Robert Macfarlane
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
Penguin, Hamish Hamilton 2019
ISBN 0-241-14380-3

Robert Macfarlane writes in the introduction to this quite extraordinary work that although we spend a lot of time gazing at and thinking about the sky, the stars, what’s overhead, we seldom if ever think about the worlds below our feet. Macfarlane opens up those worlds, each chapter a meditation on different spaces in the underworld, from caves in the Mendips to a deep burial site for nuclear waste in Norway.

In the chapter “Invisible Cities,” about the Paris catacombs, he describes a work by Walter Benjamin, an “unfinished meditation” on Paris. He writes that its form “may be compared to a constellation or galaxy, the individual stars of which he drew together over more than a decade, collecting notes, quotations, aphorisms, stories and reflections.” Much of the same could be said of this work, although it is certainly not incomplete and has enormous power as its fragmentary narrative comes together as a whole. His narratives encompass the beginning of time and potentially its end, as he meditates in the final chapter: “At Boulby [where scientists search for Dark Matter] then encased xenon in lead in copper in iron in halite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to see back to the birth of the universe. At Onkalo [where they bury nuclear waste] they encased uranium in zirconium in iron in copper in bentonite in hundreds of yards of rock in order to keep the future safe from the present.”

His style is poetic, often almost incantatory, and over the course of the book he allows us to feel how awe-inspiringly alien and powerful the world of the underland is and at the same time how fragile. It is hard to choose a “most extraordinary” of all the extraordinary stories. I was captivated by the notion of a World Wood Web: the connecting tissue of fungus that joins woods and forests and allows them to share nourishment (and perhaps memory). Also fascinating was the story of the “urban explorers”: groups of probably crazy climbers and cavers who map and explore the subterranean tunnels of cities. So many images capture the imagination: the story of the catacombs under Odessa where even the hardened and experienced explorer of Paris feared to go, especially dangerous, she said, for a woman. The whisper of “dark matter.” The notion of “nuclear semiotics”: a mini-think-tank of people trying to find the best way to warn explorers in a future unimaginably far forward in time not to open the vault in which is stored the most radioactive of the world’s radioactive waste, enough that were it to explode it would destroy the world 30 times over. How do you say “do not touch” to the future, especially when so many of our myths are about opening that forbidden box?

All his stories are layered with other stories: myths, works of literature, true stories of climbers or cavers or explorers or scientists. He writes of the difficulty of writing about the impossible changes and loss brought about in our present era, the Anthropocene, commenting that it is perhaps best imagined as “an epoch of loss – of species, places and people – for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.” He offers hope in human relationships, in shared goals, in storytelling. This is a powerful and beautiful book, in some way an elegy for our time; let us hope it will last through to a more hopeful epoch than ours.