Cover image for Underland : a deep time journey
Underland : a deep time journey
1st U.S. ed.
Physical Description:
viii, 488 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.
First chamber -- Descending -- Part I. Seeing (Britain) -- Burial (Mendips, Somerset) -- Dark matter (Boulby, Yorkshire) -- The understorey (Epping Forest, London) -- Second chamber -- Part II. Hiding (Europe) -- Invisible cities (Paris) -- Starless rivers (The Carso, Italy) -- Hollow land (Slovenian highlands) -- Third chamber -- Part III. Haunting (The north) -- Red dancers (Lofotens, Norway) -- The edge (Andøya, Norway) -- The blue of time (Kulusuk, Greenland) -- Meltwater (Knud Rasmussen Glacier, Greenland) -- The hiding place (Olkiluoto, Finland) -- Surfacing.
In Underland, Macfarland delivers his masterpiece: an epic exploration of the Earth's underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. He 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.


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Book 551.447 MAC 0 1
Book 551.447 MAC 0 1

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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.

Author Notes

Robert Macfarlane is the author of Landmarks which made the Samuel Johnson Prize 2015 shortlist.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Nature writer Macfarlane (The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot) expands readers' horizons while delving into the various "worlds beneath our feet" in an eye-opening, lyrical, and even moving exploration. His look at the network of roots below London's Epping Forest leads into a discussion of the recent discovery that trees share nutrients with neighboring trees that are ill or under stress, a finding consistent with new ideas about plant intelligence and a "wood wide web" of interconnected plant and fungal life. In another section, Macfarlane descends more than half a mile below the Yorkshire countryside to visit "a laboratory set into a band of translucent silver rock salt left behind by the evaporation of an epicontinental northern sea some 250 million years earlier," where a physicist is searching for proof of dark matter's existence. Here, too, Macfarlane makes counterintuitive concepts fully accessible while capturing the poetry beneath the science, describing the tangible world humans perceive "as mere mist and silk" in relation to dark matter. Perhaps most importantly, he places humanity's time on Earth in a geological context, revealing how relatively insignificant it is. Macfarlane's rich, evocative survey enables readers to view themselves "as part of a web... stretching over millions of years past and millions to come," and deepen their understanding of the planet. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Booklist Review

In the astonishing, keen sequel to The Old Ways (2012), revered nature writer Macfarlane considers the disparate spaces humanity has used to shelter, yield, and dispose that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save. In three sections Seeing, Hiding, and Haunting and in vivid, rhythmic prose, Macfarlane describes a formidable array of mostly abhorred places, some underground. For example, one of the most complex, little-understood, and overlooked communication networks lies just underfoot as the roots of mighty trees and microscopic mycelia nourish and heal each other. Paris' labyrinth of catacombs and tunnels was created to cradle the dead, but it has become a lively city mirroring its above-ground sister. At the poles, glaciers are melting at an astounding rate, sounding an alarm few choose to hear. Underland masterfully and subtly argues the necessity of looking beyond our species and the Anthropocene the present era of cataclysmic change to dive into deep time and grasp the greater context of life on Earth. Humanity's past mistakes, thought long-buried, persistently reemerge, and Macfarlane urges us to confront these crucial realities. A powerful, epic journey for anyone wondering about the world below and all around us and, perhaps more important, for those who aren't.--Katharine Uhrich Copyright 2019 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

