Robert Macfarlane’s Adventures in Underland

Wendy Knepper

January 14, 2020

Stories matter for the Earth, perhaps now more than ever. We need narratives that reconnect human life with nature; resist the myth of endless economic growth, which is destroying life in all its diversity; and challenge apocalyptic thinking by finding actual grounds for hope in dark times. Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey unearths tales of our vulnerable earth through explorations of underground places where humans shelter what is precious, yield what is valuable and dispose of what is harmful.

Macfarlane’s underland journey renews the ancient story of the hero who journeys to the Underworld to confront the experience of loss and mourning. Where Gilgamesh mourns Enkidu and Orpheus searches for Eurydice, Macfarlane confronts his sorrows about our degraded Earth. Underland offers a moving account of the varied, sometimes conflicting, emotions of our era of ecological crisis, the Anthropocene. Wonder mingles with outrage, grief meshes with hope, and terror sparks the courage to resist environmental violence.

In some ways, Underland marks a departure for Macfarlane, an author renowned for his love of language and landscape. In Mountains of the Mind, he considers why so many climbers have risked life and limb for the love of rock, ice and perilous heights. The Wild Places remaps Britain as a space of glorious encounters with nature while The Old Ways confronts the ghosts that haunt ancient pathways. With The Lost Words, Macfarlane casts poetic spells that work to conserve and disseminate endangered words about nature—such as “acorn,” “kingfisher” and “dandelion”—which are falling out of use among children. Such works exemplify his commitment to writing as activism that works to inspire change in the world through its capacity to move and inspire readers to care for the Earth.

Underland, however, takes a darker turn. Macfarlane expresses doubts about literature’s capacity to rise to the challenges of our contemporary eco-crisis: “The Anthropocene is a frightening and forceful era. I wonder, really, what literature can do in the face of population pressure, rising sea levels, deforestation and the rapacious instinct of capital,” he observes.

As such, it may seem that eco-writing today is limited to expressions of “solastalgia,” a term Glenn Albrecht uses to refer to the “psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.” For Macfarlane, however, a sense of loss drives a search for another kind of narrative. “How might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia—let alone shape the nature of that change?” he asks.

Underland is his answer, with its searching account of the long history of human engagements with the Earth. The narrative offers a bleak account of the Anthropocene and dark projection of a future Earth that bears the traces of “the fallout of our atomic age, the crushed foundations of our cities, the spines of millions of intensively farmed ungulates, and the faint outlines of some billions of plastic bottles we produce each year.” Ironically, he remarks, “Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.”

Set against this dark vision, are stories of resistance and hope. The first part, “Seeing,” takes place in Britain, with journeys to Mendips, Boulby and Epping Forest. Macfarlane recounts the harrowing story of Neil Moss’s death in Peak Cavern when he became wedged underground and died of asphyxiation. This tale of despair is countered by the story of Merlin Sheldrake, a young researcher who spends time with Macfarlane in the forest or “wood wide web.” While Sheldrake muses on “the frothy, mad network that underlies and interconnects all scientific knowledge,” Macfarlane speaks of spores, praises a “grammar of animacy” and aspires to use “words as worldmakers.”

Through exchanges with Christopher Toth, a physicist investigating dark matter, he comes to see the faith and hope involved in the scientific search for truth about the universe. Yet, for Toth, abstract knowledge counts for less than simply holding the hand of a person he loves. Likewise, when Macfarlane returns home, he feels hope and love as he watches his sleeping son, taking comfort in the rise and fall of his breath.

The second section, “Hiding,” descends into the catacombs of Paris, drawing readers into a claustrophobic experience among the dead, where encounters with waste, decay, transport and memories of war enable alternative ecological histories to surface. Likewise, Macfarlane’s journey in the Carso in Italy evokes long historical memories associated with the 10,000 caves where “humans have lived, worshipped, healed, killed, sought protection from one another and from the world, wrought terrorism, and dug for ice.” In the Slovenian karst, Macfarlane recalls the weaponization of the landscape across the Julian March of World War II. The atrocity and beauty of this place give rise to poetic meditations on the role of elastic geographies, where the land becomes “actor, agent, combatant.” He nevertheless finds hope in the beauty of nature reasserting itself in the face of barbed wire and standing as an antidote to terror in a traumatized world.

