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 we ourselves have become sediments, strata and ghosts. It asks that we imagine a single figure: a hypothetical post-human geologist who—millions of years into the future, long after the extinction of our species—will examine the underland for what it reveals of the epoch of anthropos.
Macfarlane has been hailed as the foremost British “nature writer” of his time, although the term suggests something too precious to encompass his robust and often hazardous journeys. But the lyrical intensity of his writing places him in a long British tradition, from the naturalist priest Gilbert White and the near-mystic Richard Jefferies to the poet Edward Thomas and on to Roger Deakin and J.A. Baker, whose The Peregrine has become something of a stylistic touchstone for a later generation. Yet Macfarlane falls as easily into the American lineage of Thoreau and John Muir, along with Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, and the Arctic writings of Barry Lopez, whose work, he writes elsewhere, “changed the course of my life.”
He has absorbed those influences into a rich vernacular of his own. In passages of euphoria or stress (there are many), his sentences break into verbless fragments, like splashes of color. Only rarely is the intensity of his description such that the words call attention chiefly to themselves.
Macfarlane has already written four major books (while holding a teaching post at Cambridge University)—books that foreshadow many of Underland’s preoccupations. The Old Ways and The Wild Places explore wilderness and ancient paths, mainly in Britain, and Landmarks recovers a whole lexis of near-lost words descriptive of nature, from their origins in Gaelic to Old Norse (dimpsey is a Cornish and Devonshire word for drizzling cloud, zwer for the noise of partridges ascending). Underland shares with these works an absorption in both topography and literature, but it is a stranger, more foreboding, and grander achievement: the “darkest book I’ve ever written,” he writes, “and probably ever will write.”
He has never favored the obvious destination, and among his chosen sites the reader will look in vain for the great cave complexes of Postojna or the Eisriesenwelt, let alone the Carlsbad Caverns. His fascination is aroused by more taxing, less frequented places, which he often explores in the company of local obsessives or experts. In the karst country of northeast Italy, where rainwater has riddled the porous limestone into deep labyrinths, the underground Timavo river can be reached via a collapsed sinkhole, and here he descends a thousand near-vertical feet into the so-called Abyss of Trebiciano by shaky ladders and precarious footholds, to arrive at last in a riverscape of subterranean cliffs and black sand dunes.
This is perfect cavers’ country. It spreads into Slovenia in a tumult of razor peaks and forested valleys, and opens on underground networks that may travel for miles. In spring it shimmers with wildflowers. But from 1943 to 1945 the region became the theater of conflict between Fascist and Communist partisans, complicated by Catholic activists and local vendettas. The clefts and sinkholes filled up with the massed victims of reprisals, civilians and militia alike. The entire terrain—honeycombed as it is with natural or man-made tunnels, gun-emplacements, arsenals, graves—seems complicit in horror.
To travel here in innocence has become impossible. You walk with the same torn feelings as you might through the atrocious beauty of Kolyma, where the ghosts of vanished Gulags—the cruelest in Russia—extend through snow-smoothed mountains with an illusion of purity. Only a powerful sense of nature’s replenishment can alleviate this past. “To read such a place [as Slovenia] only for its dark histories,” Macfarlane writes, “is to disallow its possibilities for future life, to deny reparation or hope—and this is another kind of oppression.”
Paris lies above a darker metropolis that mirrors it underground, as if reflecting one of Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” Macfarlane notes that all cities require extraction—from quarries, mines, forest—and the extraction of limestone beneath Paris started almost a thousand years ago. Eventually, it undermined the structures above, and in 1774, in the aptly named Rue d’Enfer, a sudden subsidence engulfed streets, houses, carts, and people en masse. So mapping and regulation followed, together with the recognition that here was a vast underground storage space.
