TOAST Magazine

Underland by Robert Macfarlane | Book Club

BOOK CLUB

Robert Macfarlane is known for his books on language, nature, place and people. His latest book, titled Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is as beguiling as it is unsettling. Author Jen Campbell reviews it for TOAST Book Club.

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey invites us down into the darkness. We follow the author as he and several companions explore catacombs, mines, tunnels — figuratively travelling (as the subtitle of the book suggests) back in time. From tidal limestone that reacts to the pull of the moon; cave networks with their own weather systems; a huge wave-smashed tunnel called The Troll’s Eye, the sites explored in this book are what Celtic Christian tradition calls ‘thin places.’ Places where the borders between worlds seem almost fluid.

Underland feels fluid, too. It’s a mammoth constellation of a book, connecting the dots between storytelling and science, questioning the difference between those things at their core, and dissecting our relationship with our planet. Entering these light-eating caves, swallowed by the earth, we human beings begin to look pretty insignificant, despite having managed to leave our mark on the world around us, and not always in a good way.

We are, after all, living in the Anthropocene: the period of Earth’s history where humans are the dominant influence on its changing climate and atmosphere. As I write this review, the Amazon rainforest is ablaze, and the smoke can be seen from space. Macfarlane laments that the River Elbe in the Czech Republic has now run so low that ‘Hunger Stones’ have been uncovered, carved boulders not seen for centuries that have words sliced into their sides by ancient drought-prophets: ‘If you see me, weep.’ Philip Larkin is wrong, Macfarlane himself prophesies, what will survive of us is not love, it’s ‘plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.’

And this destruction is so short sighted. We know this and yet we somehow don’t accept it. Just as science and storytelling are interlocked, so too are humans and nature; we are the land. ‘We are part mineral beings, too,’ Macfarlane writes. ‘Our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralisation — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.’ On the surface, the fact that we are not separate from the world around us is entirely obvious, and yet Macfarlane writes these things with such joy and reverence that reading this book is akin to rethinking trodden paths. Re-seeing patterns. Waking up.

Conversely, it is dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) to follow Robert’s journeys from the safety of our sofas, book gripped tensely as, for a whole week, he dives out of sight to traverse the ‘invisible city’ hidden below the streets of Paris. He crawls through coffin-like tunnels, at one point pulling himself through an opening that presses down on his skull while — fighting back panic — the stones above him rattle with the force of trains overhead. Some of this book truly is nail-biting stuff.

I emerged from Underland wanting to learn more, and I will be researching many of things Macfarlane only had time to briefly mention, such as the group of female palaeoanthropologists crowned The Underground Astronauts, who have accessed early hominin burial sites in South Africa by squeezing through openings less than one foot wide.

Underland as a text isn’t exactly linear. It is scattered, zooming in on tiny details, then out again to the big picture, branching like its own cave system. The chapters communicate with each other much like the Wood Wide Web, where trees whisper underground, and I found it mesmerizing.

A piece of writing advice I often quote is from Philip Pullman: ‘read like a butterfly; write like a bee.’ In other words: pollenate. Writers are magpies; we are influenced by everything we have read, everything we have seen — whether we realise it or not — and both the writing style and contents of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland embody this. He darts from cave to sea, from glacier to forest, asking us to follow him. He is a fortune teller, a wonder-seeker, a folklorist, a scientist. It is time for us to pause, he says, if we want to move forward. 

It is time for us, he warns, to look a little deeper.

This book club review was written by the author and poet Jen Campbell, whose latest book is The Girl AquariumPlease let us know your thoughts on Underland and, as a thank you, we will enter you into a prize draw to receive a copy of the next book to be reviewed, A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier.

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