Alice Troy-Donovan

Navigating the underworld

, Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 496 pp, £20.00 (hardback)

How should writers respond to the ecological crisis? Both ‘crisis’ and the much-contested term ‘Anthropocene’ appear to bring us to the brink: there is, they tell us, no return to a state of innocence. If the possibility of an alternative future ever existed (and some claim it never did), then now it must be foregone. Like Dante descending into the underworld, we are told the doors of hell are shutting behind us and that all hope must be left behind.

In a 2016 Guardian article examining the rise of the Anthropocene as a concept outlining an era of irreversible, human-driven ecological change – and what it means for writers and cultural thinkers – Robert Macfarlane laid bare his ambivalence towards this narrative:

There are good reasons to be sceptical of the epitaphic impulse to declare “the end of nature”. There are also good reasons to be sceptical of the Anthropocene’s absolutism […] But the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through.

Macfarlane’s latest work of literary and imaginative journeying, Underland, might be thought of as just such a ‘detailed thinking through’. Like The Old Ways, to which Underland is a long-awaited sequel, the book explores the relations between nature, emotion, and the human imagination – dancing between topographical description, literary criticism and anthropology in Macfarlane’s now distinctive hybrid genre of nature writing. Neither a rallying cry for action nor a despairing eulogy for nature as we knew it, Underland nonetheless asks an urgent question: Are we being good ancestors?

In order to answer this, Underland suggests, we have to understand our relation to the ‘worlds beneath our feet’ of which we know so little. Across millennia, we have ventured below the earth’s surface in order to preserve what is precious for posterity and dispose of what is harmful. Underland is, at its simplest, a series of accounts of literal descents which tell us much about how underworlds have both defined and eluded us, at once bearing the marks of our influence on the earth’s geology and revealing how much of its below-surface systems we do not understand.

‘[The] Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time,’ writes Macfarlane, ‘to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into strata, becoming underlands.’ Thinking in ‘deep time,’ he suggests – the disorientating and unimaginably expansive measure of geological change stretching back 4.5 billion years and forwards to a post-human world – is prompted by the literal depths of underground journeying: beginning in the Mendips caves of Somerset, crossing Europe via ‘Il Carso’ in northern Italy and the haunting landscape of the Slovenian Highlands; ending in the terrifying ‘wave-smashed tunnels’ of Scandinavian underworlds.

Reading the book is a disorientating reflection of Macfarlane’s journey through substrata. It requires flexibility and a willingness to be surprised – not only by the startling drama of what he sees, but by the associative ways in which Macfarlane responds. To make sense of the underworld’s otherworldliness, he calls up memories, past journeys and snippets of his reading. We shadow Macfarlane as he is guided through spaces as varied as the catacombs of Paris and deep-storage facilities in Finland, from the precious skeletons of the capital’s ‘invisible city’ to harmful underground holdings of nuclear waste.

Accompanied by experts, scientists and explorers of undergrounds, Macfarlane strikes a Dante-esque figure for the anthropogenic age. Split into three parts, the book begins with a descent and ends with a surfacing. It is underpinned by the (often very strongly felt) emotional responses of the narrator and its humour reminiscent of the self-deprecation in The Divine Comedy. We sympathise with Macfarlane’s trepidation in the face of extreme discomfort, claustrophobia, and genuinely life-risking journeys, while his experienced guides look on with nonchalance. (Lina, his friend and guide for the catacombs in Paris, is, Macfarlane writes with a familiar mixture of envy and admiration, ‘a curious combination of tentative above ground and bold below’).

The book concludes with perhaps its most other-worldly vignette. Macfarlane visits Onkalo, on Olkiluoto Island – known as ‘The Hiding Place’ – which holds a deep storage facility set ‘into 1.9-billion-year-old [granite] rock on the Bothnian coast of Finland’. When the facility’s burial chambers are filled with waste from three nearby nuclear power stations, 6,500 tons of spent uranium will lurk beneath the surface.

Here, 1,500 feet beneath ground level, in a space which will be, if successful, utterly unreachable by any human, Macfarlane is gripped not by the horror of such unprecedented and potentially uncontainable damage but by the memory of a recent reading – the 19th century Finnish epic Kalevala, ‘with its embedded warnings from centuries ago about the dangers of disinterral from below ground […] the dreadful disease that will ravage air, water and all life if it is brought in untimely fashion to the surface.’

The Anthropocene stands, Macfarlane suggests, for a supposedly authoritative version of a story that has been told for millennia: a permeable relationship between the human and nonhuman that is acknowledged as much in the pan-psychic beliefs of indigenous peoples as the various writers, thinkers and mythologies that Macfarlane draws on in Underland. Only by understanding the deep past can we imagine what the deep future might look like – and it is through this understanding, of the long-standing reciprocity that has existed between humans and underworlds, that we can learn how to be good ancestors.


If the Anthropocene tells a story of one-way influence – from humanity to nature – Underland is interested in complicating this, in part by considering how language might reveal a more reciprocal relationship between the two. Humus, meaning ‘soil’, merges into humando, burying’ and then humanitas. Macfarlane is attentive to how words reveal an already close, permeable relationship between humanity and the earth. We are beings that bury and are buried, and Underland traces the ways in which we have left our subterranean markings deep into the pre-Anthropocene past.

Yet the Anthropocene also forces us into new, exhilaratingly strange forms of expression. One of the book’s most enjoyable chapters recounts a conversation had whilst walking in London’s Epping Forest with Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist and musician and Macfarlane’s guide to the ‘wood wide web’ – the underground fungal networks which connect tree to tree, facilitating communication and mutual care-giving in order to sustain the forest ‘community’ as a whole.

‘Nature […] seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms’, writes Macfarlane, ‘as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part.’ Sheldrake echoes this in his metaphor of a maze used to describe the complex nature of the wood wide web: ‘We know the network is there,’ he says, ‘[b]ut it’s so effortful to track it. So we have to look for clues in the labyrinth – find clever means of following its paths.’ The physical difficulty of navigating the underworld finds its match in the barriers it throws up to our understanding.

So expansive are the ideas, landscapes and timescales treated in Underland that they easily lose their contours after the book is finished – indistinct in outlines but forceful in their emotional afterlife, like a heady dream vision from Dante. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of Macfarlane’s particularly wide-angled approach to such an expansive topic.

A few stand-alone images leave a deep impression, however: perhaps most of all, an image borrowed from the Saami myth which paints the earth’s surface as a mirror line separating the living from the dead, the two worlds forming a perfect symmetry. It evokes one of the book’s most effective descriptions of a very human-scale response to the idea of deep time.

The intimacy of that posture is moving to me – the dead and the living standing sole to sole. Seeing photographs of the early hand-marks left on the walls of Maltravieso, Lascaux or Sulawesi, I imagine laying my own palm precisely against the outline left by those unknown makers. I imagine, too, feeling a warm hand pressing through from the cold rock, meeting mine fingertip to fingertip in open-handed encounter across time.

Underland helps us envision that moment of connection, stretching forwards as well as backwards in time, of us as the ‘unknown makers’ imagined by our descendants, largely unaware of what it is we are leaving behind for the future to uncover or mitigate for. If not offering a practical solution to our state of crisis, Underland nevertheless invites us to take up the responsibility of being good ancestors, as the inheritors of our mistakes.

Words by Alice Troy-Donovan.

To buy
Underland by Robert Macfarlane, visit Penguin’s website.

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