I Read Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’
I don’t typically post my reactions to books here, but I really lost myself in this one both while reading and writing about it and thought I would put this out there so hopefully the book gets out in front of more eyes!
When this book orbited into my sightline, it was simply a lauding of what an incredible and revelatory book it was. The language presented magnificent strata. And when I picked it up and realized it was non-fiction, I will be honest, I was disappointed. There is no other word. Simply a non-verbal, “oh.” I generally would never read this type of book. A factual account of all things below the surface? Bah, I’ll probably wait for a Netflix doc about it. However, the cover continued to jump out at me from the shelf. And the subtitle, “A Deep Time Journey”, was not one to be ignored.
I’m so glad I got over myself.
What is found here in the deeply recessed reality of our Earth makes me feel foolish to put such value in all of the fantastic mythologies that our fictions brush upon but fail to truly honor in authenticity. Catacombs, networks of cognizant fungi, hollows, and winding livable spaces exist and we trod on them, ignorant and aloof.
What impacted me most is that this book was written here, not (solely) from the imagination of its author but instead through the filter of his heart and mind. He went to these places that I could feasibly visit. He spelunked the earth that is my same earth. The word “inspired” isn’t quite enough. It moved me, affirmed my place here, miniaturized me in the scope of my own petty and papercraft world. The knowledge and witness he imparted onto me immediately crafted a debt that I am in to friends, family, peers and future humans. I want to pay this in blood or language, the two often being within even conversion.
It had dawned on me briefly in walks with the dog beside yards of brush and tree. Rarely do I physically touch nature. And even in that, never am I completely surrounded by it. And the passages in this book have reminded me that even further, I am never in touch with natural rock. Never have I had my feet on the stone of the earth. Never have I run my hand along reaching faces of mountain or cave. I’ve never felt the temperature of these places. The telling of these places, their depths, makes me long for a natural darkness free from the spiral of time, but instead of the cavernous disappearance that our author and his compatriots dive within. It has brought a surge of adventure and curiosity that has long been dormant in me, one that feels like it must be quenched with immediacy. It’s not only a feat that Macfarlane has explored these places, not only a task that he has written about; it’s a gift that he was able to inspire myself and I’m sure countless others to want to strap on new boots, to see their planet and its umbral depths with new eyes.
Similarly, later in the book as some of our travels take us above ground, we start to learn what has been buried below as we stand above. Things that damage, things that rot, things that cut at the very planet that we’ve just been taught to marvel at. A parallel awakening, one of the joys and one of the fears, takes place and where the fear of exhilaration and wonder ends, the same temporal fear of our brief existence and our participation in hastening the brevity comes to light. Melting ice caps. Oil rigs. Us.
I get lost a bit as Macfarlane navigates glaciers in a boat and as a cave system, not because these things are uninteresting or because they are poorly written but because, I believe, the sights and sounds are only authentically experienced in that cold and in those places. The portrait here was painted with expertise, but I don’t think it captured the feeling. It couldn’t. Similar to the aurora borealis he sat below at the time, we can hear about it often and look at pictures constantly, but we cannot marvel until we are there in the face of it. This doesn’t take away from the book, but it was the first time I felt a different sensation, a separation in fact.
And as we end in an industrial burial site for uranium and nuclear waste, we hit a point of almost exclusively abstract writing. It’s poetic and pining of a place that is probably, sadly, the most relatable space for me. And the way it’s discussed is apocalyptic and dire, though all too real. Our warnings are accurate, fair and instructive. Calculated and specific. It’s jarring in the fact that in all the mysticism that the natural earth has granted, it’s still the man made, post-nuclear atrocities that will come to define most of the days that march forward.
I loved most of this book, but did lose my way a bit just past the middle point, somewhere in Part 3. It didn’t get bad but I felt way less enamored. A great read, a very natural read. Macfarlane’s voice is beautiful and loose. He is a natural storyteller. I’ll be grabbing more from him for sure.