Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane
496 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $28.
No review can begin to do justice to something as sublime as “Underland”. This is probably the best book on nature and the environment that I’ve ever read. It reportedly took Macfarlane six and a half years to write “Underland” and it shows.
The depth of research (pun intended) and environments in which Macfarlane immersed himself in order to write authoritatively on this subject is mind blowing. And as the title makes clear, the subject is the very ground beneath our feet.
Along the way, the reader is treated to all sorts of fascinating insights — the fact, for example, that we know less about what lies beneath us than we know about what’s up above. The little bit we know about the stars and the planets in our galaxy still surpasses our knowledge of what our very earth holds.
Why is this?
Because, as Macfarlane makes clear, we are prejudiced. We turn to the ground when we want to hide something away, either because we want to preserve it or because we want to destroy it, and the discrimination can be felt in our language with words like catastrophe — the Greek origins of which meant literally down (kata) turning (strophē) — cataclysm, and depression, among others.
It can also be felt in myths like Orpheus and Eurydice, the inside of the earth as something that is evil — it is, after all, where Hades itself can be found — something that is undesirable that we must try and escape from.
In short, we don’t have a positive association with what’s beneath us. Our hopes and aspirations have launched us into the skies, but our fears and paranoias have kept us from delving too deep.
In “Underland” Macfarlane scales glaciers, plunges into underground rivers, and squeezes through frighteningly tight spaces in order to relay our past back to us. His is an adventure, claustrophobic at times, that brings us face-to-face with our oldest ancestors and up close to layers of ice and rock that existed millennia before the first humans trod the planet.
The point of this entire endeavor, and the lasting impact from reading “Underland”, is the state humanity has left the earth in. Climate change has seriously disrupted the natural order of things, and Macfarlane doesn’t spare any details of the harm our species has done to the planet. He takes us there, up close and personal, until the horror of it presses in on you like a shallow passageway deep beneath Paris.
I was fortunate enough to briefly meet with Macfarlane during a book signing last year following a talk he gave at the Hay Festival in Wales. The talk was phenomenal, but I had a ticket to Stephen Fry’s talk immediately after and I didn’t want to miss that so I had to forego Macfarlane’s book signing … or so I’d thought.
In my experience, most authors don’t doddle. There are a few seconds of niceties, “Oh, I loved your book”, “thank you” and all that, and then they’ve moved on to the person behind you. I get it. When you’re an author as popular as Ian McEwan, for example, you just want to get the whole thing over with. But as popular as Macfarlane is, I was thrilled to find that even after the hour long Stephen Fry talk, even after the hour I spent in line to get my books signed by Fry, Macfarlane was still there. Still signing books. Still talking to people.
There was a couple with a little girl just in front of me, and when their turn came, Macfarlane stood up and came around the table he’d been sitting at and shook the little girl’s hand and chatted with her for a minute or so. Just with her. I’ve never seen an author do that before, and it showed that Macfarlane is more than just the words he’s written in books like “Underland”, he truly is an individual determined to try and make the future better for the generations that come after.
I am so so happy that the book is as good as the man.