Underland by Robert Macfarlane

In this first ever guest post for Heliocene, New Zealand writer Frances Palmer presents a deeply inquisitive review of Underland by Robert Macfarlane. Reaching into its text and its subtexts, she compels us not only to read the book but, more importantly, to understand why it has been written.

Macfarlane, himself, writes that his book was “composed in anticipation of a future reader gazing back at the cultures of the Anthropocene”, with writing that he hopes “might actively ‘unconceal’ the traces of our fast-altering world”.

Let The Light In

By Frances Palmer

In the underland I have seen things I hope I will never forget – and things I wish I had never witnessed.

(Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 18)

In Underland, Macfarlane introduces the reader to underground (and above ground) places most people will likely never have physical access to in their own lives. Connections are vital to this journey – connections to land, to ancient worlds, to history and science, to people and to humanity. In exposing under land worlds Macfarlane offers up gifts of knowledge and memories found only in these places. He guides us into geological, moral and knowledge spaces where darkness and deep time become enlightening, where more questions arise than answers. With lyrical, poetic, wryly humorous and starkly honest language we join Macfarlane in scene after scene through a subsurface network of echoes, patterns and connections (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 17).

Underland places have been used, across epochs and cultures, predominantly for three tasks – to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable and to dispose of what is harmful (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 8). The book follows a predominantly geographical and geological frame divided into three sections: Seeing, part I in Britain – Somerset and Yorkshire. Hiding, part II in Europe – Paris, Italy and Slovenia. Haunting, part III, in the North – Norway, Green land and Finland. Despite these groupings the journeys flow seamlessly through common threads within each descent and resurfacing, from chamber to chamber.

Published in May 2019, Underland won the UK’s top nature writing award. The motivation to start it in 2010 reflected three significant events occurring within an 8-month period that year: The Deep-Water Horizon oil catastrophe, the Haiti Earthquake and the Chilean miners being trapped underground. The under land was rising to the surface.

Macfarlane was already strongly connected to this place, growing up in coal country next to limestone country, his father, a doctor treating coal miners impacted by working underground (Macfarlane, 2019a). Now aged 45 years he has been writing for 15 of those on the connection between the heart and the landscape. This journey began as his personal quest to discover why he was so drawn to the mountains and turned into a deep mapping through his books: Landmarks (2015), The Old Ways (2012), The Wild Places (2007), Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003). Other books include The Lost Words: A Spell Book (2017) with artist Jackie Morris and Ness (2018) with artwork by Stanley Donwood. Since publishing Underland, Macfarlane has collaborated on several multi-media projects while continuing his activism on behalf of nature and humanity. One such collaboration, a meditative short film called Utaqaq (an Inuit term for Ice that lasts year after year), is based on Underland’s chapter ‘The Blue of Time’ (Radivojević, 2021). The short film is a melodic narration in the Kalaallisut language of West Greenland. Utaqaq observes four researchers as they drill ice cores in the uncertain warming landscape of the Arctic and asks “What do they want?”

This deep time journey is not one taken alone – it became communal. Rather than the image of previous books, the walker’s placed and lifted foot, the predominant image of Underland is an open hand extended in greeting, compassion or the making of a mark (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 18). It is clear Macfarlane understands the importance of co-operation and collaboration. He knows better than to expect an immediate impact from activism – the shape of history is more complex than a cause-and-effect relationship. He quotes Rebecca Solnit You write your books. You scatter your seeds … Some seeds may lie dormant for decades because they only germinate after fire (Macfarlane, 2015). Unfortunately we don’t have decades. We are on fire.

So, finding subtle, rich, and open ways of imagining and telling stories about particular places is (perhaps) more urgent than it has ever been (Horrocks, 2018). Building on the much earlier work of writers like Loren Eisley (Eisley, 1957) Macfarlane offers a personalisation in his writing that is a tonal mix of the poetic and the scientific and analytical (Macfarlane, 2015). Situating oneself in the story avoids the eulogizing and obvious attributed to some nature writing (Walker, 2017). Underland presents a paradox in which darkness may help us see and that descent may be a movement towards revelation rather than deprivation (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 17). Macfarlane proposes hope. Deep time can be linked to positivity, generosity and connection as opposed to apathy and inertia. Deep time is the chronology of the underland and by exposing us to the deep time of the under lands
humanity may see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 15).

