February 7, 2020


Country matters on Booksquawk

Potters’ and Planters’ Almanac, part three

by Robert Macfarlane
496 pages, Hamish Hamilton

Review by Pat Black

There’s a lot going on under there, beneath your feet.

Underland is Robert Macfarlane’s most ambitious book. Instead of his usual trails across mountain ranges, clifftops or other high roads, this work goes low, looking at the relatively unexamined world of the underground. That can mean caves, caverns, sink holes, mine shafts, bore holes in bright blue glaciers, labyrinths, hidden rivers, hidden cities, ancient tombs, future tombs, and some teeny tiny wee crawlspaces that you just wouldn’t get me in, for all the lube in Lubya.

In his introduction, the author quotes from a section of Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, a book I haven’t read. I have read descriptions of the passage in question before, though – a nauseating journey the characters take through an underground cave that’s too tight to turn your head in, with places that you can barely scrape your ankles through, as you literally inch your way forward in complete darkness, with no way back. And then it gets tighter, and tighter…

If you’re already white-knuckling it, then so was Macfarlane. He admits that this part of the book terrified him as a child. So, in the early part, there’s an element of confronting natural fear, or maybe it’s just masochism, as Macfarlane tries to squeeze through some similar gaps accompanied by a spelunker in the Mendips.

The book thankfully isn’t a series of palpitation-inducing compressions, but broadens out into an erudite examination of what goes on beneath the crust of the planet, and humans’ need to interact with it. That can be for simple exploration or adventure; or for burial and concealment, sometimes for nefarious purposes. On other occasions, the world simply collapses on us. There are sinkholes and shafts, which can open up without warning. There are almost certainly skeletons down there. And there is hidden treasure: most major cities have hidden layers underneath, such as Edinburgh, Paris and of course London. I can recommend one of those tours in the Scottish capital. If ghosts exist, then they must surely stalk those gloomy, dripping spaces.

Then there are hidden worlds that we couldn’t even conceive of until recently, such as the wonders of the wood-wide-web. This is a theory that trees can actually communicate and interact with each other in the forest via an underground network of fungi and spores. Regular readers will have run into this idea before in our coverage of the work of Roger Deakin – a close friend of Robert Macfarlane.

Along the way, of course, there’s some derring-do involving trips to places that I’m not sure I’d ever want to visit. Macfarlane does it, so you don’t have to – and isn’t that the essence of every great piece of travel writing?  

Throughout Underland, there’s a sense of extra dimensions, a trippy element that I thoroughly enjoyed. This starts with the author’s appraisal of a map. You can gain an idea of the terrain and the topography, but there’s no sense of true depth, with the world underneath us and all its riches occluded. Things get even spacier, literally, in one early chapter sees MacFarlane joining physicists in a former mine at Boulby in Yorkshire, underneath the sea bed, where they try to unlock the secrets of dark matter free from the interference of surface radiation. So, this texture and topography, this extradimensionality, can stretch out into the cosmos, as well as growing roots into the earth beneath us.

I was tickled by the section where McFarlane joins a plant scientist called Merlin Sheldrake to examine the wood wide web in Epping Forest. He rarely fails to address the man by his first name, every other sentence - and who could blame him when you can write stuff like: “I joined Merlin for a walk in the forest one misty morning”? The wood wide web shows us that there are states of existence on our own planet, never mind in outer space, which are almost beyond human comprehension. The book is packed with uncanny landscapes. In one chapter, Macfarlane describes beaches of black ash which have never seen the sun during a kayak trip through underground rivers in Italy, home to whole thriving ecosystems and animal populations which get by without human interference perfectly well. There must be loads of this we’ve yet to discover. It makes our blundering progress across the planet and the waste we choke it up with all the more disgusting.

The Anthropocene era casts a shadow over the whole book. Though he’s never preachy, the end of existence on earth – a process which might be well under way thanks to humans - is never far from Macfarlane’s thoughts. Everywhere he looks, there are signs of our impermanence, and proof that in deep time, our greatest achievements and mightiest edifices will be as significant as the gravel on someone’s driveway.

There are a couple of scrotum reducers, such as when Macfarlane visits the catacombs in Paris, and has to follow an almost supernaturally bendy guide as she angles herself through impossible turns in the pitch-black labyrinth ahead of him. On top of that, there’s our opening section when the author crawls through some tight spaces underneath the Mendips in Somerset, a prisoner of brutal darkness underneath a perfect English summer’s day.

