Mithras […]”
Reading through this fascinating section of the book, I learned of the Italian and German soldiers who, during the First World War, dug trenches in the Carso, and enlarged caves for use as hospitals and munitions dumps. I learned of the many lives lost in battle during both World Wars and those between fascists and communists, as well as those lost by so many cave explorers…It was thus less surprising that the practice of Mithraism flourished here—a soldiers’ religion, a male religion in the caves.
In the last part of Underland, Macfarlane heads north, first to Norway, and finally, to the cryosphere of Greenland. The impressions left from this part of the book will always be of isolation and the harsh simplicity of survival in the coastal northern wilderness; the sense of community upon which survival depends; the whiteness of snow and ice caps; and the blue of sea, of sky and of ice as old as time. But these impressions will also always be dampened by what humans covet in the Arctic underland—what we wish it to yield to us, and what we dispose of deep within it.
In Norway, Macfarlane explores the painted rock art of the Kollhellaren caves—Bronze Age figurines that echo the prehistoric cave paintings of France and Northern Spain—before moving on to Andøya Island, in the Arctic Circle. There, he encounters fisherman Bjornar Nicolaisen, who shares with his guest his profound attachment to the sea and to a way of life tied so closely to the seasons and furies of nature; and who also shares the fears that eat away at his happiness, as Norway continues to rely on oil as the engine of its economy, determined that the marine underland continue to yield this precious resource—downplaying the risks and the damage done to marine life by seismic blasting and deep sea extraction.
Finally, we arrive with Macfarlane in Kulusuk, Greenland, a small settlement where he is met by Matt and Helen. This last part of Underland is certainly its most dazzling, and Macfarlane, whose lexicon of the natural world is so vast, is eloquent to the point of heartbreak, for he is there to witness the melting of the cryosphere.
During his stay in Greenland, the author is able to observe, up close, the melting of the ice caps, and to speak of Greenland as experiencing “unweather”, referring to the Arctic’s indigenous populations as “the precariat”. Blue is the emotional colour of this part of the book, and it is also the hue of the oldest ice in the world. In the author’s words:
“The colour of deep ice is blue, a blue unlike any other in the world—the blue of time.
The blue of time is glimpsed in the depths of crevasses.
The blue of time is glimpsed at the calving faces of glaciers, where bergs of 100 000 year-old ice surge to the surface of fjords far below the water level.
The blue of time is so beautiful that it pulls body and time towards it.”
At a time when some of us are aware of the nuclear waste buried in northern Russia during the Cold War on a US military base; and many know that under the icy surface of the Arctic, uranium and the rare earth minerals used in wind turbines, mobile phones, hybrid cars and lasers are found and are being extracted by means of open pit mining, Robert Macfarlane entreats us, in the last part of this wonderful book to see:
Ice as memory.
Ice as a substance that slows change, and reaches into both the future and the past.
Ice as something beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.
Ice as one of the most brilliant “conservatories”. Each bubble is a museum.
“Maybe this is among the best things that we can do,I think […] to be good ancestors.”
– Robert Macfarlane –
Articles that may be of interest to you:
“Robert Macfarlane and the Dark Side of Nature Writing”, New York Times