Review of Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane (W.W. Norton and Co., 2019)
Near the end of Underland, author, Cambridge professor, and mountaineer Robert Macfarlane makes one of his many descents. In this particular scene—one among several throughout the book that tingle flesh—he dangles in ice-blue air, suspended from a rope dozens of feet down the throat of a glacier.
There is a name for the vertical shaft carved by meltwater in which Macfarlane dangles: moulin. Earlier, when standing on the ice looking down at this sheer drop into the icy depths, Macfarlane tells us that this moulin is “surely the most beautiful and frightening space into which I have ever looked” (369). As a person with zero experience navigating the potentially perilous contours of a glacier, I was both fascinated and unnerved by his description: “Its mouth is oval and around twelve feet across at its widest point. Its sides are of blue ice that are polished as glass, and scalloped in places. It drops vertically from the glacier’s surface like the shaft of a well. Twenty feet down all light is lost and so is all sight” (369).
On the day Macfarlane descends, the ice has already begun heating up (heat is a relative term here). The glacier complains as water pours into the smooth-sided cylinder. Suspended by his rope, Macfarlane marvels at the intensity of color. Memories of Mediterranean seas with unseen bottoms flash into his mind. Then, the reverie turns more threatening:
The deeper I go, the closer I come to the meltwater stream that is falling down the moulin, and then my crampons slip on the ice and I spin out from the face and into the torrent, which crashes down on my head with cold pummeling fists and the force of it punches me back out of the torrent, but from there I cannot catch the glassy sides of the moulin again and so I swing back further into the torrent, and there I am knocked out of it again, and so I begin to pendulum back and forth in and out of the torrent, and with each cold dousing I am losing strength, and I feel that I am trapped in a perpetual motion machine that can run indefinitely even after I have ceased to function. (389-90)
Ceased to function equals dead. I was nowhere near a glacier when I first read this passage, but I felt unsafe while reading. (This insecure feeling recurred many times as I read the book.) Fortunately, we are given a lifeline: we are told there is a backup plan if circumstances begin to deteriorate. Verbal communication rendered obsolete by the roar of the tumbling waters, an agreed-upon hand signal is to be used: forearms should be crossed in an X, for the benefit of the person keeping watch up top “in that porthole of sky rimmed with white and gold light” (390). The X, we are informed, roughly means Get me the fuck out of here.
When the pummeling begins, I expect Macfarlane to give this signal, which would raise him to surer ground above. He does precisely the opposite: he descends further.
The reasoning is that this will get him out of the torrent, swinging him closer to a side passage and free of the water’s battering. And it does. This time.
Such an instinct—Macfarlane’s inclination to venture further below the surface when others might opt to be hauled up and out in favor of surer footing—speaks to the contents of Underland as a whole. He traverses dark chambers and eerie passageways that, for most readers, are unseen, unknown, and even unimagined. In a manner unlike any of his other books, he stares straight into the recesses of human folly and human possibility, unflinching in his descent—though appropriately apprehensive at times. Wide-eyed, self-effacing, and always with sharp and vivid sentences, Macfarlane unearths fascinating imprints of human history and stirs the imagination with mind-bending geological timelines, bringing to the surface those things from which we cannot escape as we careen into the so-called Anthropocene. What the reader discovers, alongside Macfarlane, is an affirmation that the past is part of the present, which is inevitably part of the future. In particular, Underland excavates what kind of imprint we are leaving to our ancestors in a rapidly changing world. It is unsettling because we are shown, all too clearly, the Earth’s upheaval—the unburying caused by our own attempts at control. To repeat the phrase Macfarlane uses while peering down into the glacier’s moulin, which would do nicely as a summation of Underland: “surely the most beautiful and frightening space into which I have ever looked.”
The structure of Underland roughly divides along geographies and varieties of underground ventures. Three sections of the book, called “chambers,” hold stories that revolve around a theme. “Seeing” is chamber one and closest to home for Macfarlane as he explores Britain’s underland—mining tunnels and limestone burial sites, scientists beneath the North Sea studying dark matter from outer space, and the fungal networks that make up the “wood-wide web.”
Chamber two, “Hiding,” takes Macfarlane to continental Europe, plunging him into one of the largest known underground canyons in the world and its river systems, which cut deeply into the karstic rock of Italy. There are also the Slovenian Highlands, where cave systems and sinkholes double as “warrens of war” and mass burial. This section includes a standout chapter, “Invisible Cities,” a guided exploration with fellow cataphiles (“lovers of the below”) of the city-below-the-city of Paris (a subterranean “mirror-city”). Macfarlane crawls into the vast maze of tunnels, narrow passageways, former mushroom farms, galleries, and catacombs created by six centuries of limestone quarrying and burial of the dead. Of this adventure, he notes, it “is the longest I have ever gone without seeing sunlight” (131).