You know A book has entered your bloodstream when the ground beneath your feet, once viewed as bedrock, suddenly becomes a roof to unknown worlds below. The British writer Robert Macfarlane has written such a book. "Underland: A Deep Time Journey" is an epic exploration and examination of darkness and the caverns underground that have captured our imaginations, pulled us downward, housed our dead and allowed us to bury our most violent secrets. It is also a descent into the beauty where dark wisdom is located. Macfarlane divides his explorations into three sections, or "chambers," devoted to "Seeing," "Hiding" and "Haunting." As he moves through them, he will take us to ancient barrows in Britain's Mendip Hills, the understory of the Epping Forest and a physics lab investigating "dark matter" from deep within a coastal Yorkshire mine. He will guide us through underground rivers in Italy and show us the pictographs known as "the red dancers" found in Norwegian sea caves. Macfarlane homes in on "something seemingly paradoxical: that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement toward revelation rather than deprivation." Night vision becomes an essential strategy for survival in the Anthropocene, the new epoch we find ourselves in, which registers the human press on the planet as a geologic force. "For more than 15 years now," Macfarlane explains, "1 have been writing about the relationships between landscape and the human heart. What began as a wish to solve a personal mystery - why 1 was so drawn to mountains as a young man that 1 was, at times, ready to die for love of them - has unfolded into a project of deep-mapping." If writing books is a form of making maps to guide us through new intellectual territory, Macfarlane is a cartographer of the first order. His literary geography includes previous books like "The Old Ways" and "The Wild Places," as well as "Landmarks," a powerful retrieval of lost words analogous to lost worlds in wild nature. Macfarlane's writing is muscular, meticulously researched and lyrical, placing him in the lineage of Peter Matthiessen, Gretel Ehrlich and Barry Lopez. What distinguishes his work is his beginner's mind, his lack of self-consciousness, his physical pursuit of unlearning what he has been taught by received information. He stands solidly inside a younger generation's fierce sense of betrayal, having witnessed how "wealth levitates and poverty sinks." In the Slovenian highlands, Macfarlane and a companion "race the storm." On that day, the danger is from thunder and lightning, but the larger storm is climate change, with its shrinking glaciers and melting ice. ft's the loss of biodiversity and our inflated sense of self, our pursuit of human exceptionalism at the expense of earth's other life-forms. A report from the United Nations recently announced that a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. We are the cause of this, and if we care enough and are serious enough to tackle this impending tragedy, we may achieve a different outcome. One of the most affecting illustrations of our malign influence appears in the middle of Macfarlane's book. Here we meet a Norwegian cod fisherman named Bjornar Nicolaisen, who tells Macfarlane that he has four pets, "two cats and two sea eagles." We learn that he is also an activist fighting for his people, who make their livelihood in these northern waters. "To me the land does not stop when it dips into the ocean," Nicolaisen tells Macfarlane. '"ft's the knowledge about what is under the surface that for all times has kept these coastal people and this coast alive. And,' he continues, jabbing his forefinger repeatedly into the chart.... 'Here in some of the finest fishing grounds in the Arctic, here is where they were sonic blasting, testing for oil, here is where those idiots want to place the rigs.' " In 1971, oil production was initiated southwest of the Norwegian continental shelf, creating an "oil rush" in Norway. The country's economy was saturated with oil, creating "a national sovereign wealth fund," Macfarlane explains, "of more than three-quarters of a trillion pounds, equivalent to around ?150,000 per citizen." With the escalation of fossil fuel development, there is now a fight for "the soul of Norway." Nicolaisen became a leader of the resistance. And this time the resistance won, which meant the oil development stopped - at least temporarily. In