Reading notes: Underland

The cover of "Underland" by Robert MacFarlane

Underland is a book about what lurks below the world’s surface.

It’s about the underground — digging, burying, and exploring — but it’s also about time, eternity, and death. The story it tells jumps from caves to mountains to mines to catacombs to the bottom of the ocean. A travelogue written in the present tense, it uses short, austere sentences that feel at once immediate and deeply polished. I get the sense that much of the book began as scribbles in a rain-spattered notebook. But then the scribbles were erased and rewritten, worked over again and again, perhaps, in late-night fevers, until all the facets shined.

Robert MacFarlane somehow writes nonfiction prose with the rhythm and care of poetry. Not a word out of place in 500 pages.

I’m a big fan of his work. I picked up his book Landmarks a few years ago, at a time when many things in my life felt like they were in question. I felt a pull to write more myself. After years of stumbles and false starts, however, I had no idea what I wanted to say, or where I wanted to go. An autobiographical “reading tour” of the nature writers who most influenced MacFarlane, Landmarks showed me a different approach to writing. (Note: And, maybe, a different way of seeing the world. ) It felt exciting. It felt like a path I could follow.

I reread it a couple times, dog-eared the pages and scrawled notes all over the margins. Then I followed its lead, digging into the work of Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin, and Barry Lopez. There was something there I needed to understand to move forward. In many ways, I’m still digesting it.

Where Landmarks mostly focused on the British isles, Underland is a huge and globe-spanning thing. It’s darker and heavier — in tone, subject, and complexity. The book itself is substantial: the hardcover edition, beautifully designed, is printed on thick cottony paper with generous margins and densely-layered cover art courtesy of Stanley Donwood.

I've wrestled with it, again and again, as I've read over the last six months. I'll read a page or two and find myself lost in thought awhile. I'll shake myself awake, read another couple pages, repeat. It's slow going; there's a lot to digest, but it's worth it.

Published in 2019 and, I believe, worked on for most of a decade before that, Underland precedes the COVID outbreak. But it seems to reflect a lot of what I felt myself struggling with throughout the pandemic. There’s a thread of despair that seems to run through it, just below MacFarlane’s natural sincerity and humor. I can hear him searching for something with a kind of desperation that, Lord knows, we’ve all been feeling.

The books moves from place to place — places that often make me wince and grit my teeth. He squeezes through claustrophobic tunnels. He skulks through the Paris catacombs and other urban, legal gray zones. He climbs mountains in the dead of winter. Each place offers some piece of a bigger puzzle about deep time, what we can and cannot know, and how we deal with what what lies beyond our vision. The subjects themselves are fascinating, but I also like how he uses his experiences of getting there and back to build a more visceral, detailed story about remote places and complicated questions.

In one chapter, MacFarlane traverses a mountain ridge on the Lofoten Islands in Norway to reach Kollhellaren, a cave filled with prehistoric art. He decides to cross the Wall, as it's called, amid winter storms, under rising threat of avalanches. A local man named Roy asks him why he wants so badly to cross the mountain at the 'wrong time of year'.

I think of trying to explain: how the figures have come to fascinate me since I first heard of them years earlier. How I am trying to understand what drew their makers to that hard, strong place to leave their mark. But it seems too frail a structure of reasoning to risk exposing, just when I need my confidence most.

‘I just want to see the cave and its figures, and be over there on the west side for some time,’ I say.

Roy shrugs. ‘There have always been Englishmen doing such things, since Slingsby,’ he says.

— Red Dancers, page 259

This passage seems to encapsulate many of the contradictions I can hear MacFarlane struggling with throughout the book. He feels driven to go to all these places, to continue his search, but I think he realizes this is all maybe a little ridiculous. He's not entirely sure why's he doing this, and he can't quite explain his need to be here, getting frostbite in the driving snow. In the quote above, I can see Roy snorting, shaking his head, muttering to himself about idiot tourists.