This kind of thing is the height – and depth – of Nope, for me. This is a journey to the bottom of the Mines of Nope. This is two thousand fathoms down, inside a Nopeyscape. Verily this is the Nopey-ist of Nopes. This is Pope Nope the Noughth of Noples. And so on. I’m not claustrophobic, as a brief examination of the some of the places I’ve lived in would show you. But this doesn’t really qualify as an irrational fear. It’s a bit like saying you’re not arachnophobic, then having to style it out when a giant spider is dropped on your face. I loved my time on the mountains and I’ve swum with sharks, so I get the appeal of more hirsute pursuits. But that spelunking stuff doesn’t do anything for me. I’ve no desire to die this most Freudian of deaths.  

Macfarlane tells us one horror story, about a caver who got stuck so fast in a twisty pipey natural tunnel far beneath the English soil that he died. They couldn’t even get the body out. The poor lad’s father decided to concrete the tunnel up, with the body inside – ensuring no-one else takes the same path. What a nightmare. For me, that’s up there with “eaten by an animal”, “burned alive” and “plane disintegrates” for the absolute worst ways to go.

Macfarlane also looks at a pit in Slovenia where an atrocity took place during the war, a place so redolent of evil it seems to want to reach up out of the darkness and throttle you. It’s somewhere Macfarlane is quite sure he’ll never return to. It’s no place for us, down there, really.

It isn’t all about close, creepy places, though. There’s high adventure as Macfarlane gets his crampons on and checks out entombed places in the far north, with polar bears to worry about as well as avalanches and other dicey events in Norway and Greenland. In one episode, he abseils down a hole bored in ancient ice by glaciologists who can glean as much from the layers of permafrost as a geologist can divine from layers of rock. I’m guessing they have never seen The Thing, but we’ll let that one slide.

Then there’s a strange episode where Macfarlane checks out ancient cave paintings on an ultra-remote Arctic island, and postulates that ancient people left their artworks in one spectacularly inhospitable cavern of ice as a rite of passage, or an offering to a god. Macfarlane makes one himself, an obeisance to the spirit of adventure. This is fantastic Boy’s Own stuff, although I imagine that Macfarlane’s hairy moments would have led to his family Having A Word with him upon his return.

Macfarlane’s grand finale sees him examine how humans prepare for a post-human future – by trying to prevent an unknown population many years from now from disinterring nuclear waste which is likely to remain hot and extremely dangerous for millennia.

It poses a delicious problem: how do you effectively warn the descendants of the rats and cockroaches or the visiting alien societies that no matter how interesting the burial chamber is, they really, really shouldn’t mess with it?

You could leave all sorts of scary warnings or traps, but we’ve all seen Raiders Of The Lost Ark. That’s just going to spur them on. “Danger? Keep out? I click my chitinous mandibles at your danger.” You’ve got to play it a bit cooler than that… The techniques worked out by scientists are ingenious, but we’ve no way of knowing if they’ll work.

Thankfully, it’s somebody’s else’s problem. Or maybe nobody else’s problem. Nothing’s permanent. Even the ground beneath our feet must shift and change, given the passage of deep time; it could turn out to be desert, or a forest floor, or the top of a mountain, or a cavern half a mile underground that will never see the sun again, or more likely a seabed - and finally it might be nothing at all, turned to stardust within the fatal boundaries of our engorged red sun.

Everything that ever existed on this earth might have come to absolutely nothing, and been of no consequence, an interesting flash in the sky for whatever life might exist out there as we all boil away.

Imagine that? In deep time, nothing we ever do matters. I can’t decide if this prospect is terrifying, or awesome. All that remains might be what’s on the Voyager probe’s information disc. Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode might be one of the few things in all of human artistic endeavour to survive the passing of the planet itself. Strewth.

There is the smallest chance that Earth will survive the sun’s greed as it expands, billions of years into the future. It might just, just sneak into the “survival zone”, leaving a crispy outer shell and nothing still living, like one last round at the pub swiped on your bank card in the hours before your pay arrives.

Whether there will be anything left of the human race anywhere in the universe by then is debatable. There’s something in Macfarlane’s tone which tells me which side he’s on in that one.

Speaking of endings, I finished this audiobook when I went out for a walk quite late on New Year’s Eve, at the very end of the decade. I loved the poetry and synchronicity of this, and its entirely unrealistic sense of closure. The definition of a book.

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