a characteristic flourish, Macfarlane braids Nicolaisen's tales of water and oil into Edgar Allan Poe's story "A Descent Into the Maelstrom." It could not be more timely. "Such structures captivate us," Macfarlane writes. "Their victims are trapped before they are even aware they have been caught." Poe's story speaks "in part of the mid-19th-century dreams of the 'oceans of oil' that were imagined to exist under the earth." And now "our modern species-history is one of remorselessly accelerated extraction, accompanied by compensatory small acts of preservation and elegiac songs. We have now drilled some 30 million miles of tunnel and borehole in our hunt for resources, truly riddling our planet into a hollow Earth." "Underland" is a book of dares. Macfarlane dares to go deep into earth's unseen world and illuminate what we not only shy away from but what we don't even know exists. In a chapter called "Invisible Cities," he dares to follow a fearless shapeshifter of a guide into the catacombs of Paris, where in 1786 the city began "evacuating" its cemeteries, transferring the remains of more than six million corpses into a maze of tunnels and rooms dug out of the limestone. Macfarlane joins a party of catacomb aficionados who forgo sunlight for days, wading in flooded tunnels, coming face to face with hundreds of skulls lining the cold chalky walls. They sleep in a niche lit by tea-candles "in each of the eye sockets" of the carved monkeys who keep watch over the bones. Stuck in a narrow vein of stone, they pull their packs along, attached to their toes, as they flatten their bodies, inching their way forward and praying for an opening. Claustrophobic by nature, I became sickened by Macfarlane's description: "I can feel the stone around me, the stone that encases me, the stone that is measuring me up like a coffin, starting to vibrate." Thankfully, with a quick turn of the page, I found him released from the tunnel, in a chamber with a group of artists and musicians sitting down to a table set with fresh fruit, baguettes and Brie. This is just one aspect of the book's mesmerizing kaleidoscope of provocative encounters, many of which are tethered to the terror and surreal nature of a post-human world. Macfarlane labors in uncertainty and loves the big questions. Chapter titles like "The Understorey," "Starless Rivers" and "Meltwater" hint at their subjects: the collaborative intelligence of fungi as a network of entanglements; the danger of being carried away by underground torrents; the seduction of turquoise waters slicing through the retreating glaciers as the "ice left language beached." Sweeping journeys across the globe like "Underland" and Barry Lopez's recent masterpiece, "Horizon," may one day be seen as unthinkable extravagances, the paradox of privilege that has allowed us to fly wherever we wish and bear witness to the endgame of life as we have known it, before it disappears. There is a morality here that each of us must face on our plundered planet. Macfarlane confesses to being haunted by a vision shared by the Saami people of the Arctic, who see the underland "as a perfect inversion of the human realm," so that "the dead and the living are standing sole to sole." What does it mean to be human at a time when we're struggling with the nature of our humanity, when the world as we thought we knew it is fluid and not fixed? "Underland" is a portal of light in dark times. I needed this book of beauty below to balance the pain we're witnessing aboveground. Macfarlane reminds us of Walter Benjamin's belief that one must "make some sign to the world one is leaving." How, Macfarlane asks, do we reckon with the fact that "over a quarter of a million tons of high-level nuclear waste in need of final storage is presently thought to exist globally, with around 12,000 tons being added to the figure annually?" How do we communicate danger to future generations, how to let them know that these spent rods of uranium are not to be touched for tens of thousands of years? Robert Macfarlane asks us not only to consider but to face the haunting and crucial question: "Are we being good ancestors?" 'Darkness might be a medium of vision ... descent may be a movement toward revelation.' TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS is writer in residence at the Harvard Divinity School Her latest book, "Erosion: Essays of Undoing," will be published this fall.

