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Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Robert Macfarlane
496 pp.
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Written as a travelogue, Underland: A Deep Time Journey documents Robert Macfarlane’s excursions to some of the most remote and extreme subterranean places on Earth. Structured much like a trip to the underworld itself, the book begins with Macfarlane’s descent below, where he reflects on humanity’s complicated relationship with the world beneath our feet, and then ascends “sadder but wiser,” just like the archetypal hero returning from the abyss.

During his travels, Macfarlane is often with a guide because the places he visits would be foolhardy to traverse alone. Some are scientists whose work beneath Earth’s surface takes on a sense of holy purpose. These include a physicist in a slowly collapsing halite tunnel trying to detect the fleeting subatomic particles of creation and an ecologist listening in on the chemical conversations between trees. Many are not scientists but are experts nonetheless, deftly explaining the deadly mechanics of underground rivers, the societal dangers and cultural costs of mineral extraction, and the increasing pace of glacial retreat.

Macfarlane’s exquisite prose vividly draws the reader into spaces that many may tremble to enter. There are times when the sensation evoked is one of such peril that it takes a few harried breaths and a frantic page turn to remember that he must have survived. He writes, while hunting for molin (meltwater holes) in the Knud Rasmussen glacier on Greenland, for example, “Your aim is to dislodge nothing, not even a grain of quartz. You move tenderly. …. You never put your full foot-weight on a boulder without testing it first. You never move when someone is directly below you on the fall-line. You never put your foot or your arm into a gap between rocks, in case the one above drops down. Shins and forearms break easily in stone jaws.”

Much of humanity’s relationship with the underground has to do with those who came before: The first to leave their marks on the cave wall or entomb a loved one with the hope that the underland would provide safe refuge in an afterlife. Macfarlane embraces that idea but also flips it with a refrain oft-repeated throughout the book: “Are we being good ancestors?”—a forward-thinking riff on philosopher T. M. Scanlon’s question of “What We Owe to Each Other.”

It is through this lens that Macfarlane deftly considers the strange economics of mining and the seemingly organic underground systems built beneath our cities to transport us, our supplies, and our waste. Countercultures thrive in such spaces among the dead of generations long passed.
We put important things underground, both to safeguard the past and to protect the future. Macfarlane’s coda considers the long-term ramifications of storing nuclear waste, which will persist long after humanity is gone. How can we impress on future intelligent beings the absolute danger of something we have locked away as though it were something of incredible value?

Although there is empirically much to learn from Underland, there is perhaps more value in what is simply felt as one quietly contemplates Macfarlane’s journey into our pockmarked planet.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY 82071, USA.