The third chamber is aptly titled “Haunting.” Here Macfarlane meditates on Nordic ice and the messages it carries while visiting tempestuous seas and deteriorating glaciers. In Lofotens, Norway, he hikes a rugged coast to be among Bronze Age “red dancers,” anthropomorphic figures traced by human fingers on sea-scoured cave walls. We learn of the perils of oil exploration off the coast of Andoya, Norway, and bear witness to the melting ice shelves and glaciers of Greenland. Finally, we reach Olkiluoto, Finland, where the difficulties of containing nuclear waste beg questions about human foresight, perhaps leading readers toward their darkest speculations.
This sketch of the book’s subject matter is only the tip of the melting iceberg. Underland is a delight to the senses as well as a magical mystery tour of infrequently seen places, with interesting characters sprinkled in along the way. It also carries a sense of urgency from start to finish. Macfarlane exhumes subterranean themes that will remain under a reader’s skin long after one stops turning pages.
One of the more prominent themes to repeatedly surface is how we might grapple with the notion of the Anthropocene, a term coined in 1999 to signify the widespread stratigraphic imprint of human activity. In a book that journeys into geological layers, dealing with the implications of the Anthropocene may be unavoidable. “What a signature our species will leave in the strata!” Macfarlane exclaims. “We have become titanic world-makers, our legacy legible for epochs to come. . . . Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of ours is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain” (76-77).
As it is throughout his body of work, Macfarlane’s writing in Underland is beautiful, arresting, and visceral, yet I don’t recall such a degree of urgency in any of Macfarlane’s other excellent books. The social commentary is more prominent, as well, ranging from observations about abstracted human labor to get at Earth’s goodies (testimony to “an asymmetry of power and suffering”), to the cityscape’s “verticalization of wealth and power,” to the injustices visited upon present and future generations through nuclear “disposal” (a misnomer, if ever there was one, for radioactive elements that will persist for millions of years).
In Greenland, we witness firsthand the extremes of climate change, even as business as usual continues, with mining corporations whetting their chops at the rare Earth metals made accessible by the disappearance of the ice. “Our modern species-history is one of remorselessly accelerated extraction, accompanied by compensatory small acts of preservation and elegiac songs,” Macfarlane writes. “We have now drilled some 30 million miles of tunnel and borehole in our hunt for resources, truly riddling our planet into a hollow earth” (312). I was reminded of my parents who live in Oklahoma, far from any natural fault line, now dealing with earthquakes caused by fracking. One of the tremors put a lightning-bolt-shaped crack in the foundation of their home. What to do? Buy better insurance? Thank the politicians for keeping the economy humming as the ground under their feet literally breaks apart? A monument is probably being built to commemorate the energy companies’ contributions to the nation; a catchy jingle will play over television advertisements assuring folks of a prosperous future.
A few passages in Underland use repetition to special effect, collapsing distant times, revealing a shared Earth-story. Perhaps nowhere is this more powerful than when Macfarlane is led into Onkalo, a nuclear waste storage facility in Finland built fifteen hundred feet into bedrock “to keep the future safe from the present.” He tours the center, internally chanting, “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends—not with a bang but a visitors’ center” (402). At one point during his tour, an animatronic Einstein, presumably meant to assure visitors of the wonders of nuclear power, loses half his moustache with a jitter of his mechanical head. It’s a wonderful way to unsettle the reader’s confidence in this storage facility and, more generally, the conceit that problems of our own creation can be healed with spin doctoring alone.
A consistent refrain swells up in Underland: by going underneath, “backward” in time, geologically speaking, we are compelled to think of our own legacy inscribed in the rocks of future generations. “As we have amplified our ability to shape the world,” Macfarlane writes, “so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping. The Anthropocene asks of us the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?’” (77)
This question may be more on Macfarlane’s mind than usual. Throughout the book, in some of the more touching, intimate moments, he allows us glimpses of parenthood:
I stand over my son and he is lying so still that panic sluices coldly through me, my heart thumps in my ears and I reach my hand toward his mouth to feel his breath, to search for proof of life in the darkness.
Nothing, no breath, no breath—and then there it is, on the exhale, drifting faint and warm on my skin, and I rest the back of my fingers for a few seconds on his cheek, feel the mass of his body.
Still there, my love?
Breathe again. (82-83)
These tender moments heighten the stakes. There is something we are passing along, something that will confront us much sooner than we thought. With the release of each new climate report or biodiversity assessment, the timeline for meaningful change constricts; no longer is it the Storms of My Grandchildren that Dr. James Hansen warned of, it is the storms of our children.
The question “Are we being good ancestors?” caught my attention because the Center for Humans and Nature framed one of our “big questions” around just such a theme: “What Kind of Ancestor Do You Want to Be?” Such a question breaks through the ideological commitments of modernity—emphasizing the greater Earth community, not the individual; suggesting the value of generosity over exploitation; and helping us to think in timescales that extend beyond the next election cycle. One of Macfarlane’s talents is inviting readers to think in “deep time” and especially of those generations who will receive what we pass along to them. Gift or curse? What kind of ancestor do you want to be?