Rivers disappear and so do stories, only to rise again in unexpected places.

(Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 182)

The life-saving challenge of nature writers in the 21st century is to remake connections between human and non-human worlds (The New Nature Writing, 2008). Reflecting on Fermor’s books that have influenced his life and writing, Macfarlane values connections path to path, culture to culture, word to word (Macfarlane, 2020). Underland is an open invitation for the reader to investigate further, think harder, act more. No matter what it’s called, 21st century writing about nature is a political act and ethically urgent in bearing witness to human destruction of our planet (Bradley, 2017). In response, the only scientific thing to do is revolt! (Haraway, 2016, p. 47) The question is how – how to move beyond wanting to matter and actually acting to matter. We will not save what we do not love (Macfarlane, 2013)

The concept of resurfacing is important in Underland. Things, places, animals and humans – that should have remained hidden are rising due to global warming. Where the River Elbe flows through the Czech Republic extraordinarily low summer water levels have recently seen hunger stones uncovered. These carved boulders were used for centuries in the past to mark droughts and inscriptions warn of the consequences of drought “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine”: “If you see me, weep” (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 14). Things buried deep underground are not gone forever, they eventually come back in altered forms: a dark force of “sleeping giants”, roused from their deep time slumber (Macfarlane, 2019b, pp. 14-15). Simultaneously, be aware of the ramifications for our new responsibilities in the Anthropocene, to consider the marks we leave behind within the epochs. To understand that things come alive over deep time that were once inert: Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 16).

The Anthropocene, where time is profoundly out of joint – and so is place.

(Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 14)

Recent modelling projects that within the next 50 years, 1-3 billion people will live within climatic conditions outside of the range that has so well served humanity over the past 6000 years (Folke et al., 2021). The impacts of the Anthropocene are typically punctuated as singular and disconnected – warmer climate equals rising seas. Fullstop. In reality, there are no full stops, only hyphens and question marks. The scientifically calculated risk to humanity, even if global emissions are reduced says we have already or are very close to, pushing Earth Systems into an unstoppable cascade that reinforces ‘Hothouse Earth’ (Steffen et al., 2018). The resultant scientific to-do list for survival includes decarbonisation, carbon capture, innovative technology, behavioural change, rethinking governance and transforming social values and equity. The same to-do list we have known for decades. Macfarlane, the mountaineer, skilled in survival skills ranks ‘wonder’ as an essential survival skill of the Anthropocene (Macfarlane, 2019a).

New nature writing has to find ways to talk about grief without becoming overwhelmed by grief. To record factual accounts of anthropogenic damage without being silenced by political or corporate forces. Underland acknowledges the Anthropocene as having destabilised the very sense of what ‘nature’ means (DeLoughrey, Didur, & Carrigan, 2015; Smith, 2017). As such, geology has emerged as a prominent area of writing about place – humans are now acting as geological agents. In Norway, Macfarlane meets Bjornar, a huge character with a huge passion a fisherman, a fighter, who understands the underland of the sea (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 291). Bjornar has experienced multiple mental breakdowns as he fought to stop oil drilling under his sea. He succeeds, yet this is only temporary. Here lies the concept of solastalgia – the distress experienced when your place changes through environmental loss, your home becomes unhomely (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 317). This produces a melancholy in me that is impossible to ignore.

Memorable writing describes intimate detail and compels it be read (Gutkind, 2006). Underland bears the trademark of the new nature writing in paying attention to fine detail in order to reveal the unseen whole using innovative frames of reference. The impact is intended to prompt us to consider the unexpected and the unnatural collision of events and forces around us and to make sense of the complexity and interconnectedness of our planetary imbalance (Bradley, 2017). After witnessing the collapse of a glacier face in Greenland where the white train is suddenly somehow pulling white wagons behind it from within the glacier… followed by a cathedral – a blue cathedral of ice … then a whole city of white and blue Macfarlane and his companions witness a terrible uprising from the water a black shining pyramid, sharp at its prow, thrusting and glistening made of ice yet resembling meteorite metal coming from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour, and we are dancing and swearing and shouting, appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced… that has taken 3 minutes and 100,000 years to conclude (Macfarlane, 2019b, pp. 377-378). Detail is Macfarlane’s spotlight on the world. He demonstrates how close observation is an ethical act in new nature writing (Bradley, 2017). The best of recent nature writing is both ethically alert and theoretically literate (Macfarlane, 2015). Lyrical language’s role in writing in place is to recreate that place by unsettling the place and making it shine more brightly for having been disturbed. That is, the writer tries to bring forth what is deeply, structurally, poetically, eternally real (Smith, 2017).

