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Going Underground

by Milo Nesbitt

Underland: A Deep Time Journey Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, 2019

One of the eeriest songs I have ever heard is PJ Harvey’s ‘White Chalk’. The second verse goes:


White chalk stands against time

White chalk, cutting down the sea at Lyme

I walk valleys by the Cerne

On a path cut fifteen hundred years ago.


I try not to think too much about why it unsettles me, in case I lose the strange thrill I felt when I first listened to it. If I had to, though, I would say it has something to do with the way the lyrics dissolve our place in time, they open a trapdoor beneath our feet and let us fall into the past. Harvey’s haunting singing also helps.


Robert Macfarlane’s Underland is full of such moments. ‘Deep time’, layers of history that extend far beyond an individual human life, is the backdrop for Macfarlane’s descent into subterranean spaces of the earth. It is important, however, that this does not just extend backwards. In a time when climate crisis exists not ‘as an ever-deferred future apocalypse’, but rather as ‘an ongoing occurrence’, it is now common knowledge that we have been irresponsible about preserving our future. It becomes apparent that disrupting our understanding of time is the default mode of this book, a project which, right from the start, is given an explicitly political edge.


‘Underland’ is Macfarlane’s word for almost any space below the surface of the earth. Some of these are places where most of us simply do not usually go (caves, mines); others are places we are not aware of (underground cities, laboratories); others are not for us at all (there is a chapter on the ‘wood wide web’, the system of connections in the soil between trees are not so much below the ground as in it). Underland is, in some ways, new territory for Macfarlane, who started his career writing about climbing mountains and has since explored various wildernesses and natural histories. As in his other works about landscape, travel writing, autobiography and exegesis are all weaved together. His style is extremely detailed but unselfconsciously poetic. Macfarlane is completely in love with his subject. As one of his many travel companions from the book, Sergio, explains: ‘here in the abyss we make … romantic science.’


Macfarlane’s subject is well-chosen since ‘the underland’, even in the abstract, is a place which is almost instinctively uncanny, difficult to comprehend, we can barely even imagine it. Most of our experiences with ‘the underland’ revolve around death: graveyards are our main point of access. For Macfarlane, the grave will always be the primary way of understanding ‘the underland’: one of the first places he visits is Mendip, in Somerset, which, as local resident and caver Sean explains, ‘is mining country ... caving country … but above all it’s burial country.’


Macfarlane show us caves, forests, catacombs, glaciers and nuclear waste burial sites. Each one of these places is beautiful but challenging. ‘Language is crushed’ in ‘the underland’, Macfarlane insists, when recalling the silence seemingly enforced by the experience of lying in a cave below Somerset. Later, on a glacier in Greenland, ‘it felt easier to say nothing; or rather, to observe but not try to understand.’ Alien landscapes provide the perfect setting for one of the book’s most pressing concerns: how spaces that we almost never talk about expose the limits of our language. It is not that these places themselves are hard to describe; in fact, Macfarlane’s flowing, tendrilled prose style frequently makes it seem easy. It is that they reveal the imbalanced way we conceptualise our world, in horizontal rather than vertical terms.


By looking at the landscape differently, we realise that it is possible to describe what is ten metres to our right or left, but not ten metres below. Stories of the dead coming back to life have fascinated us for centuries, from Lazarus to Lost Highway. Macfarlane finds that things confined to the underland do not always stay there.


When Macfarlane takes us through the Paris catacombs with a group of urban explorers, his concerns about the relationship between words and the world re-emerges. The catacombs were originally used, in the 1780s, to solve the problem of storing the dead overflowing from the city’s cemeteries. Since then, in the wake of the 1848 French Revolution, they have been used as extra-judicial prisons and as hiding-places for the French Resistance during the Second World War. Now, they mostly host raves. Macfarlane mentions his admiration for Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, a non-linear, non-factual history of Paris, and compares its method for writing places to a constellation or a kaleidoscope. At times Macfarlane’s own text reads as if it were written under the prismatic influence of The Arcades Project. Fragments of writing surface and resurface – have we read them before? ‘The problem is not that things become buried deep in strata – but that they endure.’


Macfarlane situates urban exploration in the tradition of ‘psychogeography’, initiated by members of the Situationist International (a radical left-wing collective in 1950s France). Psychogeography is a way of navigating landscape by focussing on drifting and wandering, disrupting conventionalised (or enforced) movements through a given place. In recent times, it has often felt like psychogeography needs rescuing from those who claim to practice it; the kiss of death for any once-radical social movement is surely the likes of Will Self writing columns about it in The Independent.


However, unlearning the usual ways of thinking about landscape and trying out new ones is still important. In the section on the ‘wood wide web’, Macfarlane suggests, to a mycologist named Merlin, that ‘we need an entirely new language system to talk about fungi’, as they ‘thwart our senses of what is whole and singular’ and ‘do strange things to time, because it is not easy to say where a fungus ends or begins’. ‘Yes’, says Merlin, ‘that’s your job’. Macfarlane seems to have taken this to heart.


