Our Guide to the Underworld

A potash mine, Berezniki, Russia
Edward Burtynsky/Kino Lorber
A potash mine, Berezniki, Russia; from Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a documentary film by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky, 2017

There is an old mistrust, even a primeval fear, of what lies underground. The preference for height over depth, light over darkness, is embedded in our language. Rising is preferable to falling, high spirits to low, enlightenment to depression. Robert Macfarlane’s remarkable Underland: A Deep Time Journey celebrates an ambivalent love affair with the subterranean. The underland, he writes, holds what we wish to extract or protect, as well as what we would conceal or lay to rest. He approaches it with both excitement and misgiving. At the nerve center of his book is our relationship to the subterranean Earth in “deep time.” Grounded in lightly worn scientific knowledge, it is imbued with the intensity of personal experience. Underland ranges from exacting journeys through subterranean landscapes of rock and stream to reflections on the buried life of trees, the ice floes of Greenland, and the Paris catacombs, and to what humankind is bequeathing to posterity.

In one striking passage, Macfarlane wonders how future generations, many millennia hence, may be warned away from opening the tombs of radioactive waste left underground by our primitive age. The US Environmental Protection Agency has been charged with resolving this. But uranium-235, currently used for nuclear power plants, has a half-life of over four billion years. What systems of language or signs or architecture will the Earth’s inhabitants (if there are any) by that time understand? Committees of geologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, graphic artists, astronomers, linguists, ethicists, and others have been put to work, but no convincing solution has emerged.

Such long-term perspectives pervade a book that largely revels in the phenomena of the natural world. What signature, it asks, will be left by our Anthropocene age, the age of Earth’s transformation by humans? A stratum of plastic? A radioactive trap? The fossil trace of murdered species? In the rallying cry of the immunologist Jonas Salk: “Are we being good ancestors?”

The question arises naturally from the “deep time” of the book’s subtitle, to which Macfarlane constantly returns. The concept, to him, implies an imaginative consciousness of the vast stretches of time not only before, but after, our own: time exemplified not simply in rock strata and compacted ice, but in a future imagined up to the era—five billion years hence—when the sun will burn itself out. He writes:

But to think ahead in deep time runs against the mind’s grain…. Beyond a hundred years even generating a basic scenario for individual life or society becomes difficult, let alone extending compassion across much greater reaches of time towards the unborn inhabitants of worlds-to-be….

The Anthropocene requires us to undertake a retrospective reading of the current moment, however—a “palaeontology of the present” in which…

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