To read Robert MacFarlane’s Underland is to reimagine what we might learn from the pursuit of the subterranean
In Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, he travels across the UK, Western Europe and Finland to enter and explore a multitude of landscapes beneath the surface — both geological and manmade
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
I confess I have not given much thought to what exists below the earth’s surface — beneath our streets, farmland and forests, under thick layers of ice in Antarctica or inside a mountain. I have never associated this shadow-land beneath the ground with the natural world, but of course it is a vital extension of it. There is tremendous, unacknowledged, and frequently endemic, biodiversity in these spaces, and it is essential to the flourishing of the ecosystems we can more easily see.
In fantasy novels, the underground can be a hiding place, a mining site, a laboratory, a prison, a military camp. Whole societies can exist out of necessity in these cavernous spaces, important battles may be waged in their narrow halls. It was this genre that first introduced me to the sheer range of possibility the underground holds. The visuals of hell and the underworld that I was familiar with, absorbed from classical literature and myths, were without compelling landscape. They did not appeal to the naturalist in me. But the fantasy literature I read suggested that there was a world below with its own terrain, weather and history.
In Robert MacFarlane’s Underland, he travels across the UK, Western Europe and Finland to enter and explore a multitude of landscapes beneath the surface — both geological and manmade. Through his journey and subsequent research, I discovered that there existed underground lakes and rivers, mining tunnel systems that stretch for miles underneath us, caves filled with stalactites, magma chambers inside inactive volcanoes which are accessible by cable cars, old salt mines that now house recreation centers, World War-era bunkers, repositories of radioactive waste and burial sites (including a series of tunnels that house the bones of 6 million Parisians).
The adventures that MacFarlane partakes in are incredible. He walks on all fours in low caves and crawls on his stomach through tunnels that are barely a foot and a half tall — tunnels where a loud shout or strenuous breadth can change the fragile conditions within the passage and endanger the lives of those traversing it. He calls upon his mountaineering experience to rappel down cliff sides deep within the cave systems. He rides mine shafts and cars within the meandering tunnels of quarrying territory. He encounters scarred terrain that had been appropriated in warfare. He meets the people for whom cave diving and urban exploring are ways of life. With each of these experiences, he is candid about the ways in which they scare, exalt and sadden him.
In Findings (2005), a collection of essays on the natural world, the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie travels in search of true darkness, first on a night ferry from Aberdeen to Orkney, and later inside the underground tomb of Maes Howe on Orkney. Entering the latter, she writes, “You are standing in a high, dim stone vault. There is a thick soundlessness, like a recording studio, or a strongroom. A moment ago, you were in the middle of a field, with the wind and curlews calling. The world has been taken away…”
The world has been taken away…
I was reminded of Jamie’s strange and fascinating quest as I saw MacFarlane, his companions and the people whose stories he tells plunge themselves into a claustrophobic darkness. I was fascinated — why go in search of such a gruelling landscape? There are gradients of comfort and skill amongst those that traverse the underlands. The cradle of darkness scares me. To be curious about it, the way these explorers are, is an alien notion. I wouldn’t easily be persuaded to venture past the door of a cave or climb down a manhole. The dark is, or so I believed for the longest time, uniformly airless, soundless and, perhaps most terrifying of all, senseless in how time can feel as if it has been stripped away in that space.
That fear left me envious of those able to venture into the darkness. As I read stories of panic attacks in these spaces (oddly, sometimes, known as “rapture”), I asked myself what would
draws creatures dependent on and accustomed light to the beyond. Underland explores far more than this impulse, but I was particularly drawn to this human desire to explore dark, constricted spaces. MacFarlane explores this question at some length. He believes people are drawn to it the way they’re drawn to climbing. These are landscapes that often demand preparation and sacrifice. As Laurent Ballesta wrote of the deepest dive under the Antarctic, “The waters under Antarctic ice are like Mount Everest: magical, but so hostile that you have to be sure of your desire before you go. You cannot go half-heartedly; you cannot feign your passion. The demands are too great.” The Ario System of caves in Spain requires the establishment of base camps and advance camps for divers exploring its ultra-deep trenches.
On one of MacFarlane’s expeditions, his companion and he find a partially flooded cave. He writes, “Szabolcs and I lowered ourselves into the water at the edge of the chamber, and we floated there convivially for a night-hour in that lost space below the city. … I have rarely felt more relaxed than in that amniotic space.”
Along the tunnels and deep within cave systems, there waited for these explorers quiet sights they could not have seen elsewhere. It made me realise that it wasn’t simply the thrill of the journeys they undertook or the dedication that honing the skill required for complex dives and hard terrain took that was attractive. It was also that much like the view from a mountaintop there was sometimes a rewarding moment waiting for them — a moment that required the right circumstances of rain and safe passage to occur, a moment that very few would ever experience.
I wondered what those amongst us, fearful and claustrophobic, sceptical and busy, might learn from this pursuit of the subterranean. Where can a curiosity about the undergrowth and the subterranean lead us? Why might adventurers, artists, philosophers seek it out? Perhaps, there is a peace similar to walking through a forest to be found in these womb-like worlds.
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