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 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?

frankbeswick on 05/24/2019

The precise age cannot be determined, but Chauvet Cave is old.The author chose caves with interesting art, so it seems..

Yes, I have read The First Signs and consider it a good book,though there are limitations in the strength of the case that it is able to make.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/24/2019

frankbeswick, Thank you for the back- and front-stories and product lines. Did the author have certain criteria for visiting certain caves? What is the oldest cave that he explored?
In a different but related direction, have you read Genevieve von Petzinger's The First Signs about her claustrophobic journeys through ancient caves for a proto-alphabet of signs common to many of the ancient caves?

frankbeswick on 05/19/2019

Yes, I suspect that the critical reviewer had read the book in a hurry.

blackspanielgallery on 05/18/2019

Early on you refer to two reviews. My experience with reviews of movies is the critics are often wrong, but must find something to say to justify not understanding a piece. Perhaps this is what happened.

frankbeswick on 05/18/2019

I agree,,and I must say that at sixty eight I could no longer replicate his exploits. Anyway, the broad shoulders that I inherit from my father limit any tunnel or cave work that I can do.

I advertise Macfarlane's book,the Old Ways and the Wild Places.they are well worth reading.

dustytoes on 05/18/2019

An unusual subject for a book, and writing that must have taken years to complete. The author must have been in very good shape to have traveled into such underground spaces without a problem, such as claustrophobia as you mention. I will check out this author.

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