What Lies Beneath

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

Long story short: There is an extraordinary world beneath us. Places of severity we can’t see and know little about. It is into these dark worlds, deep inside the earth, that author Robert Macfarlane journeys in search of knowledge in Underland.

photo of people sitting in a catacomb in Paris
Paris was literally built from its own underland — limestone quarrying began under the city in the twelfth century. But the City of Lights also needed to store its dead, so the underworld became Les Catacombs. Photo by Photo by Pierre-Alexandre Garneau/Flickr.

In this sequel to his bestseller The Old Ways, nearly ten years in the making, Macfarlane explores our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind. Like the brilliant professor you had in college, and with an unsparing eye for detail, he explores the subterranean spaces of our 1.9 billion-year-old planet with storybook clarity. But his primary interest is the relationships that exist “between landscape and the human heart.”

The 425-page tome is divided into three sections: Seeing; Hiding; Haunting, and some of the chapters expose a lidar-like map of the underworld that is not an easy read. He guides us to millennial-old burial sites in Britain, a dark matter research station a half-mile below Yorkshire, which is dedicated to understanding the birth of the universe, and remote Arctic cave-art sites on Norway’s northern coasts.

Macfarlane examines not only the physical dimensions of this underworld, but also its manifestation in human imaginations — in our mythologies and literature. “In the underworld three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful,” he writes.

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The blood of the book rises when he goes underground, at times “moving along by squirm, the sense of the rock as a hand pressing down first on the skull, then the back, then the whole of the body, a moment spent briefly in its grip.”

He joins spelunkers pinballing around caves, enjoying a camaraderie that doesn’t require words. In other deep places, he joins thought-provoking scientists alive to the idea of living in the moment. “If we’re not exploring, we’re not doing anything. We’re just waiting,” a physicist tells Macfarlane.

In the Epping Forest bordering London, fungal networks divaricate woodland soil, joining individual trees into intercommunicating forests, a cooperative system in which trees talk to one another. At the burial sites in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, where human bodies from the Neolithic era rest, Macfarlane ponders how we are often more tender to the dead than to the living. Traversing the catacombs beneath Paris, he reflects on Victor Hugo’s words in Les Miséerables, “Paris has another Paris under herself.” Limestone quarrying began under the city in the twelfth century — Paris was literally built from its own underland. But the City of Lights also needed to store its dead, so the underworld became Les Catacombs.

In the Slovenian Highlands MacFarlane ventures along a deep, mile-long cave system atop glacial ice, which served as “ideal geology for guerilla war” during World War II. “Mountains were seen no longer as solid structures, but as honeycombs that could be opened,” he writes. A good descent was rock fall that didn’t hit you, gas that didn’t asphyxiate, shoulder-to-the-wall holes that didn’t trap you.

Deep time is the chronology of the Underland. The timespans in this realm can stretch millions of years. And yet, geology knows no such word as “forever.” Deep time runs forward as well as back. It’s a dynamic earth cycle — mineral becomes animal becomes rock and in deep time supplies calcium for new organisms to build their bodies.

But Underland isn’t just about inspiring awe about places and histories unknown. It is, in essence, an exploration of the fragility of our existence on Earth. McFarland highlights in the book what he calls “Anthropocene unburials:” Reindeer buried in glacial ice a few lifetimes ago are now turning up replete with anthrax spores; an American Cold War missile base containing toxic chemicals, sealed under Greenland’s ice 50 years ago, now moving up towards the surface; heatwaves in Britain causing the imprints of ancient burial barrows to come into view.

These unburials, he points out, reveal the terrible harm we are doing our world. “What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones, and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain,” he writes.

It may all seem a stretch, but there it is. Macfarlane could probably get a free beer in any bar in his native England telling any one of these stories.

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