June 2019

Arts & Letters

The chthonic realms explored in Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’

By Geordie Williamson
Cave systems, mines, urban sewers, mycelial networks, moulins and more

Readers might lately feel justified in a degree of exhaustion when it comes to literature relating to the writing of place. We have followed authors up mountains and across arctic wastes, we’ve dived alongside them on coral reefs and hacked with them through tropical rainforests. We have, in the spirit of armchair adventure, celebrated and explored the nature and measure of every quadrant on the compass. We have visited by proxy the last uncorrupted portions of the globe. More recently still, we have become voyeurs of the Anthropocene, the title of a newly inaugurated geologic epoch, which acknowledges the shaping mark we humans have made on the planet.

As its title suggests, Underland (Hamish Hamilton; $45) is an epic journey into the chthonic realms beneath our feet. Cave systems, mines, urban sewers, underground river systems, mycelial networks, glacial cavities known as moulins – the whole network of natural and human-formed structures that lie beneath us, hidden by darkness or sheer difficulty of access; hidden too, by our own psychic barriers. The underland has been a place of refuge for our species for countless millennia, but it is also a site of interment: of bodies, of treasure and of waste, the latter of which, in our technological narcissism, we have created in huge amounts without knowing how to dispose of it.

For a writer who has for years written with beauty, intelligence and passion about the visible world, this new work is penumbral by contrast, lit by candlepower, by headtorch battery. It is an account almost mythic in origin (the archaic Greek term for such descents into the underworld is katabasis) and psychoanalytic in contemporary substance: it constitutes a journey into our deep past and into a probable future, through physical space and psychic regions. What it is not is an exercise in species flagellation. As Macfarlane writes, deep time – the time in which geological forces operate – neither condemns nor exonerates us when we contemplate its implications:

Deep time [is] a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking.

“At its best,” Macfarlane concludes, “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.”

Those familiar with Macfarlane’s method will know how he proceeds. Each chapter sees the author team up with an expert or experts in his or her field: a mad mycologist named Merlin for example, who introduces the author to the underground internet of mushrooms and fungi, or a husband and wife near Trieste who guide the author through a subterranean river system. Or the Parisian hipsters who take Macfarlane on a tour of the immense network of urban sub-spaces – catacombs and decommissioned water pipes – that riddle the nether regions of that great Gothic capital. Or the guide who swings his vehicle around the hairpin bends of a northern English mine at speeds that would be terrifying above ground, all the while holding up a fascinating if not wholly politically correct chatter.

What is different here is a kind of prosodic shorthand. Macfarlane has never been a prolix nature writer, but he has been an uncommonly articulate exegete of the visible world. This time around, however, the author permits himself instances of extreme brevity: chapters open with an accumulation of fragments, notes scribbled on the back of a napkin. And the effect, far from seeming lazy, is closer to an empirical pointillism. So much is caught in the trap of this crisp observational poetry:

Apple trees by the roadside, their fruit yellow as lamps. Steady lift of the land. Wide river valleys, and pale limestone peaks rising higher to either side. A vaulted blue sky, strong sun gleaming off stone.

These are field notes; they are world data. And Macfarlane uses them as a kind of Pitman’s stenography of the real. That said, writing of Edgar Allan Poe’s proto-ecological prose (particularly his short story “A Descent into the Maelström”), for instance, Macfarlane accordions out in sentence length, in order to capture something of that pre-carbon-economy author’s strong and complex premonitions:

All of these nineteenth-century hollow-Earth texts read, now, both as beckonings into and warnings of the void. All are Anthropocene works avant la letter, about longings to gain access to the Earth’s wealthy interior. They foretell the arrival of the extractive industries in all their gargantuan force. They portend the establishment of the immense infrastructure that has spread across the Earth, dedicated to retrieving from the underland the raw materials it holds, creating petro-scapes from the burned-black wastelands of the Niger delta, to the flaming oil wells of the Middle East …

“Our modern species-history,” he concludes, “is one of remorselessly accelerated extraction, accompanied by compensatory small acts of preservation and elegiac songs.”

What Macfarlane doesn’t say is that those “elegiac songs” are not negligible – that they have suasive force. There are several stunning accounts in Underland of visits made by the author and others to cave complexes where artworks, several thousand to tens of thousands of years old, have been discovered and marvelled over by generations of visitors, palaeontologists and art historians.

Weighed upon the scales against the extractive appetites of contemporary women and men, the figures in the Lascaux and Chauvet caves and elsewhere may seem impossibly slender threads upon which to hang some kind of hope. The slow violence of resource extraction is just too omnipresent, too tightly imbricated with our newfound ingenuity as a species, to be fought by a few painted lines.

But what gives Underland its special quality – as neither a work of despair nor undimmed delight – is the sense that our acts of culture have a heft and a presence that subvert the more ruthlessly utilitarian urges of our current economic regime. As art critic John Berger puts it of the Chauvet images, “We have no word for this darkness. It is not night and it is not ignorance.”

Macfarlane, a great fan of Berger’s, is also keen that we might reconfigure our understanding of the underworld in terms that are not purely utile, but which preserve mystery, wonder, awe. And much of his effort is directed towards a simple end: that readers might imagine the world beneath their feet and not fear it, not shun it, but rather accept that it constitutes a great global reliquary, containing all the things we have discarded or shunned or sought to prepare for another life to come.

So Underland is a return of the repressed. It is a reminder of what has been and might yet be. Whatever easy eloquence Macfarlane – a nature writer without peer in his generation – may summon, the question of how one might speak, might hymn the world as it is, bumps up against the brute and total fact of climate change. He wants us to sing, yes, but it may be a dirge, or even some self-negating Beckett monologue, he calls us to vocalise accordingly:

The idea of the Anthropocene repeatedly strikes us dumb. In the complexity of its structures and the range of its scales within time and space – from nanometric to the planetary, from picoseconds to aeons – the Anthropocene confronts us with huge challenges.

“It is, perhaps,” he decides, “best imagined as an epoch of loss – of species, places and people – for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.”

For all the failures and breakdowns he describes, for all the elisions and losses and collapses in the natural order of things, Underland remains a book in thrall to the joys and challenges – the daytime delights, the nocturnal terrors – of exploration. Macfarlane, a self-­confessed claustrophobe, has ventured into realms that would white-knuckle the best of us. By articulating his own fear, however, the author goes some way to assuaging those of the reader.

“Dissonance,” he remarks at one point, “is produced by any landscape that enchants in the present but has been a site of violence in the past.” But in his journeys through the underland Macfarlane comes to a more nuanced conclusion: “to read such a place only for its dark histories is to disallow its possibilities for future life, to deny reparation or hope”. To witness Macfarlane move through landscapes both blessed and blighted by human hand, the reader is reminded of what makes the author so special and distinct. He is afforded all the equipage of despair that a human may require. It is an aspect of his singular talent and grace, however, that he refuses the blandishments of the backward glance. This Orpheus, I am convinced, would have sung Eurydice out of Hades.

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.


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