It’s not often that I rave about a book, but I’m going to rave about this one. It has been an absolute privilege to spend time with Robert Macfarlane on his travels through what he calls the Underland of the world in this, his new book. I have never climbed a proper mountain, nor dared to enter deep into an underground cave, but because Macfarlane the writer draws you so deeply into his experience in Underland, I almost feel I have – or could.
I have several of Robert’s books in my library at home, including The Wild Places and The Old Ways, but it seems that his writing has reached even greater heights with his latest work. Macfarlane’s style has always been deeply lyrical, but now the lyricism has evolved into something more powerful. He has always drawn the reader expertly into his world through the lens of emotion as he delves into the geography and geology of a place. We still get that in Underland, but we also get a whole lot more. Consider this passage, which is at the opening of the book,
“In a cave within a scarp of karst, a figure inhales a mouthful of red ochre dust, places its left hand against the cave wall – fingers spread, thumb out, palm cold on the rock – and then blows the ochre hard against the hand’s back. There is an explosion of dust – and when the hand is lifted its ghostly print remains…The prints will survive for more than 35,000 years. Sign of what? Of joy? Of warning? Of art? Of life in the darkness?”
These first passages reach beyond the individual experience of the here and now and plunge you into a twilight world from which you never really emerge. Past blends with present as MacFarlane dips in and out of the earth’s crust, and the boundary that separates the underland with the overland becomes ‘thin’. “In the Celtic Christian tradition,” MacFarlane writes,
“‘thin places’ are those sites in a landscape where the borders between worlds or epochs feel at their most fragile.”
This idea lies at the core of the book, it seems, because at every turn we are thrown into what we sweepingly call the past, but which is really just a brief stirring in the great geological story of the world, which the author calls ‘deep time’. Deep time is the slow working of the world’s geology, against the backdrop of which human experience should be rendered insignificant. The wonder of this book really, is that Robert makes it matter, not only because he is there doing all these things: climbing up gulleys to caves, delving into tunnels in the darkness, but because he brings us, the readers, to the point of understanding how humankind and nature might connect. I’m not just talking about a stroll in the woods here, but about connecting with the world in the sense of culture. The impact of people on the world is also the impact of the world on people, and that of course is culture.
It may seem impossible to cling onto a rock face by your fingernails whilst somehow still being poetic, and it is hard not to picture Robert speaking into a Dictaphone whilst hanging off a rock face, but that is the beauty of this book. You actually feel that you are there.
“Time slows, swirls, repeats. Each step is hard going, the heavy pack peeling me off the back of the slope or jamming me into it. Spindrift hisses into my face, frets my cheeks. I murmur a mantra to myself, Take the time that needs to be taken…”
Often, the reader is plunged into small spaces. Claustrophobics beware; if reading about confined spaces is enough to set you sweating, there are many of these. You’ve got to wonder at times what possesses Macfarlane to seek out these daunting experiences.
Does he have some sort of death wish? On the contrary I think, perhaps what he is searching for is life at its very deepest level: life in the subterranean sludge, life in the hollow of a mountain. There are times in the book when we feel that he recoils from it. Perhaps there are moments when it frightens him.
In the closing pages he is wandering in a forest with his son.
“…As I watch him run he passes into a place where the sunshine falls so brightly he is burned up by it, lost to my sight, and suddenly the knowledge that he will die strikes me…”
Any Cop?: Deep time discovery has its price. We are all painfully transitory, nothing but a glitch in the geology, a layering of fossils in a stratum of the crust. When you consider the lyricism that has occurred during the writing of Underland and the feats that Macfarlane undergoes to bring it to us, there’s a dual pay-off; first, that the author puts himself in the path of these experiences, and second, that he takes the reader with him. Not many people can do that. And even less can do them both together.