In his eagerly awaited new book, Robert Macfarlane muses on the worlds beneath our feet. Abridged for radio by Katrin Williams.
In this the Anthropocene Age, life underground is ecologically and delicately poised... And then he recalls a vivid cave journey in the Mendips, with his friend Sean - "The entry is awkward, a body-bending downwards wriggle before a drop..."
Signs, symbols and markings fascinate Macfarlane and he is obsessed by the way words and stories can carry knowledge across generations and cultures. His book The Lost Words: A spell book (2017), co-authored with the artist Jackie Morris, sought to save common nature words from extinction. He hoped that by being spoken aloud or sung, the poems would summon up love for the living world and help to conserve it. In Underland he makes an arduous journey to an isolated seacave where the walls have faint, Bronze Age paintings of human figures. He has no idea what the figures represent and notes that visual artefacts become inscrutable when oral or written knowledge is lost. Later, inside a storage chamber at Onkalo, he observes that the bare walls are covered in “numbers, pictograms, lines, arrows and other codes I cannot decipher, as remote in their meanings to me as the Bronze Age dancing figures”.
The English nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s new book, “Underland: A Deep Time Journey,” has a title that evokes a burrowing theme park ride or an IMAX movie, and indeed, like Alice in Wonderland or Orpheus in the underworld, down we go.... While I did not wish “Underland,” at nearly 500 pages, to be longer, and while I would rather attend a meeting of Groucho Marx and S.J. Perelman’s West Side Writing and Asthma Club than go spelunking to the center of the earth, this is an excellent book — fearless and subtle, empathic and strange. It is the product of real attention and tongue-and-groove workmanship.
Underland is, as its title suggests, “a book about burial and unburial and deep time”, “the awful darkness inside the world”, “of descents made in search of knowledge”, to study the places where “we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save”. If fear is a constant companion on such journeys, for the reader at home there are many pleasures, most notably the armchair exploration of a far more benign landscape: the interior of Macfarlane’s magnificently well-furnished mind. For the darkly tangled path this book takes through the labyrinth of history and memory, literature and landscape, high-flown prose and underworldly observation are illuminated by Macfarlane’s inventive way with language. At its best, this has an epic, incantatory quality. There is a rare gift at work here: chiselled prose of such beauty that it can, on occasion, illuminate the darkness below ground as startlingly as a Verey light sent up into the vaults of one of Macfarlane’s subterranean stalactite cathedrals.
He can be careless with facts. He ticks Philip Larkin off for being over-hopeful when he says (in An Arundel Tomb): “What will survive of us is love”. But a glance at the text would have told him that the poem says no such thing. As for natural beauty, readers who value that will have to make do with the intervals that Macfarlane spends above ground. When he emerges on the Yorkshire moors after a day in the dark, for example, a lark shoots up a yard or two in front of him, and he puts his hand down into the hollow from which it has flown, “in time to catch the trace warmth of its body before the cold steals it away”. For me, that sentence is worth all the rest of the book.
Macfarlane is effective and compelling in his reflective stance, turning the experience of the underland outwards to us, offering deeper and more shifting ideas about our world. “Time feels differently reckoned” after going underground: “further deepened, further folded”...
Combining a wish “for a language that recognises and advances the animacy of the world” with an engaged and often humorous vision of the interconnectedness of things, this is a book of deep wisdom and touching humanity.
Underland has been more than six years in the writing, and you can tell. It is carefully considered, so that physically, emotionally, intellectually, Macfarlane entirely fills the dark and rocky spaces in which the book dwells: the ambition is huge, aiming no less than to establish another dimension in which to encounter existence, but it is also honest in its failings and uncertainties... This is as deep as topography gets, a materialising of the immaterial. It would be difficult to imagine a richer or more stirring response to the strange landscapes hidden beneath us.
All the secret spaces in this remarkable book offer new ways of being and relating: not only to its author, but for the fortunate reader too. Macfarlane – still only in his early 40s – has for the past 15 years been at the forefront of a re-engagement with the ways in which we think about landscape and the human inhabitation of landscape... [T]hroughout there is the grace of his language. The poetry is in the precision, in the way he matches rhythm to place and action. Across that Norwegian terrain he moves “through a bay with rocks as big as houses, navigating a canyon maze between them. Pop of wrack, kelp slicks.” Lying on the floor of Epping Forest and looking up into sunlight, he notes the “slender running gaps” between the crowns of the trees; a terrifyingly narrow passage in the catacombs recalls Colin’s plight in The Weirdstone: “Claustrophobia grips me like a full-body vice, pressing in on my chest and lungs, squeezing breath hard, setting black stars exploding in my head”. Underland is a startling and memorable book, charting invisible and vanishing worlds. Macfarlane has made himself Orpheus, the poet who ventures down to the darkest depths and returns – frighteningly alone – to sing of what he has seen.
