Into the Underworlds

Book review: Underland, by Robert Macfarlane (Amazon / Book Depository)

What happened here? The mouth of the chasm says nothing. The trees say nothing. Leaning over the edge of the sinkhole, I can see only darkness beneath me.

British author Robert Macfarlane’s Underland is a difficult book to describe or do justice to. It’s more of a literary experience than anything easily summarized. At its core, it’s an exploration into the earth’s underworlds, both the physical spaces and the mental connections, and the deep time links between these subterranean locations in the present and stretching back across eons or reaching towards the future. It’s a travel narrative, it’s nature writing with a literary bent, it’s an examination of climate change and a work of history blended with natural science, and that’s really only the beginning.

There’s a fascinating ever present juxtaposition of the underland as storage place, a repository for things that are very different — things that are valuable and we want to preserve, but also things we want to get rid of. There’s also the consideration of high vs. low, the value and cost we place on distance from the ground yet the role it has in holding things we need to keep hidden or secret.

Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.

While traveling to locations both farflung and close to home — Somerset, Yorkshire, and London’s Epping Forest, to the “invisible cities” beneath Paris and the Slovenian Highlands and Karst Plateau of Italy on to the mysterious, remote landscapes of the far north in Norway, Finland, and Greenland — he loops in scenes and locations from even farther afield — the scene of a 12,000-year-old shaman burial in what’s now Israel, or a cave network in China with its own weather system.

He weaves these stories into his explorations and ideas about how we treat each other, the natural world, and the respect accorded to memory of the dead, or else how memory and its presence in a location continues to haunt.

We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.

Lest any of this seem too distant or intangible to contemplate or apply to ourselves, one of the most amazing things about this work was how he tied the concepts into things we should be thinking about on smaller scales. In addition to the dissonance of landscapes that appear peaceful today but have been sites of violence in the past and still uncannily bear something of it, he considers the divide in our treatment and reverence of the living and the dead.

We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most.

This line, my favorite from a book of many favorite lines, was repeated and has been ringing in my head since reading.

Even while trying to actively retain what I was reading, I knew this was going to be a book that needed multiple readings to really absorb. It’s not that it’s dense — it’s perhaps surprisingly readable, but it’s so lyrical, flows so beautifully and is packed with fascinating information even in the footnotes that it’s difficult to slow down enough to get it all in one reading.

Our common verb ‘to understand’ itself bears an old sense of passing beneath something in order fully to comprehend it.

He’s one of those authors that provides wonderfully vivid portraits of the people he interacts with, and the people whose work or passion draws them beneath ground, whether into earth, ice, or water, are a fascinating and wildly varied group. This liveliness, of the people working in different capacities in these locations, alongside Macfarlane’s more philosophical and meditative musings, was such a perfect mix. There’s science and history blended meaningfully with personal observation and excellent nature writing, making this a category-defying work that’s top-notch in every genre it encompasses.

And the writing is simply gorgeous. It’s dreamy but focused, descriptive and evocative without becoming florid. I learned so much and was left with so much to mull over and it was all told so beautifully.

If I had one complaint it’s that stories aren’t always elaborated on in the text, but are so intriguing that I had to look up the footnote and google it further (like that shaman burial). But anything that makes you interested enough to pursue more information isn’t much of a bad thing at all.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey
by Robert Macfarlane
published June 4, 2019 by W.W. Norton

Amazon / Book Depository

29 thoughts on “Into the Underworlds

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    1. Beautifully devious indeed! I think you’re right, he may well have 🙂 He told the stories so interestingly it was impossible not to want to learn more about each one!

      The changes in Greenland are so unnerving, and he covered it so well here, visiting the glaciers. It sent an unmistakable message.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So well said. It’s awful. And infuriating that politicians and companies are trying to gaslight us as if it’s all imaginary, just adding insult to injury. It’s unbelievable. I still don’t know how this is even a political issue. It’s a fact, not an opinion.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Finally, a review which gives me a clear idea what this book is about and makes me want to read it. Up till now I have seen it praised by bloggers and instagrammers all over the internet in a way which made me feel it was Not For Me. In fact weeks ago my husband rang from Waterstones in Piccadilly to ask me whether I wanted it, as the sales assistant gave it a glowing review, and like a fool I declined. In future would you kindly ensure you review any books I might come across in a more timely fashion 😜😜 🤣🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s so funny because I had the same reaction to the reviews I read of it! It was just never quite clear to me what it was all about or if it was really going to be my style. I’m not always crazy about science topics and wasn’t sure how in-depth it was going to be. I finally picked it up because another blogger whose recommendations I trust loved it. I realized while reading it how hard it is to describe or summarize though, so it makes sense that the reviews are kind of bizarre and ambiguous. I loved it though, I think it’s really worth the read. And I’ll try to have figured these things out sooner for you next time!! 🤣

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  2. Great review! I’ve been seeing this one around, and think I might give it a try eventually. It reminds me a bit of Powers’ The Overstory, which wasn’t really a “fun” read for me, and I’m usually not a big nature reader at all, but I still think about that one a lot even a year later. It completely changed the way that I see trees. This one sounds like it would have the same affect.

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    1. Oh I’m just realizing I forgot to reply to this! Nature writing is really hit or miss for me, I’ve read a few, like one by Gretel Ehrlich and Annie Dillard that are among my favorites, and others that are completely not my cup of tea at all (even another by the same author!) It really depends. But I think if it’s something that stays with you and you find reason to apply to other areas in your life, it’s completely worth it. I found his nature writing here beautiful — not melodramatic or overly metaphysical but descriptive and well tied to the bigger social and cultural issues he was examining. I think you’d get a lot out of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No problem! And thanks for the info- I think as long as the nature descriptions are related to bigger issues like you mention, this will work for me; it’s nature writing for the sake of beauty/imagery that I tend to find ineffective. But Underland does sound like it will be right up my alley, and I’m looking forward to checking it out!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Same, when it gets too abstract or just trying to make artsy sentences I get annoyed or just lose interest. This one definitely avoids that, it felt like there was meaning and a lot of care in every sentence. I hope you’ll give it a try! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops I just realized I didn’t reply, sorry! I could see where parts wouldn’t appeal if the description is too much. I kind of have to be in the mood for that kind of writing. This one probably isn’t for everyone but I do think it’s a worth a try, maybe from the library 😉

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  3. Fab review as always!! I saw a booktuber talking about this and I was intrigued, but now I know that I HAVE to read it. I’m usually not very interested in nature-y type books but this sounds like it has quite a human element to it as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I was on the fence about whether to read it or not, I couldn’t get a good sense of it from most reviews and nature stuff either hits all the right notes for me or falls completely flat. This one did it right, in my opinion, and he covered so much other fascinating stuff including a very significant human element. Definitely give it a try!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review! I’m glad you enjoyed this one too. It really did do a lot of things well. I agree with you that it was readable, but still a book that could use multiple readings and/or some slowing down to appreciate. And I also sometimes wanted more. I definitely need to check out his backlist!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m curious about his backlist too! I really loved his writing style and how much information he could bring to each section. It was so informative but still so beautifully written and thoughtful. Your review convinced me on this one, so thank you!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m glad my review encouraged you to pick this up, because I’ve definitely put books on hold after reading a number of your reviews, including some of my favorite reads this year – The Five comes to mind.

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  5. I keep picking this up in bookshops just because the cover is so beautiful, and then putting it back down because it just doesn’t seem like quite what I want at that moment. Your review has convinced me to try it – it sounds fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

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