Underland, Reviewed

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Armando Veve

Robert Macfarlane first came to my attention in Ethiopia a few years ago. And then again the following year while in India. And now I see where it was all leading, in the form of a book, to see what is beneath our feet, reviewed here:

McfarlaneYou know a book has entered your bloodstream when the ground beneath your feet, once viewed as bedrock, suddenly becomes a roof to unknown worlds below. The British writer Robert Macfarlane has written such a book. “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” is an epic exploration and examination of darkness and the caverns underground that have captured our imaginations, pulled us downward, housed our dead and allowed us to bury our most violent secrets. It is also a descent into the beauty where dark wisdom is located.

Macfarlane divides his explorations into three sections, or “chambers,” devoted to “Seeing,” “Hiding” and “Haunting.” As he moves through them, he will take us to ancient barrows in Britain’s Mendip Hills, the understory of the Epping Forest and a physics lab investigating “dark matter” from deep within a coastal Yorkshire mine. He will guide us through underground rivers in Italy and show us the pictographs known as “the red dancers” found in Norwegian sea caves.

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London’s Epping Forest in the autumn.CreditDavid Levene/evevine, via Redux

Macfarlane homes in on “something seemingly paradoxical: that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement toward revelation rather than deprivation.” Night vision becomes an essential strategy for survival in the Anthropocene, the new epoch we find ourselves in, which registers the human press on the planet as a geologic force. “For more than 15 years now,” Macfarlane explains, “I have been writing about the relationships between landscape and the human heart. What began as a wish to solve a personal mystery — why I was so drawn to mountains as a young man that I was, at times, ready to die for love of them — has unfolded into a project of deep-mapping.”

If writing books is a form of making maps to guide us through new intellectual territory, Macfarlane is a cartographer of the first order. His literary geography includes previous books like “The Old Ways” and “The Wild Places,” as well as “Landmarks,” a powerful retrieval of lost words analogous to lost worlds in wild nature. Macfarlane’s writing is muscular, meticulously researched and lyrical, placing him in the lineage of Peter MatthiessenGretel Ehrlich and Barry Lopez. What distinguishes his work is his beginner’s mind, his lack of self-consciousness, his physical pursuit of unlearning what he has been taught by received information. He stands solidly inside a younger generation’s fierce sense of betrayal, having witnessed how “wealth levitates and poverty sinks.”

In the Slovenian highlands, Macfarlane and a companion “race the storm.” On that day, the danger is from thunder and lightning, but the larger storm is climate change, with its shrinking glaciers and melting ice. It’s the loss of biodiversity and our inflated sense of self, our pursuit of human exceptionalism at the expense of earth’s other life-forms. A report from the United Nations recently announced that a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. We are the cause of this, and if we care enough and are serious enough to tackle this impending tragedy, we may achieve a different outcome.

One of the most affecting illustrations of our malign influence appears in the middle of Macfarlane’s book. Here we meet a Norwegian cod fisherman named Bjornar Nicolaisen, who tells Macfarlane that he has four pets, “two cats and two sea eagles.” We learn that he is also an activist fighting for his people, who make their livelihood in these northern waters. “To me the land does not stop when it dips into the ocean,” Nicolaisen tells Macfarlane. “‘It’s the knowledge about what is under the surface that for all times has kept these coastal people and this coast alive. And,’ he continues, jabbing his forefinger repeatedly into the chart. … ‘Here in some of the finest fishing grounds in the Arctic, here is where they were sonic blasting, testing for oil, here is where those idiots want to place the rigs.’”

In 1971, oil production was initiated southwest of the Norwegian continental shelf, creating an “oil rush” in Norway. The country’s economy was saturated with oil, creating “a national sovereign wealth fund,” Macfarlane explains, “of more than three-quarters of a trillion pounds, equivalent to around £150,000 per citizen.” With the escalation of fossil fuel development, there is now a fight for “the soul of Norway.” Nicolaisen became a leader of the resistance. And this time the resistance won, which meant the oil development stopped — at least temporarily…

Read the whole review here.

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