Mankind has long looked to the heavens seeking fortune, inspiration and direction. Numerous cultures have all considered the underworld to be a place where a river flowed to places where death abounded, hell, hades and other places were thought to exist. It was somewhere to be avoided. Yet, people have worked underground for thousands of years, tracing the minerals and ores in the ground, but it is not something that most people do on a regular basis now our mining industry is gone. Millions of people think nothing about going on the Tube under London and other capital cities to get to work. However, very few get to go where Macfarlane is heading.
His journeys into the nether regions of our planet will take him to the catacombs of Paris where his guide knows the numerous passages so well that she doesn’t need a map. Squeezing through tiny gaps, pulling his bag behind him, he will not see the sun for a week. He will venture deep underground in Finland visiting a nuclear waste site. Here, they are burying copper and steel tube holding waste uranium, that will have to be buried for thousands of years and sealed behind a million tonnes of rock. The engineers joke that they might find the last lot that was buried in the rock they were blasting.
People have been entering caves since time immemorial, some caves are easy to enter, though not straightforward to reach and they reveal art that is millennia old. The caves he visits to see this amazing art are not always the easiest to find, and it is not always the easiest thing to see on the walls as he discovers. Each cave he enters challenges his perception of the underground landscape, having to descend vertically in almost pitch back, wading through underground rivers that might flood with no warning. He sees first-hand how the same forces that shape our coasts and mountains, also transform the Underland. Most memorable is an underground chamber where there are dunes of black sands.
In Greenland, he climbs mountains and abseils down a moraine in a glacier and it is as cold and frightening as I’d expect. Secrets from under London with Bradley Garret from the London Consolidation Crew are revealed as they head to places that they really shouldn’t be going. Underneath forests are more than just roots, as Macfarlane understands how trees talk to each other through the Wood Wide Web. One of the deepest points he reaches is to see the place where they look at the stars…
The way into the Underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree…
Through these and other places we hear the stories and the context of these places that never see the sun, but as with all of Macfarlane’s books, there is a wider message that he is talking about and that is the damage that we are doing to this, our only planet in this the Anthropocene. The reason he can abseil down the moraine is because of global warning and the implications for us should the repositories hold the nuclear waste leak do not even bear thinking about. If you have read any of his previous books then this is a must read. It is not as uplifting as those, but it is much darker given the places he visits and the subject matter. Macfarlane has a way with words that carry you at the pace as he heads deep Underland to see our past and glimpse our future. I have been waiting for this for over a year now and it was well worth the wait. If there was one flaw, I would have liked to have seen some photos included of the places he visits.
Paul Cheney 5*
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton 9780241143803 hbk May 2019