TEXT review

Hands across the darkness

review by Kevan Manwaring



Robert Macfarlane
Underland: A Deep Time Journey
Hamish Hamilton London 2019
ISBN: 978-0-241-14380-3
Hb 496pp


This remarkable book, which Macfarlane has been working on for around a decade has now irrupted, like an underground river, into broad daylight – astonishing us with its force and volume of news from the underworld. Underland: a deep time journey is a speleological journey into some of the world’s most astonishing underground spaces and systems. It charts a katabasis through its triadic structure (First Chamber; Second Chamber; Third Chamber) – a mythically resonant dramatic arc of descent, testing, and return. A guide of impressive interdisciplinary erudition, insight, and humanity, Macfarlane undertakes a kind of hero’s journey – in Britain, Europe and the North – while clearly emphasising the knowledge, skill, daring, and down-to-earthness of his guides. Most of the chapters recount meetings with remarkable people in remarkable places, and thus deconstruct the notion of the sole, male explorer, striking Caspar David Friedrich type hero poses on lonely crags, or above fathomless abysses. This is a book about relationships, complex systems, interdependence, and consequences. Nothing is [in] isolation. Everything is interconnected – a mycorrhiza network of mutuality. The human is always present in nature and vice versa. Macfarlane parses the anthropocentric engagement with the underworld into three categories of usage – to shelter, yield, dispose:

The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. (8)

The author explores iterations of these usages in some familiar and obscure places – from the Mendip Hills in Somerset, to the catacombs of Paris, the war-torn karst landscape of the Adriatic coastline, to the glacial fields of Greenland and the nuclear storage facilities of Finland. These vertiginous dives are framed by a fictionalised opening which serves as our own access point – a kind of fictive portal – into the subterranean.  Macfarlane exercises intertextuality as a sharp-eyed and cool observer while the literary and mythical haunt the scientific, geographical, and historical layers Macfarlane. Not that his prose is cold, technical, or sterile. He brings alive each experience in a gripping, visceral way. Some sections are overwhelmingly intense and claustrophobic (notably the account of the misadventure of Oxford philosophy student, Neil Moss, who met his tragic end in Peak Cavern, Derbyshire; ‘Invisible Cities’, a breathtaking account of labyrinthine Parisian Urb-Ex; and a visit to the high-level nuclear waste storage facility in Onkalo, Finland, in ‘The Hiding Place’). This travel/nature-writing/memoir/cultural history is as riveting as any well-written thriller. At times it evokes the Sublime of the Romantics, John Martin’s apocalyptic vistas, and Tolkien’s Mines of Moria; at other times it conveys a chilling science-fictional aesthetic, one that would not feel out of place in a novel by J.G. Ballard. The book is uncompromising in its clear-eyed assessment of the Anthropocene, of humankind’s unquestionable impact upon the planetary ecosystem and geological record. This is a book every climate change denialist should read. Yet it goes beyond a kind of literary activism to appeal to the most humanistic of instincts – caring for one’s children, grandchildren and future generations; being deeply aware of the legacies we leave behind. It is a sobering time-capsule, a message in a bottle from the future – like the teleological warning on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico, designed to communicate the extreme biohazard of the nuclear waste stored there in a 100,000 years time:

We are going to tell you what lies underground, why you should not disturb this place, and what may happen if you do. (398)

This could be the premise of the book, and yet it is more than just a series of cautionary tales. It is imbued with profound wonder, appreciation, and praise-singing for the natural world, for human courage, and ingenuity. Macfarlane returns into the light with tales to set your hairs on end, but also with a sense of hope – a hand held out in friendship, in aid, in love across generations, across time.

What is there to critique in all this? The prose is immaculate, the research impeccable, and the ethos admirable. Unless one chose the essentialist route and attacked Macfarlane for being a ‘white, privileged male’ (which, if one happens to be born so, can hardly be changed), for being self-valorising (he undertakes some pretty hairy descents, ascents, and traverses – but most of these are with the indispensable help of local guides), or for being, what, a bleating liberal banging on about climate change (which any sane person must do), then it’s hard to find a fault-line. Some may prefer their narrators or guides more flawed, less ‘know-it-all’, less remarkable … but that probably says more about them than anything. Throughout, Macfarlane is generous in his hard-won knowledge, praise, and gratitude. He does not shirk in acknowledgement of others, his own limitations, or in revealing the most vulnerable of experiences. His decency and humility shines through.

Ultimately, this is unequivocally Macfarlane’s most environmentally conscious and heartfelt book. Taking the long view, as well the deep – a vast spatio-temporal perspective – it offers ‘deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us not to action not apathy’. Offering a chthonic manifesto, he continues:

For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions of years to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us. (15)

Few nature writers, indeed writers of any stripe, dare to think so big, or have the skill to articulate it so well (Macfarlane is unquestionably a writer’s writer – many envy him for his scintillating prose style, which darkly glitters on the page like mica: forged with precision, never flowery, his lexical field feels almost geological in its heft and ring). Macfarlane should be admired for not only the scope and empathy of his vision, but for also being such a reliable and engaging guide into the dark and back into the light.


Dr Kevan Manwaring is a Lecturer in Creative Writing, University of Winchester, England, and the psychogeography editor for Panorama: the journal of intelligent travel. A Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, Hawthornden, and the Eccles Centre (British Library), he is the author of  Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination, and the writer’s quest (Compass Books), Lost Islands: inventing Avalon, destroying Eden (Heart of Albion Press), and others. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.


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Vol 23 No 2 October 2019
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Reviews editors: Pablo Muslera & Amelia Walker. Assistant reviews editor: Simon Telford