Hamish Hamilton, 2019, 496 pages
£20 Hardback, ISBN 9780241143803
Review by Rogelio Luque-Lora
One of the challenges of UK nature writing, claims Robert Macfarlane in his introduction to JA Baker’s The Peregrine, is that practically every square mile of British soil has already been written about. In this remarkable new book, Macfarlane goes beneath this very soil in search of new truths about our relationship with landscape – and this counter-intuitive move yields insights at once valuable and surprising.
The sub-surface worlds through which he takes us are varied in their natures and cultures. In Britain, these include caves, mines and forest understoreys. In continental Europe and Greenland, the journey weaves through underground cities, subterranean river networks, submarine landscapes, ice sheets that keep memories of the past and radioactive waste disposal sites that confront us with the future. As to our relationships with these places, they tend to fall into three distinct categories: to shelter what is precious (matter, memories), to extract what is valuable (minerals, information) and to dispose of what is harmful (waste, trauma). In fact, each of these underlands appears so radically different from the rest, that the reader wonders why Macfarlane didn’t pluralise the title of his book.
Perhaps the answer lies in the subtitle: A Deep Time Journey. For what these multifarious places have in common is that they present to us the vast expanses of time which lie both behind and ahead of us. Tunnels formed by the flow of rock over millions of years; human traces in the geological record that will be detectable long after our species is gone. The consequences of thinking in deep time are double-edged. Does geological time crush human existence into irrelevance, or does it ground us in the present? Is human morality an inconsequential bleep in Earth’s history, or does awareness of the magnitude of time that stretches ahead urge us to behave ethically not just as individuals but also as a species?
Macfarlane seems to take the latter view on the ethical implications of deep time, and approaches many of these conundrums through the concept of the Anthropocene (the current geological epoch, in which Homo sapiens is the major driver of planetary change). Anthropocene-thinking is not without its caveats, though: seeing environmental degradation as the consequence of a species’ behaviour unjustly masks the deep inequalities in both who is responsible for the damage done and who bears the brunt of its consequences. The author is not unaware of this, and throughout the book tries to distance himself from this dangerous rhetoric. Yet the pull of Anthropocene thought is so strong that at times he slips into the very blame-spreading against which he has previously warned us. Macfarlane is also aware of this counter-effect: ‘The more we struggle to distance ourselves from the Anthropocene, the more stuck we become’.
The underland has its ecologies as well as its geologies. In a chapter set in Epping Forest, Macfarlane explores the ‘wood wide web’ – the underground network of fungi via which trees are believed by some to communicate and share resources. These fungal networks – mycorrhizae, as they are known in the scientific literature – are a battleground for competing meanings of nature. Where some see solidarity and sharing, others see cut-throat competition and stealing. The empirical reality of resources moving from one tree to another through the mycorrhizal network lends itself to both interpretations. Macfarlane, however, is clear about what he would prefer to see: “Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love”.
But why be wary of anthropomorphism? After all, ecological science is already shot through with metaphors – and very useful ones too – such as ecosystem health and ecosystem services. To my mind, the danger lies not in thinking in anthropomorphic terms, but in doing so covertly – and so the reader is grateful for Macfarlane’s candour with this. In fact, Underland in general is refreshingly intellectually honest, in a way that feels truthful to the world’s complexity. If used wisely, anthropomorphic metaphors can illuminate realities about the natural world and our relationship with it or, in Barry Lopez’s memorable phrase, serve as a tool of comparative enquiry .
More than that: why not also consider its converse? Let us call it mycomorphism. Perhaps there are advantages to thinking like a fungus, as sections in this chapter already suggest: “Even to try and think with or as fungi is valuable, though, drawing us as it does towards lifeways that are instructively beyond our ken”.
Over the years, Macfarlane has repeatedly urged us to turn to ‘the unexplored country of the nearby’ (a phrase he borrowed from his friend Roger Deakin). Or as he has otherwise put it, to be parochial in the best sense of the word. Especially The Wild Places, but also The Old Ways, celebrate the landscapes that lie closest to us, as well as the ways in which they shape our thoughts and emotions. These forms of parochial thinking present themselves as a powerful and necessary antidote to the forces of globalisation which threaten to erase the particularity of places.
Calls for narrowing or localising our geographic dwelling (both physically and mentally speaking) in a time when the most pressing challenges are global in scale (averting catastrophic climate change, the eradication of extreme poverty) may appear counter-productive. Philosophers Bryan Norton and Bruce Hannon, whilst generally advocating the need for place-based environmental values, share this concern: they claim that mere place preference, if not accompanied by a sense of space around it, is ‘the opposite of hollow’ . In other words, it is blind to the larger-scale processes that both affect and are affected by that place. Without this sense of broader space, Norton and Hannon argue, place narratives are unlikely to result in long-term sustainability.
Throughout Underland, but especially in the two chapters set on the Greenlandic ice cap, this sense of space around place becomes palpable, unignorable. As we encounter melting icebergs glistening like ‘wet wax’ and previously nomadic cultures driven to stasis and alcohol by changing climatic conditions, the land feels enveloped by the strong presence of climatic processes operating on far larger scales. Even language is stifled by the mounting heat, with narrative proceeding in short, uncomfortable sentences: ‘There’s no wind today. The air is warm. Unprecedently warm. The berg sweats.’ By virtue of conveying the global in the close at hand, Underland makes a convincing case for the role of place-based narratives in achieving global sustainability, in a similar vein to how its deep time themes warn us of the dangers of thinking in temporally narrow ways. Mere preference for the present, if unaccompanied by a sense of the past and future around it, is also the opposite of hollow.
The Spanish novelist José Luis Sampedro understood writing to be an ‘archaeology of the self’ . It was through this self-exploratory process that he pursued his ultimate dream to, in what was perhaps an echo of Ancient Greek and Eastern philosophies, ‘become the person he truly was’. This entailed, in his words, entering his inner caverns, being a miner of himself, growing like a stalactite. Sampedro’s diction is striking, and cannot have been accidental – for him, writing was the surest means of descending into the underland within.
Macfarlane’s previous work can to a considerable extent be thought of as an exploration of John Muir’s phrase about outdoor walking, that to go out is really to go in. Underland now shows us that to truly go in – to pursue that ultimate goal of becoming who we really are – we must also go down.
(1) Lopez B. 1986 Arctic Dreams Picador
(2) Norton B.G and Hannon B. 1997 “Environmental Values: A Place-Based Theory” Environmental Ethics 19:19
(3) Fernández J. 2006 “Soy Un Inmigrante de La Segunda República” El Periódico https://www.elperiodico.com/es/ocio-y-cultura/20130409/soy-inmigrante-segunda-republica-2359815.