Book Review: Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

A hand holding Underland by Robert Macfarlane in a cave

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane takes us on a journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland’s glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet’s past and future.

Global in its geography, gripping in its voice and haunting in its implications, Underland is a work of huge range and power, and a remarkable new chapter in Macfarlane’s long-term exploration of landscape and the human heart.

As a descendant of miners, a lover of hollow lands and a fan of Robert Macfarlane’s work, Underland, appealed to me on many different levels. Growing up in the Peak District, I spent my childhood exploring caves and the thought of a hidden world beneath my feet still intrigues. So when I found out that Macfarlane was writing a book about subterranean spaces, I was more than happy to wait seven years for it.

The result was more complex, disturbing and breathtaking than I’d ever imagined. Underland took me to places that I longed to visit yet also feared – dark catacombs, underground rivers and icy wastelands. It also made me confront concepts and realities that disturbed my world view. Macfarlane not only guides us underground, he also invites us to examine the position of the human race within deep time.

“Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.”

The last sentence encapsulates the experience of reading this book perfectly. Every chapter takes you on a beautiful and extreme adventure. In Invisible Cities, we crawl beneath Paris and sleep with the dead. Red Dancers sets a path to ‘the Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ in Lofoten which contains the greatest gallery of prehistoric art ever discovered. A giant tomb full of radioactive waste awaits us in The Hiding Place. To the skimming eye, these journeys are the stuff of fiction, yet they all exist.

That’s not to say that Macfarlane doesn’t include a sense of myth in his writing. He readily admits that one of his favourite childhood reads was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner, a low fantasy tale that mixes magic with reality. You can see this supernatural slant in Underland.  He is unnerved when the Finnish epic poem, the Kalevala, seems to foretell the story of a deadly nuclear repository at Olkiluoto Island; a sighting of a ‘ghost’ in Red Dancers suggests the otherworldly.

“Looking back across the bay to the northern shore – and there by the gimmering birches is a figure standing dark on rising ground, where no figure should be.”

Time and again, nature and mankind cross paths over the course of Underland. This weft is deliberate because ultimately Macfarlane isn’t trying to make us fearful of deep time, he’s encouraging us to become ‘good ancestors’.

“At its best, 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.”

Bjornar, a fisherman fighting to stop oil drilling around the pristine Lofoten and Vesteralen Islands shows us the way in The Edge. He is losing his battle against the corporates, yet he still strives to protect the fragile ecosystem. This call to leave a positive legacy is a constant theme throughout the book.

Macfarlane’s lyrical prose and eclectic themes might not suit everyone, but all the books that I’ve ever read, Underland has affected me the most. In the months afterwards, I set out on my own journey towards sustainable living and it is one that I still follow. Maybe this was because the rainforests had started to burn when I read the book, or perhaps it simply appeared at the right time in my life. Either way, it helped me to see something new when I read it and I’m thankful for that.

I reviewed my own hardback copy of Underland. The paperback edition will be published 27th August 2020.

Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Hardback ISBN: 9780241143803
Number of pages: 496

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