The objects consigned to it were human corpses. For decades the Parisian cemeteries, whose topsoil had mounted ever higher above the putrefying dead, had been spreading infection and alarm. In 1780 cadavers spilled through the cellar walls of a house beside the Saints-Innocents cemetery near Les Halles—a graveyard containing literally millions of bodies—and it was decided to transfer the dead to quarries then outside the city limits. For years the funereal clop of horse-drawn wagons bearing the nameless skeletons was heard nightly through the city streets, accompanied by torch-bearers and chanting priests, and down in the receiving quarries the bones were sorted and arranged in walls sometimes sixteen feet high, where they may still be seen. Beyond an entrance inscribed “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort” now lies the cargo of more than 150 transferred cemeteries.
Not for Macfarlane, of course, are the areas of the catacombs open to tourists. Most of the quarry complex—two hundred miles of tunnels and chambers—was officially closed in 1955, but they have since become the playground of a demi-monde of cataphiles, lovers of the below, drawn here by the lure of adopting other identities, by petty crime or anarchic partying.
Macfarlane enters this realm through a ragged hole in a disused railway tunnel. His guide is an illicit urban explorer and photographer, passionate about her invisible city. For four days underground they march and crawl through its maze. She is strangely infallible. There is a map in her head. Sometimes they edge through tunnels so constricting that they must pull their backpacks behind them, looped to their ankles, and wedge their heads sideways. It is a claustrophobe’s nightmare. Macfarlane imagines people strolling or sipping their café au lait a few yards above him. Once the rock vibrates with a passing train, and once he moves across a cleft where the dead have been disgorged again in an avalanche of bones. Abandoned bunkers or a stony cubicle offer him exhausted sleep. At the end of this saga, in a surreal denouement, he arrives in a communal chamber where cataphiles are partying to the beats of David Bowie and The Jam.
There are limits to Macfarlane’s esteem for urban exploration, with its aura of maverick entitlement, yet much of it intrigues him:
At the avant-garde of urban exploration are the infiltrators, the “real” explorers, who tend to be more stimulated by systems and networks than by single sites, and who cherish the challenge involved in accessing super-secure locations…. They are obsessives: they develop tunnel vision. They run tracks in the brief gaps between trains, they take dinghies down storm drains, they lift-surf—and occasionally they die. At its more political fringes, urban exploration mandates itself as a radical act of disobedience and liberation: a protest against state constraints on freedom within the city.
With the Californian “space-hacker” Bradley Garrett, he slips through security gates and drops down London manholes. They follow the underground Fleet River, trespass into the dried vaults of a Victorian reservoir, and descend into an abandoned Welsh slate quarry where locals have dropped their defunct cars seventy feet into a flooded chamber. In Budapest, Macfarlane glimpses underwater the entrance to a monumental labyrinth of mines and natural caves submerged beneath the city.
Characteristically, he wonders what sign of our civilization will remain in the rock strata:
Over millions of years, the inland megacities of Delhi and Moscow will largely erode into sands and gravels, to be spread by wind and water into unreadable expanses of desert. The coastal cities of New York and Amsterdam, those claimed soonest by the rising sea levels, will be packed more carefully into soft-settling sediments. It is the invisible cities—the undercities—that will be preserved most cleanly, embedded as they already are within bedrock…. The subways and the sewerage systems, the catacombs and the quarry voids—these may preserve their integrity far into a post-human future.
Most of Macfarlane’s more striking journeys seek out sites and histories far removed from the interstices of urban life. The Mendip Hills of England’s West Country are sprinkled with Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows, Roman coal mines, and medieval cemeteries. Human burial, of course, is central to Underland, and this region of sepulchral limestone becomes a natural spur to his reflection. The earliest evidence of respect toward the dead, he believes, dates from 300,000 years ago, when South Africa’s Homo naledi, a long-extinct relative of modern humans, chose to inter their corpses.
