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