Underland is an exploration of the subterranean world, and Macfarlane interprets this widely. He ranges from a glacier in the middle of a warm mountain range to the tunnels under Paris, from mines under Yorkshire to London Bridge (which is hollow and can be climbed through by those in the know). He does not shy away from difficult subjects, dealing with war crimes and human rights violations in European caves and crevasses, as well as the Anthropocene and climate change.
It is always a pleasure to read a new Robert Macfarlane book. Here at the Riverside Bookshop we loved The Lost Words. He writes beautifully and manages to include very diverse fields of knowledge without alienating the reader or appearing like a dilettante. His account of visiting an underground lab exploring dark matter gave me the first explanation of this phenomenon I felt even vaguely able to understand (p. 56). He can make mysterious landscapes vivid, as when walking in the Julian Alps: “Holes in the trunks of the beeches hold micro-gardens of moss and ferns. Dwarf pines spread between the boulders of the streambank. Harebells, gentians and edelweiss star the understorey. Little trout flick as quick shadows in the bigger stream-pools. Towering above us are scree-slopes and bone-white summits jagging several hundred feet up from the ridge line” (p. 231).
Happily for me, Underland also includes much ice and snow. There are reflections on physical culture and the impact of global warming: “There is something obscene both to the ice and its meltings – to its vastness and vulnerability. The ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy” (p. 363). This reminded me of some of the things I liked about the Library of Ice by Nancy Campbell.
The book is as much about challenging our experiences of time and space as anything else. How do we find language that will be understood for certain thousands of years from now, in order to warn those in the far future of our sealed tombs of nuclear waste? Do we carve warnings into rock in English? Macfarlane notes that only about 1,000 people read Cuneiform on Earth now, where once it communicated powerful proclamations across vast spaces – how do we know English will still be understood? Should there be ceramic tiles with pictograms? Showing what? He asks us to expand our thinking: “…a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us” (p. 15).
Fans of Macfarlane’s writing on mountains, lost ways and obscure words have a treat in store with Underland. A bonus for the curious and engaged.