Maybe that's just the story he's trying to tell — a story that's about being a little out of control, irrational, lost. I admire the book's nuance and sincerity. Unsure of his own motivations, he refuses to reach for comfortable answers. He grapples with his privilege and the limitations of his point of view. We hear locals ribbing him, questioning his preconceptions. He goes out of his way to portray himself as off-kilter or hesitant, as the quailing foil to the hard-edged professionals he follows through mines, laboratories, glaciers, and stormy seas. In fact my favorite parts of the book are these biographical vignettes, where he lets the voices of spelunkers, urban explorers, fishermen, and scientists take over for a chapter. They’re fascinating, inspiring characters and I’m grateful to him for the chance to spend time with them.

My favorite is Bjørnar, (Note: The Edge, page 289. ) a Norwegian fisherman who laughs in loud barks and punctuates his sentences with italics. It's a beautiful, affectionate portrait:

Like many people who have arduous and dangerous jobs, Bjørnar is uninterested in narrating his hardships. Fishing is the task, hardship is the cost, and the rewards are clear to him: he is the sole ruler of his floating kingdom of one, he earns a living, and he satisfies his profound love of the sea.

— The Edge, page 292

Most of all Underland strikes me as a record of searching, sometimes feverish and sometimes anguished, for a more true way to see ourselves. I’m not sure that Robert MacFarlane knows know what he’s looking for, exactly, any more than the rest of us do. But we’re all desperate to find it. We know that time grows short. The ice melts faster. Species vanish. Viruses spread. Governments become less stable, the crowds angrier.

Staring into the abyss of deep time — not looking away — MacFarlane seems to argue, is not the solution, but it’s a good place to start.

I imagine I’ll be pondering the ideas in this book for many years to come.

A few excerpts

My copy is heavily dog-eared and annotated. As I near the end, the book has almost doubled its thickness. Here are a few quotes, chosen almost at random from the hundreds I underlined. Hopefully these bits give you a sense of his wonderful style and insight.

What these narratives all suggest is something seemingly paradoxical: that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelation rather than deprivation. Our common verb ‘to understand’ itself bears an old sense of passing beneath something in order fully to comprehend it. To ‘discover’ is ‘to reveal by excavation,’ ‘to descend and bring to the light,’ ‘to fetch up from depth.’ These are ancient associations.

— Descending, page 17

We sit on boulders, flick off our head-torches. Afterlives of light at first, ghost-patterns on the retina: ferns and leaves. Then the darkness settles and trues, so that when I hold my hand an inch from my eyes I know its presence only from the sound and heat of breath on palm. A heavy black curtain has fallen between Sean and me, then hardened into a wall of stone, such that we are soon in different underlands altogether.

We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But here in the rift it feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle. Over aeons, rock absorbs, transforms, levitates from seabed to summit.

— Burial, page 37

‘At the weekends’, Christopher says, ‘when I’m out for a walk with my wife, along the cliff tops near here, on a sunny day, I know our bodies are wide-meshed nets, and that the cliffs we’re walking on are nets too, and sometimes it seems, yes, as miraculous as if in our everyday world we suddenly found ourselves walking on water, or air. And I wonder what it must be life, sometimes, not to know that’.

He pauses, and it is clear that he is thinking now beyond the confines of the salt cavern, beyon even the known limits of the universe.

‘But mostly, and in several ways, I’m amazed I’m able to hold the hand of person I love’.

— Dark Matter, page 69

If there is human meaning to be made of the wood wide web, it is surely that what might save us as we move forwards into the precarious, unsettled centuries ahead is collaboration: mutualism, symbiosis, the inclusive human work of collective decision-making extended to more-than-human communities.

— The Understorey, page 113

I am reminded again of Eyal Weizman’s study of the landscape architecture of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Hollow Land, and its proposal of ‘elastic geography’, whereby space is to be understood not simply as the backdrop for actions of conflict, ‘but rather the medium that each … action seeks to challenge, transform or appropriate.’

— Hollow Land, page 239

‘To me the land does not stop when it dips into the ocean. It keeps on going and I know that land under the sea as well as I know this world above. I can see it as well as you can see that.’ He gestures through the window at the fjord.

‘It’s the knowledge about what is under the surface that for all times has kept these coastal people and this coast alive.

— The Edge, page 295

All of these nineteenth-century hollow-Earth texts read, now, both as beckonings into and warnings of the void. All are Anthropocene works avant la lettre, about longings to gain access to the Earth’s wealthy interior. They foretell the arrival of the extractive industries in all their gargantuan force.

— The Edge, page 312