Guardian Review

Adventures, prose of great beauty and deep concerns... a book that offers a new perspective on the human impact on our planet Stories of human journeys into the Underworld are as old as literature itself. But few of them are happy tales. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets recording the Epic of Gilgamesh were first incised around 1800BC. These tell of the Sumerian hero Enkidu who reappeared from a long imprisonment underground in the Netherworld, during which he had to sail through storms of hailstones that struck him like "hammers", and surfed waves that attacked his boat like "butting turtles". Gilgamesh questions him: "Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?" "I saw them," answers Enkidu. Similar journeys end as darkly for Orpheus, Hercules and Aeneas as they do for their direct counterparts in Finnish, Inuit, Aztec, Mayan and Hindu mythology. In Greek mythology tales of haunting journeys down the rivers of the dead are sufficiently common that they have their own collective noun: katabasis . But for every Theseus who enters the labyrinthine darkness of the Underland to triumph against the Minotaur there are many more Eurydices who never return. Such fears, Robert Macfarlane points out, are embedded deep in our language where "height is celebrated but depth is despised. To be 'uplifted' is preferable to being 'depressed' or 'pulled down'." There is throughout a transcendent beauty to Macfarlane's prose, and occasional moments of epiphany and even ecstasy - such as when, somewhere below Trieste, he abseils "into an immense rotunda of stone, cut by a buried river and filled with dunes of black sand". Nevertheless, his journeys deep into the earth "far from the human realm", are usually melancholic and claustrophobic, and are occasionally properly frightening. Some of this comes from the danger and difficulty inherent in underground journeys. In a cave system in the Mendips, a rope thrown down as an escape route becomes entangled behind the belay boulder; only the necessity to regain the surface forces Macfarlane to risk his life climbing up it. Under Paris, he nearly becomes stuck in a narrow vertical shaft as "the stone that encases me, the stone that is measuring me up like a coffin, starts to vibrate ... The thought of continuing is atrocious. The thought of reversing is even worse. Then the top of my head bumps against something soft... " As in his first book, Mountains of the Mind , Macfarlane remains obsessed by the fear and fascination generated in the human heart by extreme landscapes, and he clearly savours the adrenaline rush - what Al Alvarez calls, in his classic essay on climbing and fear, "feeding the rat". "I have rarely felt as far from the human realm," Macfarlane writes, "as when only 10 metres below it, held in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of a warm Cretaceous sea." When not getting stuck himself, he regales us with tales of some of those who never returned: in the Mendips we hear "a story that some people in the Peak District do not like to discuss, sixty years on", of the caver Neil Moss who became wedged in a limestone shaft and, despite a countrywide rescue effort, suffocated before he could be hauled out; he was later "sealed by cement in the fissure that had killed him". In Italy we are told of "the fallen angel of French speleology", Marcel Loubens, who winches himself into an abyss only to have his belt clip snap. His injuries, "a broken spine and a fractured skull", are so severe that he dies in the dark, 36 hours later. But as always with Macfarlane's books, the tales of adventures are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These are concerns that run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, across several successive books. In his early masterwork The Wild Places he wrote how "the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the Iron Age. Our roads will lapse into the land." This idea is developed at much greater length in Underland , as premonitions of our present apocalyptic Anthropocene close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. For this book is also about man's almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is above all a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good. The climatic consequences of human actions are now, he believes, beyond our control. One hundred thousand years ago, three river systems ran across the Sahara. In around 5bn years "the Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel". In between these two markers, the signs of our own self-destruction are becoming ever more evident. Philip Larkin thought that what will survive of us is love. Macfarlane is more pessimistic. What will really succeed us, he fears is "plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain". "What does human behaviour matter," he asks, "when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of deserts or oceans, morality looks absurd, crushed to irrelevance. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of our eventual ruin." Early in the book we visit a laboratory under the Whitby coast where scientists study the traces of dark matter formed at the birth of the universe. Later we ascend from the forests of the Carboniferous period to the wastelands of the Anthropocene. The final sections concern Macfarlane's visit to what is to supposed to be the most secure place on Earth - beneath Olkiluoto Island on the Bothnian sea off Finland, where nuclear waste will be buried until it becomes safe at the end of its half-life, millions of years from now. Here we catch a glimpse of our "nuclear futures of an Anthropocene-to-come" where "the timescale of the hazard is such that those responsible for entombing this waste must now face the question of how to communicate its danger to the distant future. This is a risk that will outlast not only the life of its makers but perhaps the species of its makers." After this last quest is completed, the final pages of Underland record the author's return home, where he takes his young son in his arms and holds him close, as if to protect him from the gathering shades he has learned to converse with and which he cannot now un-see. It is a moving end to a most unsettling quest. Underland is, as its title suggests, "a book about burial and unburial and deep time", "the awful darkness inside the world", "of descents made in search of knowledge", to study the places where "we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save". If fear is a constant companion on such journeys, for the reader at home there are many pleasures, most notably the armchair exploration of a far more benign landscape: the interior of Macfarlane's magnificently well-furnished mind. For the darkly tangled path this book takes through the labyrinth of history and memory, literature and landscape, high-flown prose and underworldly observation are illuminated by Macfarlane's inventive way with language. At its best, this has an epic, incantatory quality. There is a rare gift at work here: chiselled prose of such beauty that it can, on occasion, illuminate the darkness below ground as startlingly as a Verey light sent up into the vaults of one of Macfarlane's subterranean stalactite cathedrals. Like WG Sebald, another teacher of literature, Macfarlane brings the full weight of his erudition to the table. He quotes a dazzling range of poets and novelists and great galaxies of writers on geology, archaeology, mythology, morphology and glaciology, as well as on nuclear science, "dark matter" physics and art history. We swing from the thoughts of Rainer Maria Rilke on the Orpheus myth to the latest discoveries about "hyphae" - "the superfine threads fungi send out through the soil" - then move from learned opinions on Neanderthal rock art dating from around 65,000BC to Sir Thomas Browne (a particularly Sebaldian moment) to HG Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Cormac McCarthy. Underland is, unquestionably, his magnum opus, a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It contains the summation of his most important ideas. Nearly 40 years ago, the critic Paul Fussell wrote that with The Road to Oxiana , Robert Byron had done for the travel book what James Joyce did for the novel with Ulysses . This is the flame that Macfarlane has now carried into a new century. With Underland he has written one of the most ambitious works of narrative non-fiction of our age, a new Road to Oxiana for the dwindling twilight of the Anthropocene. Robert Macfarlane The author of The Wild Places and The Lost Words spent 10 years writing his new book