Voice is a unique way of relating a story, through the cumulative effect of the sentence and paragraph construction. The writer’s voice is what the reader hears in their mind’s ear – its personal (Gutkind, 2006). Macfarlane’s voice consistently displays his passion. In Kulusuk, Greenland the memory of deep time: Ice has a memory, and the colour of this memory is blue. Describing the way air bubbles get trapped in ice as crystals form and pressure is applied over geological time, each of those air bubbles is a museum, a silver reliquary in which a record is kept (Macfarlane, 2019b, pp. 337-339).

Macfarlane pays due respect to his sources, acknowledging the intensive research undertaken to find words capable of depicting the challenging subjects of his Underland. His sources matter, as Haraway suggests, the ideas we use to think other ideas with, matter. It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories. (Haraway, 2016, p. 12). Macfarlane yearns for a new language; one where human values aren’t automatically assigned. To illustrate the absolute inadequacy of Western science to describe the natural world, Macfarlane cites Robyn Wall Kimmerer’s Potawatomi (Native American language of the Great Plains) where almost all words declare the animacy or inanimacy of an object or place. Mountains, rocks, winds and fire all possess life – they hold agency. For instance, Wiikwegamaa means to be a bay. A bay is a noun only if water is dead (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 112). Macfarlane relishes this perspective as one way to envisage a different relationship with nature: Words are world-makers … language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 113)

Yet, how do we ‘speak’ the Anthropocene? Macfarlane uses a passage out of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon in which a watchman looking out for a warning flame is supposed to react by shouting a warning. When the watchman sees the flame on the distant horizon he finds he is unable to cry out, he is struck dumb, inarticulate as if a great ox has stood on (my) tongue (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 364). This describes our attempts to speak the Anthropocene, in the words of cultural theorist Sianne Ngai ‘thick speech’, a mixed up, stuttering speech, cloyed to the point of congealing (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 364). Macfarlane stands on the thinning ice of Greenland: I struggle to stop language from sticking in my throat. The black-inked words in my notebooks seemed sluggish, tar-slow. Writing lost its point, clotted into purposelessness…I had an Anthropocene ox on my Holocene tongue (Macfarlane, 2019b, p. 364)

I first read Underland in 2019 after listening to Kim Hill interview Macfarlane about the book. I didn’t read the book from a place of yearning for nature writing. I’m not a fan of labels. I read Underland in response to Macfarlane’s passion for an underworld I knew little about. I read it as a distraction from my postgraduate studies in which I was immersed in the public health and development implications of our unsustainable world. Both subject areas awash with scientific and social research on complex challenges, inextricably intertwined in the implications of the Anthropocene. Both topics awash with solutions – yet drowning as political will fails to find the courage to act. So I went low. And Underland flicked on a light of possibility, planted a seed in me – the possibility that writing from the heart with authenticity and intelligence could succeed in influencing positive outcomes in the Anthropocene. In a world where opinions are increasingly received as either right or wrong with nothing in between – Underland is unafraid to go low, to stay low in unbelievable realities, to feel the dread, the fear, the not knowing. And then to resurface – alongside the grotesque and the beautiful, to inspire a lost love for the Earth we share. No matter which page of Underland I open, I am gifted fantastic language. The thick messages of Underland though, act not in a flash of brilliance accompanied by angels on wing, but rather in the way sunlight forces entry through a rusted corrugated iron roof where nails used to be, exposing fine grains of dust and thought swirling constantly in dark rooms of the mind. Macfarlane asks, ‘why go low?’. The answer is, to let the light in.

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Featured image by Tony L on Unsplash.

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