Some of the most powerful “deep time” moments—ones that give abstract concepts like the Anthropocene psychological and physical weight, while simultaneously serving to critique our self-appointed Ages—are the products of ice. During an extended trip on the Rasmussen glacier, Macfarlane observes: “The immensity and the vibrancy of the ice are beyond anything I have encountered before. Seen in deep time—viewed even in the relatively shallow time since the last glaciation—the idea of human dominance over the planet seems greedy, delusory. Up there on that summit, at that moment, gazing from the inner ice to the berg-filled sea, the idea of the Anthropocene feels at best a conceit, at worst a perilous vanity” (362).
Human presence is relativized by such Earth-immensity. That could lead someone to shrug his or her shoulders (as could the immensity of climate crisis) and ask, “What does it matter, then?” Macfarlane has an answer:
We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite—deep time as 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. . . .
When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth. (15-16)
Time intersects here with place and story, providing perspective on the tumultuous present. Underland inspires fascination for what is below, to be sure, but it is also a powerful call to consider what we do with that knowledge when we re-surface with an altered perception of time and place. Sometimes, the results are epiphanic: an overwhelming appreciation for the everyday gifts too often taken for granted, along with a fresh set of eyes through which to see the familiar world. Macfarlane exquisitely captures these sensory contrasts:
Up the gorge, up the notch, through the squeeze, the smell of green growing in the nose, up into the belly of the elder-filled dip of land, and up to the level of the fields, the horses, the swooping swallows, out of the Carboniferous and into the Anthropocene.
Sundown on the surface. Pupils shuttering to pinpricks. Colour is preposterous, gorgeous again. Blue is seen utterly as blue, green known fully as green. We are high on hue, high on the wild noise in the wind, high on the last of the sunlight that glosses the streamers of the veering swallows, high on the huge vault of the sky and the boiling clouds it holds. (39-40)
Epochs, separated by millions of years, exist meters away from one another, like a page with a timeline folded in on itself by a pinch of the fingers. “To understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark,” he writes (50).
To produce such effects, Macfarlane buries the reader, at least vicariously, and expands the reader as well. We oscillate between the claustrophobic and the cavernous, depending on the story being told. Both movements induce humility about human smallness and frailty. He notes, for instance, the experience of freedivers who, without scuba gear, explore the great voids of water-filled sinkholes. One of the more famous, Natalia Molchanova, understood her experiences of the great watery voids as “self-dissolving.” Macfarlane himself has several such experiences throughout the book. “In the underland I have seen things I hope I will never forget—and things I wish I had never witnessed,” he reflects, yet he also writes, “What I thought would be my least human book has become, to my surprise, my most communal” (18). This communion stretches through time. What is our communal legacy? What kind of ancestors do we want to be?
As an exploration of the past and a hope in a just vision for the future, Underland brings us back to the present with a thud: How do we participate in a way that the living can live more fully in a new, less Anthropocentric epoch? In a spellbinding passage when he sees the “red dancers” within the recesses of a Norwegian sea cave, Macfarlane is caught within the net of this time-collapsing understanding:
Their red is rough at its edges, fading back into the rock that made it, blurred by water and condensation, and all of these circumstances—the blur, the low light, my exhaustion, my blinks—are what give the figures their life, make them shift shapes on this volatile canvas in which shadow and water and rock are all artists together, and for once the old notion of ghosts seems new and true in this space. These figures are ghosts all dancing together, and I am a ghost too, and there is a conviviality to them—to us—to the thousands of years for which they have been dancing here together.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, my head begins to tingle and then my back and my chest start to shake, and I find myself crying, sobs shuddering my body in the teardrop-shaped rift, far from another human and so close to these generous figures. The dangers of the journey to reach the dancers ebb from me, the joy of their movement ebbs into me and I cry there, surprised and helpless, deep in granite and darkness, weeping for feelings I cannot name. (278-79)
Our lives are still surrounded, enmeshed with this dance of the other. When it comes to ethics, there is no away—any “waste” you dispose of becomes someone else’s problem. Macfarlane reminds us in Underland that what is buried will inevitably see the light of day again, if it has not already. When such things are lifted to the surface, whether they will see a sky that radiates a welcome or a desolate light depends on what we do now. What maladaptive stories do we have to hide our faces from in order to persist until we persist no longer? Facing the world on the surface requires acknowledging earthen facts as hard and unyielding as granite and societal values built on rapidly melting ice.
The word sublime, in current vernacular, is a word that has been rendered wholly positive—and perhaps a little pretentious. What a sublime cheesecake, someone at the country club says while dabbing her lips with a silk napkin. But the older meaning of the word carries the feeling of overwhelm—both beauty and terror can fix you with a decentering gaze. The sublime, when delivering its greatest emotional impact, does both. Underland is sublime in this more comprehensive sense. The awe-full beauty and beautiful awful interpenetrate one another, amplifying the energies of both. Macfarlane proves to be an excellent ferryman to chthonic worlds. He leads readers both into and out of peril, and the result is that the familiar world within which we spend most of our daylight hours becomes more uncanny, more sublime—and our actions more urgent, more pressing—by the knowledge of what lies beneath.