The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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A Deep Time Journey
by Robert Macfarlane

Paperback (18 Aug 2020), 496 pages.
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 9780393358094

From the best-selling, award-winning author of Landmarks and The Old Ways, a haunting voyage into the planet's past and future.

Hailed as "the great nature writer of this generation" (Wall Street Journal), Robert Macfarlane is the celebrated author of books about the intersections of the human and the natural realms. In Underland, he delivers his masterpiece: an epic exploration of the Earth's underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself.

In this highly anticipated sequel to his international bestseller The Old Ways, Macfarlane takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind. Traveling through "deep time"―the dizzying expanses of geologic time that stretch away from the present―he moves from the birth of the universe to a post-human future, from the prehistoric art of Norwegian sea caves to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, from Bronze Age funeral chambers to the catacomb labyrinth below Paris, and from the underground fungal networks through which trees communicate to a deep-sunk "hiding place" where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come. "Woven through Macfarlane's own travels are the unforgettable stories of descents into the underland made across history by explorers, artists, cavers, divers, mourners, dreamers, and murderers, all of whom have been drawn for different reasons to seek what Cormac McCarthy calls "the awful darkness within the world."

Global in its geography and written with great lyricism and power, Underland speaks powerfully to our present moment. Taking a deep-time view of our planet, Macfarlane here asks a vital and unsettling question: "Are we being good ancestors to the future Earth?" Underland marks a new turn in Macfarlane's long-term mapping of the relations of landscape and the human heart. From its remarkable opening pages to its deeply moving conclusion, it is a journey into wonder, loss, fear, and hope. At once ancient and urgent, this is a book that will change the way you see the world.

Excerpt unavailable.

Excerpted from Underland by Robert Macfarlane. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Macfarlane. Excerpted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Beloved nature writer Robert Macfarlane takes readers on a global journey into the world's deepest places—and into both their geography and mythology.

Print Article Publisher's View   

I first became familiar with nature writer Robert Macfarlane, funnily enough, via his Twitter account (@RobGMacfarlane), which he frequently uses to elucidate uncommon or vanishing words, most of them geographically related. I've long been interested in the names for natural features and places, so I was hooked (and if you're like me, you will want to seek out Macfarlane's large format picture book, The Lost Words, about common nature words that are disappearing from children's vocabulary). Macfarlane's writing is equally engaging when extended over far more than 280 characters, however, and in volumes like The Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind he blends memoir with lyrical travel writing, history and science to bring readers a far deeper and more profound understanding of the world in which we live and the relationship humans have with it..

In Macfarlane's latest work of narrative nonfiction, Underland, he brings readers with him deep underground, to landscapes as varied as an underground river in Italy, the catacombs of Paris, and the precious (and vanishing) glaciers of Greenland. Along the way, he explores humans' fascination with these hidden, remote, and often dangerous places, and the ways we use underground places to "shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives), yield (information, wealth, metaphors, miracles, visions), and dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets)." As he puts it, "into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save." From the remains of our loved ones to the remnants of our most volatile experiments in mining and energy, the earth beneath us holds human secrets—and secrets that humans have yet to uncover.

Readers who have claustrophobic tendencies might want to read Underland in a wide-open field or in a bright room with all the windows open. Macfarlane describes openings so tight that cave explorers have to take off their backpacks and pull them through after they traverse the passage, labyrinthine tunnels that require Ariadne's thread to navigate (See Beyond The Book). His careful pacing and immersive storytelling truly brings readers with him into these confining spaces.

But Macfarlane's narrative is actually most compelling when he steps back from individual cave passages and uses his considerable breadth of knowledge to make sometimes surprising connections through history, mythology and science, such as when he draws a direct line between multi-chambered Egyptian Canopic burial practices and the disposal of spent nuclear reactors, which are similarly contained. Particularly as the narrative heads north to Greenland and an investigation of what lies beneath arctic ice (and what is being released as it melts at an increasingly alarming rate), Macfarlane also utilizes his narrative to cast a foreboding eye on our changing landscape and the increasingly dire future for the planet during the Anthropocene epoch.

Readers will want to have a pen and a dictionary handy while reading. Unsurprisingly for someone who clearly loves language, Macfarlane infuses his narrative with rich and often surprising words, including the many different terms native Greenlanders use for different types of ice. He also, soberingly, returns repeatedly to terms like "species loneliness" or the recently coined term "solastalgia," which refers to a type of homesickness experienced when we stay in the same place, but the world around our home becomes alien to us. Underland paints humanity as both inextricably linked to the world we inhabit (including those places and creatures we can't even see) and also being unwilling to acknowledge or embrace that interconnectedness, instead furthering our own species to the detriment of every other—and, in the end, to our own detriment as well.

This last paragraph might make it seem like Underland is a bleak and hopeless book—and in fact, it would be a rare reader who could walk away from it without feeling genuine alarm about the state of our planet and its future—but it is also suffused with moments of hope and beauty, as Macfarlane profiles people who champion earth's remotest regions and, as he lyrically describes, the wonders that can be found everywhere on Earth—not only at its highest summits but also in its most mysterious and unknowable depths.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl

In his latest book, Macfarlane explores subterranean spaces with the yearning of a man who feels awe...The beauty is immense — of the writing and of the natural world it describes...Reading Macfarlane connects us to dazzling new worlds. It's a connection that brings, more than anything else, joy.

