Underland by Robert Macfarlane

So often I seem to end the year with a stupendous read, and this most ghastly 2020 is no different. And once again I am faced with a book that is so immense that I am unsure how to write about it – but I will try!

The book in question is “Underland” by Robert Macfarlane, and it’s received so many plaudits that I feel slightly humbled trying to decide what to say about it. I first read Macfarlane back in 2013 when I failed to completely gel with his “The Old Ways”; I now wonder if it was right book, wrong time and fortunately I kept it so am very keen now to revisit it (particularly after listening to the Backlisted Christmas edition on “The Dark is Rising”). More recently I read his pamphlet “The Gifts of Reading” which brought me great joy; so when I heard about “Underland” I was of course very keen to read it; but I held off until the paperback came out, and then got a copy earlier this year. I was waiting for the right time to read the book, and this was certainly it.

Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue.

Macfarlane’s writing is actually difficult to categorise (which I like); it encompasses nature, travel, science, history, people, the world… well, you get the picture. This book ranges far and wide and digs deeply into life and history on our small blue green planet. “Underland” takes as its premise the exploration of what lies beneath our feet; we consider that we are in solid ground, never particularly thinking on a daily basis about the earth upon which we stand. However, as Macfarlane proves with his explorations, our grounding is anything but stable…

Cities have long been vertical. When Christopher Wren excavated the foundations of the Old Saint Paul’s after the Great Fire he found a row of Anglo-Saxon graves lined with chalk-stones, beneath which were pre-Saxon Coffins holding ivory and wooden shroud pins. At a still greater depth were Roman potsherds and cremation urns, red as sealing wax and embellished with greyhounds and stags, and beneath those were the periwinkles and other seashells that spoke of the ocean that had once covered the area.

And those explorations are incredibly wide-ranging; channelling sources from Calvino to Don De Lillo, Macfarlane discovers what is hidden but always there, and it can be unnerving at times. He visits deep and distant cave systems; discovers cave paintings by beings who lived on this planet thousands of years before us; explores parts of the Paris Catacombs never seen by casual visitors; and reveals the fungal systems under the surface ground which tie together plant lives in ways we have only just begun to understand. He travels to extreme landscapes of the north, witnessing the changes taking place to the frozen parts of our world, much of which is below our sight line but which affects our world deeply; and chillingly, he witnesses the steps needing to be taken to ensure our ancestors are not left with a buried time bomb…

It’s hard, without just throwing superlatives about, to convey just how deeply profound “Underland” is; Macfarlane is dealing here with things far beyond the human scale. The planet records and recalls events from deep time, whether coded into ice or into rocks; and if you know the language (as many of those he encounters do), you can read back far beyond written history. “Underland” gives you the sense of being a tiny blip in an epically long history; its scope is immense and the book is not just about going underground in the sense of lifting the turf; this is really deep exploration, under ice, land and sea, and Macfarlane visits places to which few have been. I have to say how much I admire his grit; as a claustrophobe, I would struggle with many of the small spaces into which he has to squeeze and he is honest enough to admit feeling uncomfortable when he’s in situations which had me squirming just reading about them!

Paris Catacombs (Dale Cruse from San Francisco, CA, USA, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are important issues to expound upon here, and Macfarlane being the man he is, there is of course exploration of ecological aspects. He never lays things on with a trowel, but there is no doubt from his discussion of our treatment of the planet and the effects on it long term that we are at a serious point in human history. Just about everywhere he travels, Macfarlane encounters human waste – plastics in the sea, unwanted dross dumped over cliffs – and it’s depressing to hear about this.

Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

Macfarlane’s observations about the melting ice, underground mining for all manner of resources and what this is doing to the Earth are actually scary in places and made me want to drop everything and go out and join Greta Thunberg in her campaigning.  The effects of the oil industry on the planet are particularly shocking; even though I was aware of the problems being caused, the book pushes this firmly into focus so you can’t ignore it. The contrasts between Macfarlane’s exploration of natural underlands and the hellish man-made places designed for nuclear waste are striking. We really *do* seem to want to destroy this lovely little planet, don’t we?

Urban exploration might be best defined as adventurous trespass in the built environment. Among the requirements for participation are claustrophilia,  lack of vertigo, a taste for decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a readiness to climb fences and lift the manhole covers, and a familiarity with the varying laws of access across different jurisdictions.

However, despite the heavier elements of the book, it’s an engrossing read from start to finish. Just following Macfarlane’s journeys (which I believe took place over a period of ten years) is breathtaking enough; he captures the landscapes, underground regions and peoples he meets vividly, glimpsing the beauty and terror which can found on Earth, and he is always human and humane in his encounters. It’s a work which which emphasises our connection with all aspects of the world around us; as Macfarlane points out at one point, “We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well of the land. It is mineralization – the ability to convert calcium into bone – that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.”

Greenland Ice Sheet (Christine Zenino from Chicago, US, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

An additional element is that the book is so beautifully written; eloquent and elegant, Macfarlane’s prose shimmers off the page and is eminently readable. Profound, compelling and unforgettable, “Underland” is an epic work of exploration and scholarship (and I’ve really only scratched the surface here); it will most likely change your relationship with our planet (it has mine). “Underland” will definitely feature in my Books of the Year round-up and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


As a coda, I thought I would point you towards the Christmas Day edition of the wonderful Backlisted Podcast. As I mentioned above, Robert Macfarlane was one of the guests on this edition, discussing “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper, a book I first read longer ago than I would care to acknowledge. Backlisted is always joyous listening and this is a particularly fine episode; and it was perfect company just after finishing “Underland”, as it seems that Cooper’s book informs Macfarlane’s work… You can find it here – if you’re a regular listener you’re in for a treat. If you’re not a regular listener  why not?????