What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane journeys underground

In Underland, the thinking person’s adventurer finds the dark illuminating

It’s likely, if you are fortunate enough to be familiar with Robert Macfarlane’s books, from Mountains of the Mind through to Landmarks, that you associate his writing with an exhilarating sense of high, wide and open spaces, the quintessential great outdoors.

You will probably also remember him for his sensuous apprehension of the shimmering light, colours and textures of the natural world and the rich vocabulary and diverse literary devices he uses to bring them to life, so magically celebrated recently, alongside Jackie Morris’s illustrations, in The Lost Words.

So it came as a surprise, and initially not an agreeable one, to learn that his new book, Underland, is mostly set in the dark and enclosed spaces beneath our feet. Macfarlane proposes a journey in deep time through the history, not just of humanity, but of the stuff of the universe itself, including the quest for dark matter. Did I really want to spend 425 pages in such lightless, confined and alien places, even in the company of a writer as gifted as Macfarlane?

After just a dozen paragraphs, however, I found that I was very happy to do so. The exceptional challenges, physical and existential, ecological and literary, that Macfarlane tackles as he lead us underground are as exhilarating and enlightening as his accounts of journeys through more familiar landscapes.


I can’t help wondering, though, whether he had worried that even his most devoted readers would balk at this daunting invitation?

Just a centimetre below where our sight stops, just beneath our toes, the underland begins

Macfarlane replies that several early readers have indeed told him that they were compelled to lay Underland aside, due to the vicarious claustrophobia they experienced reading it. They mentioned especially, he says, the passage where he takes us crawling (probably illegally) through the Paris catacombs in total darkness, with rock seeming to press in on his prone body, from above and below.

The good thing, he says, is that these readers always picked the book up again. “They told me: ‘I could not read on . . . I could not stop reading.’

“I want the book to surprise people,” he continues. “My book on mountaineering tried to answer the question ‘why go high?’. In this book I try to answer the question ‘why go low?’ and the answer is certainly a darker and more complex one.

“We have to reckon with this realm of miracle and wonder and horror that lies under us. We’ve been thinking about, and thinking with, the underland as long as we have been human. The earliest cave handprints are reliably dated to the Neanderthal. Making these journeys into the darkness, to make meaning . . . it’s one of the oldest stories we have.”

Of all the remarkable journeys Macfarlane himself takes in the book, perhaps the most disturbing, and the ultimately the most illuminating, is his solo hike – through a ferocious snow storm – across the vertiginous Lafoten Wall in Norway, and deep into the Kollhellaren (Hole of Hell) cave on the uninhabited coastline beneath the ridge.

Scary as it sounds, he insists that, as the father of three children, he greatly scaled down his risk-taking long ago. “There was no danger of my perishing. But I didn’t enjoy the journey.”

Then he reaches the relative security of the cave, where he searches, initially in vain, for the “red dancers” – matchstick human figures painted there, for reasons unknown, some 2,500 years ago.

“Visiting these caves, spending several days in the full force of this profoundly wild, indifferent, hostile environment, I realised that I was one of many people who had come to this place over centuries and millenniums. So many thousands of years we have been going into darkness in search of many of the same things, and bringing back many of the same things.”

For one moment, he even has a very strong sense that he sees another figure outside the cave, “standing dark on rising ground, where no figure should be”. Macfarlane is hardly a man for seeing trolls or ghosts. But the vivid sensation prompts him to reflect on the way we collaborate across time, by repeating the actions of our ancestors, and seeking out the traces they have left us.

Human longing

“That’s why the red dancers are for me such a powerful metaphor, because they hardly exist as paint, their creation is a collaboration of water and sea and iron oxide, and the human longing to make marks, and the human longing to read marks, and find marks, in darkness.”

Echoes across great spans of human history also haunt him when he visits Olkiluoto in Finland, where enormous underground chambers have been created to dispose of nuclear waste. He recalls the efforts made at a similar site in the United States to invent a symbolic system, one that might communicate to our distant descendants, and even to another species, the great dangers of unearthing what we are trying to bury forever. This makes him recall a very old Finnish oral folk epic, which speaks of a cavern storing “materials of huge energy: spells and enchantments which, when spoken, will release great power”.