Kirkus Review

An exploration of the little-visited realms of the Earth, from deep caves to bunkers, trenches to Bronze Age burial chambers, courtesy of an accomplished Virgil.Macfarlane (The Lost Words, 2018, etc.), who has pretty well revived single-handedly the fine British tradition of literary natural history writing, can usually be found atop mountains. In his latest, he heads in the opposite direction, probing the depths of the Earth to find the places in which humans have invested considerable imaginative attention yet fear to tread. He opens with a cave network discovered in China's Chongqing province only a few years ago that "was found to possess its own weather system," with layers of dank cold mist that never see sunlight. From there, the author moves on to other places that require us to "go low," into places that humans usually venture only to hide thingstreasure, sacred texts, bodies. Now that many such places are making themselves known, exposed during construction excavations and unveiled by melting permafrost, "things that should have stayed buried are rising up unbidden"treasure sometimes, more often just bodies. All of this is occasion for Macfarlane, a gifted storyteller and poetic writer, to ponder what historians have called "deep time," the time that is measured in geological rather than human terms and against which the existence of our kind is but a blip. Even places well known or celebrated in antiquityfrom the underworld of The Epic of Gilgamesh to the Iron Age mines of the Mendip Hills of southwestern Englandare recent points on the map of that ancient landscape. As he moves from continent to continent, Macfarlane instructs us on how to see those places, laced with secrets and mysteries ("all taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin"). Wherever he travels, he enhances our sense of wonder which, after all, is the whole point of storytelling.A treasure all its own. Anyone who cares to ponder the world beneath our feet will find this to be an essential text. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal Review

Macfarlane (The Old Ways; Landmarks) continues to explore the connections between humans and landscape, this time revealing our complex relationship to what lies beneath. The quest takes the author to some extraordinary subterranean places, including Bronze Age funeral chambers in Somerset, England; the Timavo River 1,000 feet underground in Slovenia and northeast Italy; the Paris catacombs; Greenland's Rasmussen Glacier; and a Finnish nuclear waste depository. Terrifying white-knuckle adventures are often followed by moments of exquisite relief, as the author emerges from darkness into light, getting "high on hue." Readers will be charmed by Macfarlane's genial relationships with his local guides and horrified by how far the dreck of the Anthropocene has penetrated into seemingly remote places. His fondness for unusual words makes the writing sparkle, as do his experiments with nonfiction form-Macfarlane works the "echoes, patterns, and connections" of his underworld subject the way a poet might, and, as a master prose stylist, he can describe a glacier calving with a long sentence that's both surprising and effective. VERDICT A sterling book by one of the most important nature writers working today.-Robert Eagan, Windsor P.L., Ont. © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

First Chamberp. 1
1 Descendingp. 9
Part I Seeing (Britain)
2 Burial (Mendips, Somerset)p. 23
3 Dark Matter (Boulby, Yorkshire)p. 53
4 The Understorey (Eppirig Forest, London)p. 85
Second Chamberp. 117
Part II Hiding (Europe)
5 Invisible Cities (Paris)p. 127
6 Starless Rivers (The Carso, Italy)p. 175
7 Hollow Land (Slovenian Highlands)p. 211
Third Chamberp. 243
Part III Haunting (The North)
8 Red Dancers (Lofotens, Norway)p. 251
9 The Edge (Andøya, Norway)p. 287
10 The Blue of Time (Kulusuk, Greenland)p. 325
11 Meltwater (Knud Rasmussen Glacier, Greenland)p. 367
12 The Hiding Place (Olkiluoto, Finland)p. 395
13 Surfacingp. 421
Notesp. 427
Select Bibliographyp. 447
Acknowledgementsp. 465
Indexp. 469