Writing in The Guardian in 2015, Macfarlane describes a fairly recent trend in writing, film and music, in which the natural world is presented as unnerving and even hostile, as opposed to a vaguely restorative pastoral space (PJ Harvey was one of the names mentioned). As he put it, landscape is often ‘constituted by uncanny forces, part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships’. There are obviously important causes for this representational shift, most obviously the increasingly visible destruction of the planet, but this way of seeing is not just about reconstructing history in order for it to speak to the present. It might be easy to take the landscape as an invitation to eulogise the past; but Macfarlane knows that we cannot ignore the future – not if we want to live there. This view of landscape gives rise to the idea that an emphasis on our estrangement from the natural world, all the ways it is not like us or even for us, might be the most productive way of figuring out our future relationship to it.


For Macfarlane, the age in which we live is ‘best imagined as an epoch of loss – of species, places and people’, and it is an epoch ‘for which we are seeking a language of grief and, even harder to find, a language of hope.’ The closest he gets to achieving this is in the Slovenian Highlands. The narrative takes a dark turn here, as we learn that the sinkholes and caves perforating the terrain contain hundreds of bodies – the victims of extrajudicial killings. The question is how, with this knowledge, the landscape should be read in the present, in the wake of an inescapable past. Macfarlane suggests that ‘occulting’, ‘the nautical term for a light that flashes on and off’ in which ‘the periods of illumination are longer than the periods of darkness’, might help us to understand such landscapes.


However, the language of hope is not as durable as we might wish it to be. The most unsettling section of Underland discusses nuclear waste sites. ‘For as long as we have been producing nuclear waste’, Macfarlane points out, ‘we have been failing to decide how to dispose of it.’ The most viable solution so far has been to keep it in the most secure tombs ever built; for the most dangerous stuff, there are a few ‘geological repositories’ like Onkalo, ‘the hiding place’, which sits one-and-a-half kilometres underneath the coast of Finland. Burying nuclear waste alive is one thing; ensuring it stays buried is another. Under the instruction of the US Department of Energy, a panel of experts – anthropologists, linguists, graphic designers – has been working to create a warning system for the repositories that will last long into the future. They are trying to convey, across vast expanses of time, that these sites should not be accessed. This has turned out to be extremely difficult, not only in a technical sense but in something of an existential one. How can we outwit future versions of the human race? And how long do we have to plan for in advance?


‘Radiological time’ is radically different to our own and ‘confronts us with timescales that scorn our usual measures’. This I understand, but exactly how long should I expect the halflife of uranium-235 to be? I know almost nothing about chemistry, but by the end of the text, I felt prepared for the task of thinking about time, in ways that go beyond mapping it onto my own life. I would not blink at 1000 years, and 10,000 years – the official target for a repository warning to physically and semantically survive – no longer fazes me. Around 40,000 years ago the Neanderthals went extinct, replaced by anatomically modern humans, perhaps imagining this far into the future would start to trouble me. The half-life of uranium-235 is 4,600,000,000 years.


The ‘master trope’ of Marfarlane’s thinking about ‘the underland’ is that ‘troublesome history thought long since entombed is emerging again’, which does not bode well for the nuclear waste. So far, Macfarlane has maintained his insistence on temporal self-awareness, focussing on the futurity of every moment, but buried deep within the acknowledgements section is an explanation of the book’s cover. It is a reproduction of Stanley Donwood’s painting ‘Nether’, and Macfarlane is drawn to the ‘eerie glow of the sun’ it depicts, glimpsed through a circle of intertwining tree branches. It is not the sun, Donwood explains. ‘It’s the last thing you’d ever see’ or ‘the light of a nuclear blast … when you look at Nether, you’ve got about one thousandth of a second of life remaining.’ This seems suddenly apt. Earlier, the glacier and the ‘pristine clarity of its air’ created optical and psychological illusions for Macfarlane. ‘Everything seems both distant and proximate at the same time’, he said, and ‘events occurring ahead of us seem to issue from behind’. Over the course of the book, time has almost completely lost its linearity: the present is haunted, both by the past and by a future that might be lost at any moment.


Underland makes it clear that we must alter how we map the world in our heads, that we need to consider vertical perspectives alongside horizontal ones. This realigned geography must lead also to a realigned history: flat perspectives are inadequate for thinking about time as well as landscape. The next line of PJ Harvey’s ‘White Chalk’ is pretty macabre: ‘I know these chalk hills will rot my bones’. The past, in ‘the underland’, does not stay past, and one cannot help but wonder how our generation will resurface to haunt a future present. In Norway, Macfarlane meets a fisherman and environmental activist, Bjørnar, who he thinks has the pale eyes of a seer. Bjørnar’s version of grace, apparently, is: ‘Fuck! We don’t know how lucky we are.’


MILO NESBITT reads English at St Peter’s College. He enjoys disco, Disaronno, and Dennis Bergkamp compilations. Sometimes all at once.


Art by Ellie Murray