Tobias Carroll | Longreads | June 2019 | 9 minutes (2,254 words)
Robert Macfarlane’s writings exist in a liminal, twilit place where language and landscape dissolve into one another. He writes vividly about outdoor spaces, borders, and the way in which one type of territory transforms subtly into another. And, as befits a writer who’s conscious of how the act of writing influences the spaces he’s writing about, he’s made language itself central to much of his work. His 2015 book Landmarks, for example, meanders through the long-lost definitions of a massive array of terms that were once used to describe very specific parts of the landscape; their loss is to some extent due to humanity having become increasingly urban, but also speaks to larger questions about our alienation from the world around us.
Macfarlane’s work is often focused on very particular places, while the greater issues he raises are universal. His new book, Underland, descends into a quite literally overlooked landscape: the one beneath our feet. He chronicles journeys to isolated caves, the man-made caverns below cities, and scientific research facilities whose underground isolation is essential to their mission. Underland reflects Macfarlane’s continued interest in language, but the nature of time is also a running theme within the book. What does it mean to enter a subterranean space that hasn’t been viewed by human eyes in thousands of years? What does it mean to create a space that may exist long after today’s civilizations have vanished? Throughout this book, Macfarlane wrestles with grand questions about humanity and its effects on the natural world. Even as he proceeds into hidden and obscured spaces, his concerns are deeply human.
We discussed the process of creating Underland, its connections to his other books, and the role of place in his work — and where his bibliography might go from here.
Tobias Carroll: Early in Underland, you write, “What I thought would be my least human book has become, to my surprise, my most communal.” Was there a specific point where you realized this? Was it during the research phase, or much later?
Robert Macfarlane: Later. Early in the six or seven years that Underland took to make, I thought I would be writing most about the mysterious deep-time lives of ice, rock, trees and soil; about the ancient histories and futures of the restless Earth on which we live, the clues to which lie hidden beneath our feet. I thought, too, that the underland would be — of all the landscape forms that have drawn me to explore them, from high mountains to paths and tracks — the most uninhabited; peopled, if at all, only by the dead. This proved wildly incorrect; for of course the underland is a deeply — profoundly — human realm, the site into which — metaphysically and materially — we have placed that which we love most and wish to keep safe, and that which we fear most and wish to be rid of.
I do remember that, in the penultimate year of work on the book, new datings were achieved for the earliest cave-art in Europe, in a limestone cave-space in western Spain. Uranium-thorium dating of the calcite that had run over the art (a red dot, a red ladder, a red hand-stencil) showed this art to have been made, there in the darkness, around 65,000 years BP. That’s some 20,000 years before Homo sapiens are believed first to have arrived in Europe. Neanderthal artists left those images. Since before we were anatomically modern, humans have been making journeys into darkness to make and find meaning. That dating revelation really pulled me up — and pulled me back in time. Then — as I was writing the final pages of Underland in June 2018 — the Thai football team and their coach disappeared into the darkness under the mountain, trapped by rising floodwaters, it seemed the final confirmation that I was writing about a very ancient and a very contemporary impulse. “We have never been modern,” as Bruno Latour famously puts it.
The claustrophobia about which I was writing was not only the literal experience of being in a catacomb … but also — and much more interestingly — what might be called an Anthropocene claustrophobia.
You’ve described the experience of emerging into daylight from both natural caves and man-made undergrounds below cities. Did you find the experience to be the same for both, or is there something distinctly different about each?
Those emergences back into the light — they were truly wondrous moments. Rebirths, definitely, when the world seems miraculous in its details and its fundamentals. Color rushes to your bones, dyes you deep; green is preposterous, gorgeous; the blue of the sky an unfathomable ocean again. The longest I was below ground was two and a half days in the catacomb labyrinth in Paris; we came out via a shaft that gave access to a disused railway tunnel. I still remember the hoop of bright light at the end of the tunnel, fringed with honeysuckle and clematis, with acacia leaves falling that we thought at first were butterflies.
But these surfacings from darkness weren’t only, as it were, transitions out of ignorance and into vision again. Down in a Dark Matter research laboratory nested in a stratum of halite almost a kilometre below ground, or in ‘Onkalo,’ the Hiding Place, a Finnish deep geological repository for HLNW (high level nuclear waste) on the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia in winter, I found myself amazed by the forms of knowledge, sight and moral work that could only be undertaken underground.
Underland is structured into several sections, with short ‘chamber’ sections preceding longer chapters set in different locations. At what point in writing the book did this structure come about? And how did each of your travels lead into the next?
I knew from the very first notes I made towards Underland, in the autumn of 2010, that I wanted to structure it as a classical ‘katabasis.’ That is to say, as a descent to the underworld, leading to sustained time spent in darkness, followed at last by an ascent back up to the surface. I knew also I wanted the reader to experience a version of that journey for themselves –– to feel some of the pressures, disorientations and revelations of the underworld not just as spectator but also as participant.
I’ve for some time now been fascinated by the power of claustrophobia to be felt vicariously, via description or narration. I’ve watched people respond to descriptions of claustrophobic situations; they begin to shift uncomfortably, wriggle, squirm, look to the light. Their bodies respond, almost involuntarily, to image and story — what William Golding once called ‘sympathetic kinaesthesia’ is at work. All writers want in some way to move their readers; taking claustrophobia in part as one’s subject allows you to move people bodily, physically, viscerally. It’s a hell of a power to discover; far more potent than writing about vertigo, as I have also done.
