I've just been on a winning streak when it comes to Nature books lately. This book was inspiring at a number of depths. One, it was just really well written - some excellent turns of phrase, full of mellowed and mature pacing and alliteration. He doesn't lay it on too distractingly quick from cover-to-cover, but here's how it starts:
The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree. Late-summer heatwave, heavy air. Bees browsing drowsy over meadow grass. Gold of standing corn, green of fresh hay-rows, black of rooks on stubble fields. Somewhere down on lower ground an unseen fire is burning, its smoke a column. A child drips stones one by one into a metal bucket, ting, ting, ting.
Follow a path through fields, past a hill to the east that is marked by a line of nine round burial barrows, nubbing the land like the bones of a spine. Three horses in a glinting cloud of flies, stock-still but for the swish of a tail, the twitch of a head.
Over a stile in a limestone wall and along a stream to a thicketed dip from which grows the ancient ash. It's crown flourishes skywards into weather. It's long boughs lean low around. Its roots reach far underground.
Swallows curve and dart, feathers flashing. Martins criss-cross the middle air. A swan flies high and south on creaking wings. This upper world is very beautiful.
Near the ash's base it's trunk splits into a rough rift, just wide enough that a person might slip into the tree's hollow heart – and there drop into the dark space that opens below. The rift's edges are smoothed to a shine by those who have gone this way before, passing through the old ash to enter the underland.
So, that's how it starts. And as you can probable judge from the title, the book is both a travel narrative and an exploration of ideas as well. The other enviable and admirable part of the book is that it's a personal adventure – without being wearily self-involved. He's a professor but a real Indiana Jones, in the sense that he goes caving and climbing and is reflective about it - as well as having the historical and literary recall to create deeply meaningful context. Thirdly, the book is admirable in it's message and purpose. He lays out the effects of the global warming and the Anthropocene in striking, emotionally impactful and let's face it - terrifying ways. Because it's effing well researched - you're seeing it through his eyes – and it's true.
The book is broken up into three parts: Seeing (Britain), Hiding (Europe), and Haunting (The North).
In the first part, the author takes us underground in the Mendips in Somerset in a journey back in time. "'Mendip is mining country ... it's also caving country. But above all it's burial country. There are hundreds of Bronze Age funeral barrows ... some joined with monuments and henges into large-scale ritual complexes. He then visits Boulby, Yorkshire to visit a deep Potash (used in fertilizers as a potassium source) mining site which stretches far out under the English Channel and houses a scientific lab here they can measure neutrinos. The last place he goes is Epping Forest, London for a meditation on the organic networks of fungus that connect forests. (This was also a theme in the Overstory.)
In Part Two, Rob MacFarlane goes to Paris to explore the catecombs, to the Italy-Slovenia border near Trieste. This area is called the Karst Plateauwhere the limestone underland is filled with 10,000 caves and tunnels and even rivers such as the Timavo which is sort of a real-life Lethe – a starless river. The final section takes us to the Slovenian Highlands - to the Alpine border between Austria and Italy and Slovenia, which has caves that were embedded fortifications during WWI & WWII as well as sinkholes in the ground where people where thrown in, tortured and half-alive. Breathtaking atrocities. To turn Trumps phrase on it's head, "There were horrible people on both sides."
The final section takes us North - to view caves with Neolithic Art, to the glaciers of Greenland and finally to a deep burial site for Nuclear Waste. The section where he solo hikes to the neolithic cave to see the red dancing figures on the walls – I won't forget the images for a long time. The wildness of the Norway Coast, the plastic trash bobbing in the water, the Maelstrom, and the Cave Itself. Neither will forget his descriptions of Greenland, with its immense yet receding glaciers to be traversed, the hiking on the Knud Rassmussen, the calving face of the glacier, the blue ice, the Moulin he repels into.
I could see myself doing this/I would never do this.
And finally, the visit to the burial site for nuclear waste - at first, it's all trepidation and condemnation, but there's a wonderful passage where he gets sympathetic and homely - the plastic chairs, the work that goes into it - people doing the best they can to protect the world and future generations.
An ambitiously conceived project. Part travelogue and en exploration of what the underland means to us - as well as the traces we leave there. Highly recommended.