by Robert Macfarlane
published by Hamish Hamilton, £20.00
Review by: Hazel Taylor
I’m reading Underland, which I received for my birthday last month just after it was published.
In a review by Nakul Krishna this book got top rating, and so far, I’ve found it a page-turner. On the cover it’s sub-titled A Deep Time Journey, and it expands downwards and includes barrows, caves, tunnels, trees, fungi and catacombs.
Robert paints superb word-pictures. In being brought up short by a surprising metaphor, I have an amazing picture of what he has seen.
I’ve reproduced a few snippets -
Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.
This is a story of journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search of knowledge. It moves over its course from the dark matter formed at the universe’s birth to the nuclear futures of an Anthropocene-to-come. During the deep time voyage undertaken between those two remote points, the line about which the telling folds is the ever-moving present. [page 17]
Here is a sentence from page 11: Only in the last twenty years have ecologists succeeded in tracing the fungal networks that lace woodland soil, joining individual trees into intercommunicating forests – as fungi have been doing for hundreds of millions of years.
And about fungi, described as The kingdom of the grey. Its utter otherness, that challenges our usual models of time, space and species.
He writes about the ‘crown shyness’ of trees where individual forest trees respect each other’s space, leaving slender running gaps between the outermost leaves of one tree to the next.
From page 80: Later I drive west over the moors for hours, winding home. The ling is in bloom and pollen glitters in the air. Marks of mining are everywhere I look, left by thousands of years of human boring into this northern landscape in search of materials: slate, lead, iron, copper, ironstone, silver, coal, fluorspar. Marks of burial too, left by thousands of years of humans interring their dead in the same terrain: medieval church cemeteries, burial mounds from the Neolithic, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age.
The forest is always more complicated than we can ever dream of. Trees make meaning as well as oxygen. To me, walking through a wood is like taking a tiny part in a mystery play run across multiple timescales. p 110
I’m now up to page 138 and the Paris catacombs. So here are a few sentences:
Much of Paris was built from its own underland, hewn block by block from the bedrock and hauled up for dressing and placing. Underground stone-quarrying began in earnest towards the end of the twelfth century, and Parisian limestone grew in demand not just locally but across France.
I also have Robert’s 2007 book The Wild Places. I based the holloways in my 2010 novella called 2015 on a chapter in this beautiful book of the landscapes of the British Isles.