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'Underland' by Robert Macfarlane review

Exploring Earth’s subterranean nooks and crannies, Underland is a poetic travelogue that sheds light on the darkest depths of the human condition

Published 28 May 2019, 16:18 BST, Updated 22 Jul 2021, 14:13 BST

“The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree...”

So begins a gentle walk that’s about as far from pedestrian as a travelogue can get. Like Robert Macfarlane’s previous books — such as Mountains of the MindThe Old Ways and Landmarks — this new offering from the award-winning nature writer explores how we’re shaped by the landscapes we move through. It’s a travelogue, one that drives into the most crepuscular corners of human existence — a big, brave book that asks the vital question of our time: are we being good ancestors for our descendants here on Earth?

This journey through ‘deep time’ edges towards the centre of the Earth: into Parisian catacombs, Norwegian sea caves and Bronze Age funeral chambers. It looks at our collective imaginings of the world beneath our feet but is far from a colourful Jules Verne netherworld. Instead, it’s a hands-dirty, back-bent descent into compressed, breathtaking places where claustrophobia looms large. 

“To understand the light, you first need to have been buried in the deep down dark,” says Macfarlane, after fighting a ruckle of boulders in a cave system under the Mendips. This is truer still when he meets a mycologist called Merlin and learns how trees communicate through underground fungal networks. 

A host of other experts, including geologists and glaciologists, are roped in, yet the book avoids indulging in too much beard-stroking. But, as Macfarlane admits, Underland is a male realm — female explorers are scant, rarely guiding his subterranean story. Instead we’re led by such macho seers as the Norwegian fisherman whose blue-grey eyes appear blind at first but, when cod running in the Lofoten Islands, can ‘see’ the rise and fall of the seabed.  

Underland can get abstract while losing itself in the dark in search of an almost Zen-like divinity. It’s beautiful nonetheless, making England seem timeless; a place of elder and blackthorn, dragonflies and rosebay willowherbs. Macfarlane’s writing is perhaps most sure-footed above ground, however, in his familiar mountain terrain; a poetic odyssey that climaxes towards the book’s end when he goes in search of glaciers in Greenland. 

Underland speaks to our era’s solastalgia — our existential distress at what we’re doing to our planet. Is it a retreat underground away from the horrors of the natural world changing irreversibly around us? Yes. But it simultaneously looks at them square on, too. And it can be utterly joyful.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton. RRP: £20

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Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) 

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