Books: Underland by Robert Macfarlane

From Living Woods issue 52

‘Geography lessons have never been so exciting, personal or
terrifying.’ JOHNNY MORRIS relishes Robert Macfarlane’s
wide-ranging journey through the worlds beneath our feet

Hamish Hamilton
Hardback 496 Pages
RRP: £20.00
ISBN: 978-0241143803

Three-quarters of the way
through Robert Macfarlane’s
dazzling book, he recounts a
conversation with Robert Mulvaney,
a paleo-climatologist and ice-core
expert at the British Antarctic
Survey in Cambridge. After handing
Macfarlane a phial containing grains
of sand, Mulvaney explains that they
were extracted from deep inside a
glacier and they prove that a kilometre
below the ice there was once a desert.

‘They’re beautiful,’ says Macfarlane.
‘Desert diamonds from the bottom of
the world.’
‘I can tell you are not a scientist,’
replies Mulvaney.

It is an unfair jibe. Scientist or not,
Macfarlane serves science brilliantly
in his latest work, Underland: A Deep
Time Journey. With every chapter he
demonstrates his talent for explaining
science and communicating the sheer
wonder of the world through scientific
goggles. The ambitious scope of his
storytelling steps lightly from geology
to linguistics to geomorphology,
into folklore via nuclear physics and
meteorology – all brought into focus
with elegant prose and sprinklings
of poetry. Like a skilled mixologist,
he serves up cocktails of scientific
knowledge that delight and deliver
more than the sum of the factual parts.

Tree-lovers and forest folk will
especially enjoy his research into
the ‘wood-wide web’ – the mutually
beneficial system that helps trees
communicate and heal each other
below their understorey via mycorrhizal
fungi. Macfarlane enthuses that the idea
is ‘so powerful in its implications that it
unsettles the ground you walk on.’ In
typical style, he deals with the complex
subject by walking and talking with a
new expert friend, in this case Merlin
Sheldrake, a young mycologist.

Throughout his writings, Macfarlane
has developed a knack of finding and
describing vivid characters that add
verve and passion to his explanations
and Merlin Sheldrake doesn’t
disappoint. His tales of ash forests
communicating via ‘tree snogging’, 8,000
year-old honey fungus extending foursquare
miles under Oregon soil and
melanized dark fungus thriving on the
extreme levels of radiation after the
disaster at Chernobyl are a joy.

This multi-layered way of reading
the environment is very engaging, but
Macfarlane’s most impressive skill is to
combine this depth with live, actionpacked,
travel journalism. In his previous
nature writing, most noticeably The
Old Ways and Mountains of the Mind,
Macfarlane has always managed to take
the reader with him as a passenger on
his quests and adventures. In Underland
he raises the stakes, thrilling us with
his on-the-spot reports straight from
the coalface (literally in some cases)
deep down below the earth’s crust.

Like a literary Indiana Jones, he dangles
and drops into bottomless ice holes in
Greenland, crawls through minuscule
rock cracks beneath the Paris Metro
and scrambles through mountains in
ice storms to view cave drawings in
northern Norway.

The claustrophobia, tears and
occasional loneliness are all honestly
communicated in a first-person style
that makes us anxious for the author’s
survival. Geography lessons have never
been so exciting, personal or terrifying.
It all adds up to a nail-biting account,
but Macfarlane leaves the most
frightening underworld experience
to the last, when he visits a nuclear
waste processing plant deep below
the ancient rocks of Finland. Here, he
highlights evidence and his concerns
that we are destroying the ecosystem
of our own planet. Encounters with
climate change and experiences of hellbent
mineral extraction are recounted
throughout the book. Like the
underworld he explores they lie as a
thread of imminent danger just beneath
the surface of the boundless curiosity
of this wonderful book.

Read it tonight., ideally deep under
your blankets with a the aid of a torch.