Traditional nature writing explores the majesty of earth’s topographies—its fields and streams and mountains—those sunlit places bursting with blues and greens. Such writing reminds us of the beauty of pristine nature and evokes a desire to get out of our concrete cities and into the wild. In the extraordinary Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane offers a different view of earth. He goes where sunlight can’t—into the interior of the planet —to excavate our relationships with darkness and the unknown. What he reveals is both chilling and wondrous.
Written with a powerful lyricism readers have come to expect from the author of The Old Ways, The Wild Places, and Landmarks, Underland opens in the Mendip district of Somerset, England. Macfarlane goes spelunking into the region’s cave systems and learns of Copper Age burial rituals. Observing the layers of rock that surround him he considers “deep time,” the “dizzying expanse of earth history that stretches away from the present moment.” A thoughtful consideration of geological history flows throughout the book, throwing into stark relief humanity’s relatively short 200,000 years of existence on a planet more than 4.5 billion years old.
Such numbers startle given the amount of destruction that humans have wrought. Our carbon emissions have fundamentally changed the composition of earth’s atmosphere, causing the planet to warm, the ice poles to melt, and the seas to rise. Today there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years.
Macfarlane sees evidence of our existence everywhere—in the fungus underland of a British forest, in the “starless” underground rivers of Italy, in the catacombs of Paris, where human detritus mixes with strata of rock that’s eons old. The book is awash in awe of the natural world as well as in the author’s own solastalgia, a “form of mental or existential distress caused by environmental change.”. Those feelings come crashing together when Macfarlane witnesses firsthand the effects of global warming on the ice sheets of Greenland. These chapters are the book’s finest. With virtuosic prose, the author evokes both sorrow and a sense of grandeur as he takes in the melting landscape.
In one chapter, he descends into the gaping mouth of bright blue ice. In another, he scales a glacier to examine the layers of history caught in its frozen body. “Ice has a memory,” he writes. “Ice remembers forest fires and rising seas…. It remembers and it tells—tells us that we live on a fickle planet, capable of swift shifts and rapid reversals.” As if to demonstrate such a shift, a bus-sized block of ice snaps away from a glacier’s calving face not far from where Macfarlane stands with his crew. They watch with a mix of wonder and horror as a “white freight train” of ice comes pouring out of the hole that’s left behind. Their human eyes rest on a wall of naked ice that hasn’t seen sunlight in more than 10,000 years, a moment at once beautiful and obscene.
The amount of ice that Greenland is losing has increased sixfold since the 1980s, a terrifying fact renders the future of our planet more uncertain than ever. At a time like this, traditional nature writing about the beauty of the natural world feels worse than quaint—it feels wrongheaded. What good does it do to compliment Mother Nature’s looks when she’s being beaten to death? With Underland Macfarlane gives us a work of nature writing for the age—and for the ages. Its eloquent but urgent prose reveals our complex relationship with nature while pushing us to think more deeply about earth’s sublime underneath.
Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the editorial director of the Chicago Review of Books.