The aesthetics and politics of language and landscape merge in the third part, “Haunting,” where Macfarlane presents a thrilling and politically urgent response to the Anthropocene. Stories of environmental destruction and ecocide abound, including tales of 10,000 migrating geese who die, creatures threatened by oil drilling and toxic waste sites. Hope and pathos emerge through the story of Bjornar Nicolaisen, a bear-like man with white seer-like eyes, who risks his own mental health in order to fight “big oil” in Norway.

In Greenland, Macfarlane’s lyrical descriptions of ice and snow are tinged with sadness as he confronts the impact of climate change. The sight of calving glaciers fills him with awe and exhilaration: “There is something obscene both to the ice and its meltings—to its vastness and its vulnerability. The ice seems a “thing” that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.” These oscillating, strangely mixed, sentiments coalesce as the sun strikes the horizon, such that “the berg appears to be aflame.”

The theme of hope in the dark unifies Underland’s many stories of coexistence with the Earth in our era of ecological crisis. Macfarlane encounters moments of terror, claustrophobia, nihilist yearnings and accounts of fugue-like states before gaining fresh insight, then hope. At Dancer’s Rock at Kollhellaren, he passes over Lofoten Wall, a perilous ridge. When he finally arrives, exhausted, he finds none of the cave paintings he journeyed to see. He closes his eyes to rest, then looks again and discerns “a phantom red dancer leaping on the rock,” then another and another. He begins to sob, experiencing a profound connection with the earth through deep time. This moving encounter gives fresh meaning to the trope of stumbling in the dark.

However, Macfarlane’s narrative totters towards the end in “Surfacing,” a closing tale about a walk with his youngest son on the chalk uplands, which sets out to ‘bring home’ to the reader the experiences of “Seeing,” “Hiding” and “Haunting.” The chapter opens with the striking image of handprints on a cave wall from Onkalo. But this episode takes an eerie turn, when the son emerges as an allegory for our fears, hopes and love of the Earth. Macfarlane writes, “as I watch him run he passes into a place where the sunshine falls so brightly that he is burnt up by it, lost to my sight, and suddenly the knowledge that he will die strikes me.”

In an instant, Macfarlane re-experiences the world as a place of utter loss, leading him to conflate the image of a dead Earth with his lost son: “every leaf falls from the trees around us and the air greys to ash.” Then despair dissipates as the living world reappears, and his son “turns to face me at the edge of the world.” As the story closes, Macfarlane exchanges a high-five with his son: “I reach my hand towards his and meet it palm to palm, finger to finger, his skin strange as stone against mine.” This image mimics that of the cave painting, transforming the son into a living fossil of the earth’s own deep time narrative.

Perhaps this encounter alludes to concerns about intergenerational justice, even as it offers consolation that there are vital grounds for hope in the present. Even so, this dark epiphany diminishes the reality of his son as a living person by using him as a figure in an allegorical tale about our Anthropogenic moment.

There’s something inhumane about exploiting a walk with one’s child to create a parable for feelings about climate change. It undermines the other ecological story about the intrinsic value of any life. Beyond landscape and literature and our stories about both, there are living beings with stories of their own to tell. Macfarlane could have ended with the story he told at a reading about children and youth marching for climate justice. These tales alone are enough to inspire hope in dark times. Or he could, perhaps, have given the last word to his son as a storyteller in his own right.

Books in this review:
  • Underland
    by Robert Macfarlane
    WW Norton & Company
    June 4, 2019
    496 pages
    Purchased by reviewer
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Literary critic with interests in contemporary world literature, feminism/gender studies and the environment.

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