Underland: a Review

by frankbeswick

Robert Macfarlane ventures onto or should I say under new ground in this powerful work.

Robert Macfarlane, a fellow of a Cambridge college, has for several years produced books in his fluent English prose that create word pictures of great beauty. In Underland he has ventured below the surface to explore tunnels and cave systems, natural and artificial..The work was challenging in the emotional as well as the literary sense, for he was writing about a world where the normal writers' stimuli of colour and sense were absent. Yet this was a work that I avidly read and enjoyed.

Photo by Greyerbaby, courtesy of Pixabay


I read two contradictory reviews of this book, both in the quality British press. One lamented that the author, deprived of his opportunity to create vivid word pictures, was likely to lose readers; the other waxed joyfully on the high quality of Macfarlane's opus. By halfway through the book my sympathies were unequivocally with the positive reviewer. The book maintains the author's high literary standards, though he applies his skills and scholarship in a sphere different  from the upper realms in which he normally works..

The author's work involved journeying to caves and tunnels in Europe and Greenland, where he entered a sinkhole in a glacier to sample the experience of the eerie blue light that pervades glacial ice caves. This was a dangerous experience that adds excitement to the book's literary beauty and undoubted scholarship.

After beginning with the palaeolithic cave systems of Europe  the author journeyed through the  tunnel network under Paris, made famous in Les Miserables, to the limestone cave systems of the Mendips [England], and the Balkans, where his ventures to the openings of cave systems led to much trekking and allowed cope for his powerful descriptive prose to be wielded. His journey led him to Norway's remote Lofoten  [pronounced looften] Islands,where he used his strong mountaineering skills to cross  snow covered ridge known as the Edge in the dark days of an Arctic winter before trekking a trackless coast to camp near a cave where there are cave paintings. Crossing the Edge in winter solo led to a local resident observing that it is Englishmen who do this. Well,"mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!" [ Well,in this case the winter snow, but the principle is still the same.]  The crossing adds excitement to the book.  Macfarlane is not afraid to recount strange experiences, for  he tells of the dark figure who watched him from a distance on the Lofoten coast and then disappeared, though he makes no judgement on who or what this was. 

When reading this work I was struck with the sad, but realistic thought that I could not have written it. You see, while I have done a little caving, I am to some degree claustrophobic. There are times in this book where Macfarlane's account of his squeezing through narrow tunnels made me confront my own fears. This adds to the excitement of the book. I can enjoy his voyaging, but I would not replicate it.

Important to the enjoyment of this work is the author's good relationship with people that he meets on his travels. He gives a positive account of everyone he meets and he never falls for the temptation to be  sneery and dismissive, as some authors do. Macfarlane, who is himself a seriously talented scholar, respects the knowledge and skill shown by the people with whom he deals.  Readers get the feeling that he is a pleasant person.

The Philosophy of Underland

The author's main idea was that the surface of  the ground lies in dynamic interaction with what lies beneath, and this is so in both rural places and the modern world. His case is that cultures exist in interaction with what is below.We use the underland for the following purposes: to protect what is valuable  and to be preserved; to find what is valuable [e.g.a mine] and to conceal evils that we don't want to escape. 

An important literary technique recurs in this work is the line that begins the book,"The way to the Underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree."He then takes readers on an imaginary journey  through time, through the ash tree portal, giving verbal snapshots of characters and events whose memory is stored below.  Those with knowledge of mythology will instantly pick up the allusion to the mythological ash tree Yggdrasil,  in Norse mythology,  whose roots descended to the nether regions, whose trunk was in Middle Earth and whose canopy was in heaven. 

Macfarlane early in the book investigates  the soil of Epping Forest,near London, where he camps at night and tries to fathom the intricate networks of fungal hyphae and plant roots on which he ecosystem depends. This endeavour is the first stage in what is a polymathic compendium that takes us through Earth sciences, archaeology and history,mythology and at times physics.. The author expounds his scholarship in the lucid prose of one at ease with his command of knowledge.

