By Celeste Schantz
In Underland: A Deep Time Journey ( W.W. Norton and Company, New York 2019) author Robert Macfarlane’s subject is everything that lies underground, beneath our feet. He guides us everywhere from the exhumation of a bleak charnel house in old Paris, to rolling Welsh hills once holding priceless paintings in wartime, to a gaping Greenland moulin which plummets down through a formidable glacier and threatens to swallow the reader whole in its “blue underland of ice.”
Navigating through text which is part prose poem, part Virgilian dream map, readers lay down to rest with Macfarlane first in a bronze age barrow and then on the spore-dusted floor of Epping Forrest, to learn about an underground social network between the trees, where a bustling community of buried mycorrhizal fungal species link sapling to sapling in the “wood wide web” of subterranean forest communication.
Macfarlane celebrates what magic dwells underground without fetishizing it. He recognizes that it can be a place of great peril and claustrophobic death.
Yet as is true in lavish tales of Persephone and Demeter, Dante, Orpheus and other stories of descent, the author’s quest is both physical and spiritual. “You can’t love what you don’t understand” he says.
And this author ardently wants us to love the stuff which lies beneath us, from the Minotaur of faraway Crete to a nearby hidden country hollow where he takes his young son for a drink from an ice-cold spring.
Underland’s pages will soon have you whispering magic words like ruckle, sump and scarp of karst as you follow the author down through the riven trunk of an old ash tree to a place where time thickens, pools, rushes, slows and the surface is scarcely thinkable.
A fine book for environmentalists, poets, and everyday readers alike, Underland encourages us to praise the mountain core, to revere what lies within soil and peat, and to listen carefully for the augured whispers of dead ancestors in the ochre handprints of Lascaux.
In this time of ecological uncertainty, books which unabashedly praise our earth are needed now more than ever, and Macfarlane’s well-wrought tribute to all that lies beneath is a welcome addition as we humans look, in this perilous age of Anthropocene, to find our own place in the strata.∎