It came to seem to me, too, that the claustrophobia about which I was writing was not only the literal experience of being in a catacomb crawl-space so tight I had to turn my skull sideways to proceed, but also — and much more interestingly — what might be called an Anthropocene claustrophobia. The Earth is entering what feels like its possible end-game, at least as far as our species-presence here is concerned. We have become geological agents, our powers amplified by our numbers and our technologies, and among the consequences of this is a keen sense of time and space running out. This question of the nature of the world we have made, and the legacies we are currently leaving, is one of the themes that runs deeply through the whole book.
In the chapter about Paris, you write about how your opinion of urban explorers has evolved over time. Was that as a result of the experiences that you wrote about in Underland, or did that take place beforehand?
I’ve spent a fair bit of time with urban explorers over the years; at first because I wanted to understand their subculture better, and then, chiefly, because I enjoyed their company. People like Bradley Garrett (geographer, ethnographer, a fearless and political explorer of both culture and infrastructure, and a very cool guy) with whom I accessed flooded chambers in abandoned slate mines, sub-city drained reservoirs and sewer systems; or the person to whom I give the pseudonym ‘Lina’ in the book (generous, gentle, funny, acutely knowledgeable) who led me into and through the Parisian catacombs; these are just, well, great people to spend time with.
But I retained and refined my scepticism about other aspects of urban exploration; the fetishisation of decay and abandonment, and the dandified and insensitive nature of some of the photographic work (especially in sites like Detroit or Pripyat). I guess it depends who you’re with — and on the whole I found my way to the good folk.
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Some of the most haunting passages in Underland invoke the history of Paris and the aftereffects of the White War in the early part of the 20th century. Do you feel that Underland overlaps with human history moreso than your other books?
“There’s no such thing as an innocent landscape,” noted Anselm Kiefer. I’ve long been interested in the traces of violence, dispossession, atrocity and inequality that are scored long-term into landscapes, but that can easily get overlooked, framed out or occluded (the pastoral as a mode, generally, is dedicated to such occlusion). In The Wild Places I wrote about the current landscapes of Highland Scotland and rural Ireland as both differently shaped by The Clearances (Scotland) and the Great Famine (Ireland); both, really, still bearing the legacies of nineteenth-century colonialism. These are, still, not empty but emptied landscapes.
On the other hand, it seems to me that to mire a landscape only in its dark pasts is to disallow the possibility of its future (ecological) regeneration, or of the kinds of more-than-fiscal ‘good’ that places — even troubled places — can possess; joy, beauty, wonder, birdsong … So in those chapters of Underland set up in the — yes, haunting — Slovenian Highlands and on — under — the Carso around Trieste, I wanted to think about what I call ‘occulting’ perceptions of place; in which light and dark are both given their play.
To answer your specific question, therefore, this feels like an extension of questions I’ve been asking since my first book, Mountains of the Mind, which sought to explain why people are drawn upwards, to the summits of mountains, often at risk of their lives.
Ice has a memory — and the color of its memory is blue.
Late in the book, you discuss the concept of ice as a recording medium. Do you find that there’s a parallel between this and what you’re doing in Underland?
What a great question. Thanks — it’s instantly made me think differently about Underland. Yes, ice has a memory — and the color of its memory is blue. It remembers with remarkable precision; the Roman smelting boom, the explosion of the volcano Kuwae in 1453, the atmospheric chemistry at the start of the last Ice Age … We have only recently learned how to read its record, though, through ice-core science and glacio-climatology — much later than we learned to read the ‘rock-record’ for what it told us about the past.
It is striking to me that we use ice’s memory as a means of futurology; much of the research done using ice-core records is concerned with predicting future climate scenarios. This is a trope that I encountered repeatedly in the underland; that delving down is a means of looking forwards; descent a form of prophecy. This is true of Greek myths of augury and oracle — the Sibyl of Cumae and the Delphic Oracle both drew their prophetic knowledge from within the earth, through the limestone. Arctic and peri-Arctic shamanic practices have long involved moves into cave-spaces where the rock becomes not a barrier but a membrane to an afterlife or future existence.
To relate this back to the overall ambition of Underland; I wanted to write a book in which descent became a means of writing not only about the deep-time pasts of the Earth, but also the deep-time futures we are presently making.
You’ve talked about your earlier books Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, and The Old Ways being a kind of loose trilogy. Do you see Underland as more of a standalone work, or do you see it as having formal connections to some of your other books?
I suspect I will always write about landscape in one means or another, one form or another; the terrain is inexhaustible in its complexity and unthinnable in its density. In so far as Underland extends and I hope, in at least one sense, deepens my thinking about what people make of places, and (less fathomable) what places make of people, then yes, it stands in family relation with the earlier books. But I don’t think of it as, so to speak, the fourth book in the trilogy. Underland is darker, more concerned with unsettlement and futures, I hope, as well as the built environment and questions of legacy, residue and justice. If it has a strong kinship with any of my earlier books then I guess it is its mirror-image relationship with Mountains of the Mind; from peak to abyss, light to darkness, height to depth, etcetera. I do now feel as if I may have taken this hybrid or braided form — of first-person presence, cultural history, geology, geography, anthropology — as far as I know how to take it. We’ll see what comes next.
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Editor: Dana Snitzky