The New York Times
An excellent book—fearless and subtle, empathic and strange.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
An eye-opening, lyrical, and even moving exploration.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text.

Booklist (starred review)
Astonishing…A powerful, epic journey for anyone wondering about the world below and all around us and, perhaps more important, for those who aren’t.

Library Journal (starred review)
A sterling book.

Author Blurb Philip Pullman
Robert Macfarlane's writing reminds us of the astonishing variety of things you can see when you go at walking speed, and of how strange and rich the world is.

Author Blurb Diane Ackerman
Beautifully written and wise, this haunting book is a treasure by one of earth's keenest celebrants. Its unique spell is irresistible.

Author Blurb Francisco Cantú
Robert Macfarlane has long provided us with some of the most distinctive and sensitive thinking about how humans understand and experience the terrestrial world. In turning his attention to the subterranean in Underland, he has delivered his most urgent, universal, and expansive book yet

Author Blurb Philip Gourevitch
Robert Macfarlane writes of his astonishing subterranean explorations with such wondrous, indelible power that you remember what he sees as if you saw it yourself. Underland is a profound reckoning with humankind's self-imperiled position in nature's eternal order. At once thrilling and soulful, raw and erudite, it is a book of revelations.

Author Blurb Lauren Groff
Underland is a devastating act of witness, a clear, cogent, lyrical examination of the darknesses invisible beneath our feet, both geographical and eschatological; it is blazingly vivid about the terror and grandeur of both the natural world and the consequences of human destructiveness upon the Earth. But the book's great power comes from Robert Macfarlane's deliberate turn away from despair and a simple narrative of human evildoing, and toward a more deliberate, loving, and luminous sense of awe.

Author Blurb Rebecca Solnit
I began this book with the thrill of realizing that Robert Macfarlane has over the years and books charted the heights and breadth of human travel before plumbing the depths in this exquisite book about what lies beneath. I ended it with wonder at his ability to evoke so vividly places to which I and probably you will never go, and the sense of vast scale they restore to us at a time when it can feel like the world has shrunken around us.

Author Blurb Andrea Wulf
Robert Macfarlane is a magician with words. In Underland he shows us how to see in the dark. His writing is like a vortex…once caught, you're pulled deeper and deeper with each page.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Extraordinary Underground Vistas


I am incredibly claustrophobic, so reading Robert Macfarlane's Underland didn't make me particularly inclined to follow in his footsteps. But some readers may be inspired by the places he describes so vividly and want to do a little underland exploring of their own. Many of them are so remote (or dangerous, or illegal) that they'd be inaccessible for all but the most intrepid explorers; but if you do find yourself longing to head below the earth, here are some dramatic and fascinating underground places you can more easily visit:

  • The Hundred Mammoths Cave in France: Near Rouffignac in southwestern France, more than 150 drawings and engravings of mammoths—plus 65 other animals, from horses to rhinos—line the walls and ceilings of this expansive cave system that visitors can access via an electric train. The cave art originates from the Upper Paleolithic era, dating back 50,000 to 10,000 BP.
  • Petra in Jordan: Petra is an entire city boasting stunning examples of 1st century architecture—all within dramatic sandstone cliffs. Many of the Bedouin guides who lead tours of Petra have actually lived there themselves.
  • Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado: Not a cave exactly, but the cliff dwellings inhabited by Anasazi Native Americans in the 13th century still offer a thrill of discovery, as visitors can tour more than 100 rooms and chambers in settlements that also feature plaster paintings of birds and other animals.
  • Naples Underground in Italy: The Italian city of Naples is built on a foundation of compacted volcanic rock called tuff. Over more than 2,000 years, caves and tunnels have been carved out of the rock. Visitors can descend 120 feet under the city to explore the tunnels, catacombs and roads that crisscross under the city.
  • Odessa Catacombs in Ukraine: The tunnels under the city of Odessa were dug in the 17th century and now, at more than 1,500 miles, form the longest underground passageway in the world. Part of the catacombs are viewable at the Museum of Partisan Glory, but the more adventurous can find guides to take them on an unofficial tour of this vast underground network.
  • Quincy Mine in Michigan: Michigan's Upper Peninsula was the epicenter of the United States copper mining industry. Although this mine was closed in the 1940s, today, visitors can travel underground to see first-hand what the life of a miner was like by traveling on the cog railway and heading deep underground to see where and how the ore was mined.
  • Cenote Dos Ojos in Mexico: Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is home to many cenotes, or freshwater-filled caverns filled with stalactites, stalagmites, and other dramatic underwater rock formations. Trained scuba divers can travel into this otherworldly landscape underwater.
  • Mammoth Cave in Kentucky: The longest cave system in the world is in this National Park. More than 400 miles have been explored and mapped, but there are still many more passages that have yet to be uncovered.
  • Werfen Ice Caves in Austria: The largest known ice cave in the world is reached via some mountain climbing, plus a cable car ride, before reaching the expansive caverns that feature stunning formations in both rock and ice.

Picture of sea cave, courtesy of Public Domain Pictures.

Filed under Nature and the Environment

By Norah Piehl

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