Underland by Robert Macfarlane reviewed

Underland Book Cover Underland
Robert Macfarlane
Penguin Books (UK)
May 02, 2019

Discover the hidden worlds beneath our feet...

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane takes us on a journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland's glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet's past and future. Global in its geography, gripping in its voice and haunting in its implications, Underland is a work of huge range and power, and a remarkable new chapter in Macfarlane's long-term exploration of landscape and the human heart.

I am a fan of Robert Macfarlane’s work and have read a number of his books over the past few years.  All the previous books I’ve read have been largely about life in the open.  Underland by Robert Macfarlane takes a very different direction and goes Underland.  In common with previous books it looks at its subject in differing places, times and ways.  The range of Underland topics that he manages to cover is diverse, fascinating and thought provoking at times.

I would argue that you need to savour a Robert Macfarlane book .  I actually took a couple of months to read this, dipping in when I felt the inclination.  In the case of this book in particular, and his others sometimes, they take you to strange places often known mainly to the author.  For example the chapter on the Wood Wide Web I found simply fascinating.  It was a subject I had little knowledge at all of and I found that it touched something in me.  The Paris catacombs I knew slightly more about.  Or at least I thought I did!  Once I read the chapter I knew far more.

Within the chapters there are often comments that are almost “asides”.  Again these made me sit up and take notice.  I would offer as examples the comments on the hunger stones in the river Elbe or the life of drain workers in India – marvellous.  The writing is rich, interesting and vivid in the main.  It is not a book to rush.

If you want to skip a bit fine but do be careful.  There are gems in amongst the main headings.  Taking the Karst and underground (sorry – underland) river  near Trieste there are notes/stories/thoughts about cave exploration, rationale for doing so, mythology, flora and fauna, and dark tales of war among other things just as an example.

I will confess that not every chapter fascinated me however the ones that did left me reflective and pleased that I had gained some new knowledge of this world we live on.  I loved some of the ideas that came across to me in this book.  When in Greenland he offers the idea that ice has a memory for thousands of years for example.

During the course of this book he meets with/stays with/explores with some deeply fascinating people.  There is a rich warmth of humanity in this even if sometimes the stories take us to far darker places.

After Greenland Macfarlane goes to Finland to see the Hiding  Place.  This is a storage facility being built deep underground and intended to last for 100,000 years.  It is for the storage of nuclear waste.  Interesting enough you might say.  However, in the way that this author seems to be able to do so easily, he couples this with the Kalevala, an epic folk poem from Finland.  This poem dates back a long time however Macfarlane draws out somewhat surprising similarities between this two quite different topics.  Obviously (!) he also looks at the subject of other nuclear storage facilities as well together with that topic as a whole.  In turn this leads to the subject of language systems and how to communicate with people who will not be born for many centuries.  It is remarkable just how readable and interesting he can make such diverse subjects.

In a sense this is a difficult book to review.  My journey Underland over the period of a couple on months will not be the same as anyone else’s probably.  The parts that touched me may not touch others in the same way.  Certainly some people will look at this book and simply wonder why.  However if the idea of this interests you maybe you should look at trying it.  If you have read previous books by Robert Macfarlane it is possible that, like me, you will consider this his best richest book yet.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review