I’ve never heard Rob Macfarlane speak but I imagine him as a hiking/mountaineering/caving cross between Monty Don and David Attenborough. He has that modest, gently authoritative and quietly passionate style, while at the same time gently educating you about Really Big Stuff. He scans human history from the dawn of time to a post-human future, examining our primal relationship with geology, oceans, rivers, forests, mountains, moved by a genuine compassion and interest in what being human is about, whether in the stone age or the 21st century.
Underland is a story of journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search of knowledge’ throughout which ‘in keeping with with its subject, extends a subsurface network of echoes, patterns and connections.’ It’s a travelogue of What Lies Beneath: the world below us as physical and psychological terrain. The primal urge to bury things – treasured things we want to preserve, and bad stuff we want rid of. The only place where some things can be seen clearly. The ubiquitous mythology of the voyage into the depths to emerge transformed. The peculiar awe that natural and human-made underground complexes inspire, shadow-twins of above-ground cities, the subterranean as subconscious. Sea ice, glaciers and rock strata as archives. Historical memory inscribed in caves, and dark histories submerged in subterranean topography. Gazing in to the abyss and the abyss gazing back. Mycelium and fungi and trees’ communication networks (my favourite stuff personally, being quite claustrophobic and getting palpitations just reading his hazardous underground explorations.) So, all that kind of stuff, basically.
The challenge of any kind of expeditionary writing is for the narrator to find their place. You want them to stand next to you saying ‘Look at this view’ rather than standing in front the view saying ‘Look at me.’ Rob Macfarlane gets this just right. In guide mode, he’s knowledgeable and fascinating, showing you what he sees and explaining what it means – from stars to lichen and everything in between. And when he talks about himself, it’s as an intermediate to a bigger human story. His tent is uprooted in a storm on a remote island off Norway and he spends the night soaked and miserable; he falls into an icy crevasse and panics; he misses his family and home, and he’s not an intrepid explorer on a heroic quest, just a vulnerable human in terrifyingly inhospitable terrain, feeling empathy with those who have set foot there through the centuries and experienced the same perils and fears, because the whole book is about time and continuity and primal relationships with the landscape, and we’re connecting with all stuff that through him. So that’s ok.
Although there’s a vague narrative arc of going deeper and deeper into more and more precarious places, from pre-human to post-human, it’s kind of a scrapbook of ‘Mad underground places I have visited’ plus musings on landscape, cultural history and human development. But that’s fine; the writing is gorgeous and his thoughts and experiences and insights are always engaging enough to draw it all into a coherent whole. And the writing is really gorgeous; I could pick any page at random for an example of his effortless evocation of landscape and its meaning. He is as immersed in mythology and poetry and wordsmithing as he is in science and discovery and knowledge, and they all flow naturally together in his narrative.
I can’t finish this review without mentioning that a few years ago, I collaborated on an album of cosmic ambient music about all this stuff. The project was called Shadow Biosphere, and all the tracks were inspired by unseen realms, microbes, hypothetical life forms, ancient petroglyphs, mycelium and whatnot, using sound samples from beneath the forest floor, deep sea ice, outer space etc. So it was close to an audio equivalent of reading Underland, but without the sweaty-palms moments in caves. Perhaps I should send Rob Macfarlane a copy.