W.W. Norton & Co., 488 pages, $27.95
English nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, has a title that evokes a burrowing theme park ride or an IMAX movie, and indeed, like Alice in Wonderland or Orpheus in the underworld, down we go.
You may have adventured with Macfarlane before. Though only in his early 40s, he’s written four intrepid and intelligent books about mountaineering, tramping, nature, and landscape, including The Old Ways (2012) and Landmarks (2016).
A fetishizer of archaic and offbeat language, he is also the author, with illustrator Jackie Morris, of The Lost Words: A Spell Book (Anansi, 2018), a cultural phenomenon in Britain. His interest in weirdness, linguistic and otherwise, is always on display.
There’s a bit of John Muir and John McPhee, patient writers and naturalists both, in Macfarlane’s work. Is he a young fogey? Sometimes. He can ladle on that BBC/PBS gently-eat-your-peas Earth-show narration.
Yet there’s a bit of Geoff Dyer, of the critical wildcat, in him. There’s the prickling sense, reading Macfarlane like Dyer, that a library door or a manhole cover or a bosky path might lead you not just to the end of a chapter but to a drugs party or a rave.
Underland recounts a series of explorations under the surface of our planet. In England, Macfarlane goes caving and studies, with a young plant scientist named Merlin Sheldrake, the fungi that create a cooperative system below forests. In Paris, he plunges into the catacombs and falls in with an avant-garde troupe of urban explorers, wriggling through tiny openings into grand caverns.
In Italy, he tracks the flow of a partly subterranean river, the Timavo. In the Slovenian highlands, he considers sinkholes and the gruesome ways they have sometimes been put to use.
In the book’s final sections (he calls them “chambers”), he visits a nuclear-waste containment site in Finland and sea caves in Norway and considers global warming in Greenland. He catalogs the things that, long buried in ice, are now returning to the surface of the world, sometimes to humanity’s steep detriment.
“Why go low?” he asks. “It is a counterintuitive action, running against the grain of sense and the gradient of the spirit.” He notes the way that humans have long placed in the deep earth “that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
What he sometimes finds on his explorations is, to his dismay, trash. He writes, in a typically crunchy sentence: “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.”
Macfarlane gets into some uncomfortable situations down there. He writes about claustrophobia and about his adrenaline spikes, his fatigue and stomach flips. It can really wobble a person’s weltanschauung, to borrow a line from poet A.R. Ammons, to be way down in the shivering dark, your headlamps picking out the bats on the wall.
“For years I could only understand these pursuits of shadowed water, blind rivers, and terrible depths as fierce versions of the death drive — fiercer even than what drove the most fearless mountaineers,” he writes.
“The language of extreme caving is often openly mortal and tacitly mythic: stretches of passageway ‘dead out,’ one reaches ‘terminal sumps’ and ‘chokes,’ the furthest-down regions are known as ‘the dead zone.’ But over time I saw that — as with extreme mountaineering — there was another aspect to the thanatos [or death instinct] at work. Divers and cave divers often describe their experiences in terms of ecstasy and transcendence.”
Macfarlane’s writing can be humid. “For more than 15 years now, I have been writing about the relationships between landscape and the human heart,” he writes, a line that made my own heart wrinkle its forehead. He describes “the flowing presence of otter.”
More often it is superb. He is so good at what he does, and has won so many awards for his books, that there has begun to be pushback in England, just to keep his career in perspective.
The Guardian writer John Crace, in his satirical “digested read” column, caricatured Landmarks and coined the word Macfarlish, meaning “the process of praising other authors to make your own book better by association.” Crace defined Landmarks as “something of great importance that is actually quite dull.”
Writing in The London Review of Books, Scottish poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie placed Macfarlane’s work in unhappy historical context: “What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! From Cambridge! Here to boldly go, ‘discovering,’ then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilized lyrical words.”
Macfarlane will survive this hazing. While I did not wish Underland, at nearly 500 pages, to be longer, and while I would rather attend a meeting of Groucho Marx and S.J. Perelman’s West Side Writing and Asthma Club than go spelunking to the center of the Earth, this is an excellent book — fearless and subtle, empathic and strange. It is the product of real attention and tongue-and-groove workmanship.
What might have been this book’s last sentence instead arrives on page 402: “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.”