He marvels at ancient tombs less for their burial riches than for the care, even tenderness, they reveal. He writes of a young woman and her tiny son laid to rest six thousand years ago in northern Europe, both dead in childbirth, the baby lying in her arms on a white swan’s wing. Some twenty millennia earlier, on a hillside grave above today’s Danube, two other stillborn babies, swaddled in animal skins, rest sheltered from the oppressive earth under the scapula of a woolly mammoth. In fourth-century BC Thessaly, a woman is interred with instructions for safe passage to the underworld, etched in a gold amulet on her breast: “You will find on the right in Hades’ halls a spring, and by it stands a ghostly cypress-tree, where the dead souls descending wash away their lives. Do not even draw nigh this spring.”
Macfarlane allows himself the wry suggestion that the dead sometimes evoke more tenderness than the living. In the Mendip Hills charnel-house now named Aveline’s Hole, the ten-thousand-year-old skeletons of generations of hunter-gatherers were found scattered promiscuously about. They betrayed a people small and malnourished. Yet these hungry wanderers, writes Macfarlane, had carried the bodies of their dead to this difficult place, and entombed them with precious objects.
Some of these dead entered a curious immortality. Their bones have been half engulfed by calcified rock. One was absorbed into a stalactite. It is the kind of fluidity that fascinates Macfarlane: the interaction between mineral and organic life. When he descends a Mendip sinkhole to a subterranean waterfall, the calcified waves of rock seem about to resume their flow. “When viewed in deep time,” he writes, “things come alive that seemed inert…. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.”
He recounts a pleasant dream of being engulfed by a blue moss that grows from within him, and while visiting a potassium mine he playfully imagines living out the Anthropocene age embalmed in translucent rock-salt. The limestone that encloses so many human dead, he notes, is itself composed of past life—the compressed bodies of marine organisms—and these, in deep time, will supply the calcium carbonate from which new organisms will emerge, energizing a new cycle of death and life.
In a generously emotional book—Macfarlane often shows joy, fear, occasionally great sadness—his most poignant journey, significantly, is taken alone. The Lofoten archipelago in Norway extends southwestward for over ninety miles in a thin curve of precipitous mountains, ending—almost—at the village whimsically named Å. Beyond here, Lofoten’s massif raises a final, two-thousand-foot barrier where any road ends.
Few would want to follow Macfarlane in winter across this Lofoten Wall, which he negotiates for a tense day with crampons and ice-axe before descending to his goal: a long-abandoned prehistoric cave. Several such remote and sea-battered caves scatter the western coasts of Norway. Painted some three thousand years ago, they are recent by prehistoric standards, for when the great cave-galleries of southern Europe were inhabited, this region lay beneath the glaciers of the last Ice Age. Almost always the same motifs inscribe the walls: isolated figures in red iron oxide. In the near darkness, Macfarlane at first sees nothing. But then, as if his eyes had learned their language, he descries stick figures, one after another, striding or dancing across the rock. In this awesome loneliness, they occupy a transition zone between daylight and Earth’s blackness. This, perhaps, was an initiation site: a “thin place” in the Celtic tradition, Macfarlane feels, where the barrier between past and present starts to fray. Outside the cave, blizzards are forming, and just offshore revolves the terrible Moskstraumen Maelstrom, which inspired the fictional whirlpools of Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. But inside, in the dissolved time of the ritual cave, Macfarlane feels an awed convergence with its dancing figures, as if their painters pressed toward him through the stone, and finds himself weeping.
A sense of fluid and invisible energy is intimated earlier in the book, when he visits the potassium mine that tunnels far under Yorkshire and the North Sea. Here he meets a young physicist working in a laboratory deep enough underground to limit atmospheric interference. The scientist is seeking evidence of the phantom mass in the universe, the “dark matter” that can only be inferred by its action on visible phenomena. This elusive mass is known quaintly as WIMPs (weakly interacting massive particles). Macfarlane writes:
WIMPs traverse our livers, skulls and guts in their trillions each second. Neutrinos fly through the Earth’s crust, mantle and solid iron-nickel core without touching a single atom as they go. To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork. The great challenge faced by physicists has been how to compel such elusive particles to interact with experiments; how to weave a net that might catch these quick fish.
Such phenomena appeal to Macfarlane’s sense of the permeability of matter. One of his happiest chapters focuses on the discovery in the 1990s that trees interact underground by a dense fungal network that—far from being harmful—creates a mutualism in which plants nourish one another. So the concept of a forest can change from a free-for-all competition to an organism more collaborative and communal.
The final sections of Underland move into the Arctic Circle, to Greenland and Finland, and it is here that Macfarlane encounters most closely the ecological impact of the Anthropocene. His evocation of the glacial floes and shape-shifting icebergs is dark with the knowledge of their vulnerability. Yet the vast insouciance of this land, he feels, renders it indescribable: “Ice left language beached.” And black ice in particular—the compacted ice formed from millennial compression—induces a kind of nausea.
After he sees a giant glacier splitting, his language comes to life in a flood of potent images. The first block has fallen from the glacier’s face before he and his companions turn to look, and then an enormous white train seems to be driving out of its wall before plunging into the water, and it pulls white wagons after it, followed by the semblance of a cathedral and a whole fracturing city:
We shout and step backwards involuntarily at the force of the event, even though it is occurring a mile away from us, and we call out to each other in the silence before the roar reaches us, even though we are only a few yards from each other, and then all of the hundreds of thousands of tons of that ice-city collapse into the water of the fjord, creating an impact wave forty or fifty feet high.
Then, he adds, something terrible happens. A submerged, black pyramid of ancient, compacted ice rears up from the water as high as the glacier itself, a shape as hard as meteorite, and he and the others are dancing and shouting, “appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced.”
This ominous collapse resonates into the penultimate chapter of Underland, in which Macfarlane arrives at Onkalo, which means “hiding place,” in southwest Finland. Onkalo’s 1,500-foot-deep chambers and tunnels, the most advanced facility of their kind, are being built to receive the discarded fuel rods from nuclear reactors: 6,500 tons of spent uranium. Its managers have not strained to invent warnings of its lethal presence to a notional future. They trust the millennia of forests and glaciers to cover all trace of it.
But Macfarlane quotes Don DeLillo’s mordant warning: “What we excrete comes back to consume us.” It comes back, notoriously, in the monstrous scale of rising oceans and drying mountains—the ebb of Himalayan glaciers that threatens to starve millions—in methane gases leaking out of melted permafrost, and in grisly or threatening outbreaks that are lesser known: anthrax spores from the thawed corpses of reindeer, soldiers’ bodies unfrozen from their Alpine warfare a century ago.
Our failed responsibility toward nature is echoed by the failure of our language—itself an anthropocentric force. Macfarlane yearns for “a language that recognizes and advances the animacy of the world,” a grammar no longer embedded exclusively in human agency, but able to reflect the behavior of ice or of the forest underground. The speech of Native Americans preoccupies him, with its idioms that vivify landscapes passive to other eyes.
Whatever this may suggest, his dedication to words has in the past been less a search for new-minted concepts than the recovery of old ones. His Landmarks, with its two-thousand-word glossaries, was followed by an influential children’s book called The Lost Words, which restores and celebrates nouns recently dropped from The Oxford Junior Dictionary (bluebell, otter, blackberry, adder, kingfisher, etc.). Underland itself imports a rich vocabulary of the unfamiliar: curtilage, kist, sary, jabble, zawn, sinter, gimbal…
Macfarlane is gifted with qualities often mutually exclusive: the physical hardiness of travel, the sensitivity to evoke it, and a talent for scientific elucidation. Literary and classical learning cohabit with the interpretation of nuclear fission and trace fossils. At times his writing ascends to a kind of forensic poetry. Although he chronicles to devastating effect the onslaught of our species on the planet, Underland goes far beyond the normal lament of a sensitive ecologist. The visionary perspectives that he evokes, earned from his own hard journeys, create a fusion of exhilaration, foreboding, and enchantment. Underland may be his masterpiece.