The book’s settings are various. But in all of them darkness, discomfort and danger provide the decor. Such is the intensity of Macfarlane’s prose that the negative becomes the positive, the subterranean turns into the quotidian, the creatures of the blackness just go about their routines and the exceptional is the rule. The result is that when Macfarlane writes about his fellow explorers in their homes on the surface of the earth they acquire a peculiar exoticism... Underland is a moral hymn to the strangeness of existence and a sharp warning not to take anything for granted.
The book is configured as a journey into an underground labyrinth, which the author leads the reader into through “the riven trunk of an old ash tree”. We exit, utterly, beautifully changed, more than 400 pages later, through a chalk spring bubbling up in a Cambridgeshire wood...As usual with Macfarlane, Underland is as much about the people he meets as the places he visits. He has a remarkable gift for bringing these charismatic eccentrics to life, whether it’s an urban explorer under the Seine, a physicist with a penchant for subterranean joyriding, or a brilliantly bonkers mycologist. At one point, a taciturn potholer in the Carso, Sergio, offers up a halting explanation of why he seeks to map the underland: “Here in the abyss we make… romantic science.” It’s a fitting description of this extraordinary book, at once learned and readable, thrilling and beautifully written.
An affecting coda has him return to Cambridge, where he and his four-year-old son visit the chalk springs in Nine Wells woods on the edge of town. “My son and I talk quietly about nothing much. We feel small in the universe, and together.” Their palms meet, in an image intended to echo one of the book’s opening images, of the prehistoric hand-marks left by the earliest humans in the caves of Lascaux, which has him imagine “laying my own palm precisely against the outline left by those unknown makers”.
The image teeters at the brink of cliché, but the writing is too thoughtful, too finely honed to succumb to the temptations of the merely picturesque. I turned the last page with the unusual conviction of having been in the company of a fine writer who is – who must surely be – a good man.
[E]arly on in Robert Macfarlane’s book Underland there seemed plenty to justify my fear that a lot of it would be artful communing-with-myself-in-nature mysticism. Macfarlane, after all, has the difficult job of living up to his reputation as a hefty writer on the connection between the exterior and interior worlds... [F]or all Macfarlane’s occasional self-indulgence, for all that the book is 50 pages too long, for all that it tries too hard sometimes to impress, I ended up loving it. He converted me. The author’s neverending curiosity, his lack of self-pity, his generosity of spirit, his erudition, his bravery and — when he writes directly — his clarity had me by the end. Cave by cave, subterranean river by hidden tunnel, buried isotope by melting ice floe, he got to me. There are simply wonderful chapters here, combining a command of natural and human history, a love of places and names, and the significant capacity to get to these places... So this is a book well worth reading, and if you’re quarrelsome, like me, worth persisting with.
Macfarlane is often an engaging companion, sounding off about new scientific theories, or amazing me with his ability to thread together disparate facts to reach startling conclusions... The numerous people he meets on his journeys, whether as guides or their spouses, children (and a cat even), are all imbued with a wisdom and roundness of character that marks them out as irritatingly exceptional human beings. Perhaps Macfarlane is naturally enthusiastic about people but it gets a bit dubious after a while... It’s a shame Macfarlane doesn’t follow the example of one of his heroes, the Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies, and leave himself out of the frame a bit more. I admire his values and his gusto but find his company wearying over the long haul.
There’s an earnest energy, a striving to name and place, an aptitude for rapture, which can in its very accuracy, create a slight tonal monotony, especially in the book’s third section. Sometimes Macfarlane’s descriptions merely highlight the drama of his own perfectly executed search for the right word or phrase.
But it is a style which forces a re-engagement with landscape and one’s apprehension of it. All Macfarlane’s books are urgings to take a closer look at the environment we live in, and at the natural world especially. They are perception-shifters. And with its darker, delving subject-matter counterweighing its lyricism, Underland is a magnificent feat of writing, travelling and thinking that feels genuinely frontier-pushing, unsettling and exploratory.
This enchanting new book takes us on a bewitching journey into the hidden worlds beneath our feet, from the Somerset Mendips, and Epping Forest, to the catacombs of Paris, Slovenian karst country and the sea caves of Norway. As we travel through geological time, from Bronze Age funeral chambers to the places we hide our nuclear waste, Macfarlane probes our human notions of darkness and burial, and while we're down there, wreaks a revelatory change of perspective on us, from the horizontal way we customarily look at the world to a vertical one.