24 December 2020

Review: Underland by Robert Macfarlane

Underland by Robert Macfarlane book cover
Last Christmas I was lucky enough to receive a glorious hardcover of Underland by Robert Macfarlane from a family member for Christmas. I picked it up for Non Fiction November this year and it didn't disappoint.

I was struck immediately by just how physical Macfarlane's exploration of the landscape has been over the years. A skilled and experienced mountaineer, in Underland Macfarlane pays homage to the underground mountains and crevices below the surface of the earth that have equal attraction for those wanting to conquer and explore.

Early in the book, Macfarlane sets the scene for what is to follow, pointing out that the underland has been feared and revered for thousands of years.
"...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.....Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save." Page 8
Underland is broken down into three parts: Britain, Europe and the North, with individual chapters flowing from there covering different sites; each of which can be read as a self-contained essay.

Reading Underland, I'm not ashamed to say I was frequently freaked out, encountering hidden cave systems, maelstroms and whirlpools, glacier moulins (down which our author descended!!) and more. Sinkhole anyone?
"The mouth of the sinkhole is twenty feet across at its widest point. To look into it is to feel the beckoning lurch of an unguarded edge." Page 214
I wasn't aware of many of the geological features the author visits, and often put the book down to research a particular site or phenomenon. Have you heard about Hell's Gate in Turkmenistan for instance?

The creation of the 'Door to Hell' or 'Hell's Gate' occurred in 1971 after a drilling rig punctured a natural-gas cavern in Turkmenistan. The powers that be decided to ignite the gas and burn it off and it was expected to take a few weeks, but the fire is still burning today!

As well as learning more about geology and the environment, I was also angered by the damage done by humans to the earth that is out of sight to the public. We know about the storage of nuclear waste deep underground, but I didn't know that in the mining of potash for example, million dollar machinery that is too expensive to retrieve when it has broken down is abandoned within the mine in dead end tunnels. It is then left to the passage of time for the halite (or salt) to reclaim the tunnel and bury the equipment. What on earth will future generations make of these strange fossils? It left me grinding my teeth and is definitely 'up there' with the horrors of space junk and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Underland includes quite a lot of nature writing and environmental observations and is a book to be enjoyed at a slow and meandering pace. I read a chapter every few days as I made my way through the book, following Macfarlane all around the world, from glaciers to cave systems and forests. 

Here's an example of his nature writing from Chapter 4 entitled The Understorey where he writes about the woodland in Epping forest in London.
"I realise I can trace patterns of space running along the edges of each tree's canopy: the beautiful phenomenon known as 'crown shyness', whereby individual forest trees respect each other's space, leaving slender running gaps between the end of one tree's outermost leaves and the start of another's." Page 99
Such beautiful writing that leaves the reader with a renewed respect for nature. On the other hand, the chapter on the catacombs of Paris actually gave me nightmares. 

I've always been fascinated by the catacombs and the re-location of millions of remains from the Les Innocents cemetery in 1786 to the abandoned limestone mines beneath Paris in a process that took many years. Macfarlane explores the catacombs with an 'off book' guide and their journey through spaces so tight he had to turn his head and crawl along on his belly dragging his backpack with his foot, gave me the absolute creeps. Readers with claustrophobia be warned.

What did come as a surprise, was the knowledge that in the 1820s, the quarry voids in the catacombs were used to grow mushrooms, and "by 1940 there were some 2,000 mushroom farmers working underneath Paris." Page 141.

Underland is full of remarkable insights into myths and legends, science and history and despite wishing the publisher had included some colour photos throughout the text, it was an engaging read. I even discovered a new genre of fiction along the way which was unexpected. Subterranean fiction, go figure!
"A subgenre of subterranean fiction flourished in the 1800s, in which the Earth's crust and mantle were frequently imagined as riddled with tunnels, often leading down to a habitable core." Page 308
Underland by Robert Macfarlane is non fiction, nature writing meets travelogue. It is a book that forces the reader to slow down and consider the passage of deep-time and is highly recommended.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Great review Tracey, this sounds absolutely intriguing

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, and would you believe it's also the last book in your non fiction reading challenge? I read this for the Nature prompt.


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