Stars: 5/5 stars
Synopsis from Goodreads: In Underland, Robert Macfarlane delivers an epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself. Traveling through the dizzying expanse of geologic time—from prehistoric art in Norwegian sea caves, to the blue depths of the Greenland ice cap, to a deep-sunk “hiding place” where nuclear waste will be stored for 100,000 years to come—Underland takes us on an extraordinary journey into our relationship with darkness, burial, and what lies beneath the surface of both place and mind. Global in its geography and written with great lyricism, Underland speaks powerfully to our present moment. At once ancient and urgent, this is a book that will change the way you see the world.
This book hit my radar after being recommended by A Book Olive, who reads a lot of nonfiction, and the author, Robert MacFarlane, wrote another book I read last year and really enjoyed (The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot). In Underland, MacFarlane has written a book that is so many things all at once, but a really important read, for me at least, about the nature of what legacy we are leaving behind as humans in the current epoch.
First off, this is a book that does not fit easily into finite categorizations. While it is a book that, on the surface, chronicles MacFarlane’s trips to places that have interesting underground landscapes (limestone caves, hidden/buried river systems, mineral pits, ice crevasses), he also links unlikely subjects like ancient myths, art and literature, atomic-age science, architecture, geology, climatology and social history. I thoroughly enjoyed allowing myself to be immersed in whatever subject he chose to talk about. In many ways, it was like having an extended dinner with my dad, who is a voracious and well-read reader, who knows many things about many things, and can talk about pretty much any subject. I appreciated that MacFarlane drew some parallels between these landscapes as I moved through the book with him. Many of these are places I will never visit (or never want to visit in the high-octane fashion he does), but he writes so well about the places he travels through, introducing the reader to people with various backgrounds, occupations and outlooks on life, that I feel I’ve been there with him.
The second point of note is that MacFarlane is a Writer with a capital “w”. Not surprisingly, as he is a professor of literature, this is a beautifully crafted book that I would have enjoyed simply for the fine word-smithing throughout. I read a short interview with him where he commented that most of the sentences in his writing have been written, revised and rewritten 3-7 times each. This attention to his choice of words, the cadence of his sentences and the pacing of the text all really captivated me. Reading his descriptions of the narrow wormholes of collapsed passages underneath the streets of Paris while the subway lines overhead rumbled and vibrated, made my heart race (and made me happy I was not along on that particularly claustrophic trip). My favorite passages included his descriptions of the cave art he went searching for and found in ice caves high above the Arctic Circle, where red ochre figures came to life in the dancing light of his headlamp.
Finally, this book made me think – and I’m still thinking about it – about the flotillas of plastic bumping up against icebergs as they float in the cold waters of the sea, about nuclear waste in containers buried underground and the language at the entrances to these holding places, of Parisian cemetaries where subway tunnels and ancient remains of the long-dead collapse into each other, of climate change, pollution, and all of the traces of our modern lives here in the Anthropocene we are leaving for not only the next generation, but the generations of a thousand years in the future. Are we being the best stewards of this epoch that we can be? It’s a question I think we have to ask ourselves, but one this book encourages us to meditate on and to perhaps become better representatives of our time in the long history of the earth.
5/5 star read for me. This one will be going on my short list of best books of 2022.