Echoes across infinitely deeper time are heard in the chapter where he visits a laboratory far down in a Yorkshire mine, and lucidly discusses the mystery of dark matter, and the paradox that a particle wind from a distant galaxy may only be detectable by us when we are a kilometre underground.

Macfarlane argues that the multifarious concepts and realities of the underland “speaks to the anxieties of our times, and to the need for intergenerational justice, dealing as they do with both the very old and the very new.”

At first sight, this seems a peculiar claim. What in particular does the subsurface of our planet really have to with the contemporary angsts that he identifies, like climate change, perennial genocidal conflicts, and the disposal of nuclear waste?

The underland is rising, now, back at us, and things that we thought we had disposed of or kept safe are being exposed

He acknowledges that the connections are not immediately obvious. That is why, after all, he wrote the book, to draw them up to our attention: “Just a centimetre below where our sight stops, just beneath our toes, the underland begins. It shapes us hugely and powerfully, but we hardly ever look into it or see it. I wanted to begin with a descent and end with a surfacing and bring the reader through the darkness with me.”

He believes that this darkness is particularly illuminating in our Anthropocene period, where human impacts will be the defining characteristic of contemporary geology, detectable into the distant future.

One of humanity’s key impacts in this century is, of course, our radical acceleration of climate change. The “master trope” of his journeys in the underland, he says, is the notion of “Anthropocene unburials” related to global warming.

“We are living,” he continues, “in a time of surfacings, but they are uncanny and they are unbidden. The underland is rising, now, back at us, and things that we thought we had disposed of or kept safe are being exposed or made vulnerable.”

He lists some of them: ancient methane leaks from thawing permafrost (“a vast area of the world whose name no longer even makes sense”); anthrax spores escape from long-dead reindeer as the ground they were buried in unfreezes; and bodies of soldiers, killed in grim, half-forgotten skirmishes above the snowline, are released from glacial tombs in Slovenian karst landscapes.

It would be misleading, however, to give the impression that the news from Macfarlane's underland is always bad. He devotes a particularly happy chapter to an exploration of the new ecological theory of the "wood-wide web", recently popularised in Peter Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees.

This theory demonstrates a significant and hitherto unsuspected degree of communication between the trees in a forest, and its mediation by the vast network of fungal webs beneath the forest floor. It may demand a drastic revision of Darwinism, because it suggests that evolution may be driven as much by co-operation as by competition.

Typically, Macfarlane and his ecological guide are inclined to the view that both interpretations are unsatisfactory, overly anthropomorphic metaphors. “The forest is always more complicated than we can ever dream of,” his guide argues.

That phrase rather sums up Macfarlane’s book. So you may be wondering how he makes such diverse and often complex topics accessible, what made those early readers keep going. The answer is a meticulous but almost invisible literary craftsmanship. He alternates compelling narratives with lucid, succinct exposition, and transports the reader to unfamiliar landscapes in precise and limpid short sentences approaching the condition of poetry.

And despite its great spans and intricacies, the book does not shy away from gently indicating ethical imperatives for our times, often reflected in the image of a child: “One of the challenges a geological sense of time poses,” he says, “is a kind of lotus eating: ‘The planet is so old, and so resilient, that we don’t matter.’

“I think the opposite is true, that deep time compels an urgency precisely because of the miracle, the unlikely miracle, of existence and life. The figure of the child became a way of anchoring wonder within the span of deep time.

“So when I come back from the dark matter lab, where my sense of what matter is had been completely addled, what I wanted, what we all want to do when those feelings strike us hard, is to touch those we love, and just sort of rest one’s fingers against the skin of another.

“This is the astonishment of being, and this is where we begin to build a practical ethics of co-operation and of mutuality, that we are both brilliant at, and terrible at, as a species.”

Underland by Robert Macfarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton