Book: Underland by Robert Macfarlane

I do love me a nature book, and Underland is the latest in a long line of personal favourites, with forebears in first person adventuring stories as well as environmental nonfiction. Underland is all about Robert Macfarlane’s many personal journeys into all manner of places which lie beneath the world we usually inhabit—mines, underground vaults, glaciers, and of course caves.

The book reads a little like a series of feature articles, each chapter focusing on a different subterranean place. The catacombs of Paris. Glaciers in Greenland. A mine under England that extends for hundreds of kilometres. Underground rivers. One chapter on fungus reads like a love letter to personal favourites Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life and Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree.

Macfarlane writes vividly from his own experiences. This passage from the first few pages made me stop and literally read the words out loud. They give a taste of the tone to come:

Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.

Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable.

The passage is taken; the maze builds. Side-rifts curl off. Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely – and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.

The passage turns, turns again, narrows – and leads into surprising space. A chamber is entered. Sound now booms, resonates. The walls of the chamber appear bare at first, but then something extraordinary happens. Scenes from the underland start to show themselves on the stone, distant from one another in history, but joined by echoes.

The cover is a beautiful work by frequent Radiohead collaborator Stanley Donwood.

Rating: A