The underland of cities, such as London and Paris, fascinates him, and in London he embarks on ventures with urban explorers, finding the neglected tunnels that lace our sprawling metropolis.This is a fascinating enterprise that exposes the forgotten side  of our cities.But his urban exploring takes.him down deep mines on the North York Moors on England's north east coast. There are two things happening here, one is a potash mine with enough of this vital plant nutrient to last at least a hundred years,maybe five hundred, The  second is a physics research lab that is set deep so as to detect neutrinos, subatomic particles that have proved elusive to find. We discover what it is like to work deep underground in a soft deposit whose roof is ever in danger of sagging. 

The author brings out the link between the underland and war, and this is particularly so when he ventures into the Julian Alps, which are in Slovenia and which were the scene of bloody fighting between Italian and Austrian forces in World War One. We see how shelters were cut in rock and ice for the participants in this conflict, some of which are becoming exposed as glaciers melt through global warming. We also read of the small , but still tragic, number of people killed in the Slovenian woods when unexploded shells ignited in the forest fires of a dry summer, a grim legacy of an unnecessary and wanton conflict.  

Against Future Perils

Near the end of his work Macfarlane visits a Finnish Island where nuclear waste is being stored against the danger that it poses to future generations. He makes us see the futility of the nuclear industry by drawing attention to  the massive defences that are being erected against future intrusion. As a language scholar he takes an interest in discussing how our modern warning messages will be comprehensible to future generations to whom we may be as incomprehensible as cavemen are to us,  but he fears that thee can be no guarantees that communication will be possible.

As the site is set on a Finnish island Macfarlane sees the significance of Finland's national epic, the Kalevala, one of whose elements concerns the hiding of  a source of immense power under the earth to prevent its misuse by humans. Literature here anticipates and reflects life.

Macfarlane's literary and physical journey, which began in the Mendip Hills at the palaeolithic burial site of Aveline's Hole, a natural cave used to inter the valued dead, is now completed, ironically with an unnatural hole in which we try to seal away the dangerous waste that our ecologically wasteful lifestyle has left us. It is fitting that the final message of the book is an ecological one presented to us in a word picture that is a well-written account of something grotesque. It is a warning that we are leaving a bad legacy to the future.

Underland is a book well-written, interesting and scholarly. I commend it to readers..  

Updated: 05/17/2019, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick 10 days ago

The disposal of short,term waste is under review at the present time, so I cannotb say much about it.

DerdriuMarriner 11 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

Your comment three boxes down associates long-term storage of "very radioactive" material with burial and short-term waste with short-term surface storage.

Do short-term materials always remain on the surface or might they be relocated elsewhere when they show even less or no radioactivity?

frankbeswick 11 days ago

Long term is what timescale is needed to store very radioactive material.

DerdriuMarriner 12 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

The terms long and short term intrigue me.

Might the aforementioned terms refer to storage or to waste timespans?

frankbeswick 12 days ago

Long termis always buried, SHORT term can stay on the surface.

DerdriuMarriner 13 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

A storage unit for nuclear waste could have either an above- or a below-ground component for nuclear waste in the United States.

Which would it be in the British Isles?

frankbeswick 13 days ago

Rocksbthat are liable to collapse. There are several causes, erosion quake

DerdriuMarriner 14 days ago

Thank you for your comment below in answer to my previous observation and question.

What is "geological instability"?

Might it refer to earthquakes?

Online sources present the British Isles as prone to magnitude-4 earthquakes every 2 years and magnitude-5 earthquakes every 10-20 years!

frankbeswick on 05/19/2022

The nuclear power station at Hinckley Point not far from the Mendips has a small storage unit for nuclear waste. West Cumbria was chosen because it is near a nuclear power station and is not prone to coastline erosion or geological instability.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/18/2022

Revisiting your wizzley brought to mind something that I'd meant to explore earlier, with the first reading.

It intrigues me where your say "Macfarlane's literary and physical journey, which began in the Mendip Hills at the palaeolithic burial site of Aveline's Hole, a natural cave used to inter the valued dead, is now completed, ironically with an unnatural hole in which we try to seal away the dangerous waste that our ecologically wasteful lifestyle has left us."

What is the name of that waste disposal point?

In a related direction, it's a bit confusing on the internet to determine whether you all northeast ponders store nuclear waste above- or below-ground or both! Why was west Cumbria selected for radioactive-waste storage? Would the Sellafield facility still be the main or only storage point?

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