Book Review | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Book Review by Jim Scott | Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane

Perhaps your magnum opus is your chicken liver rigatoni with cippolini onions and sage celebrated by your dinner guests.  Then share the table with “chef” Macfarlane, a master in non-fiction nature writing.  His meal, Underland, is a sumptuous dish of claustrophobia broiled slowly with a peripatetic discussion of deep thoughts while journeying into the bowels of the earth.  He and his companion (the reader, in true Aristotelian fashion) will stare into the face “of deep time…the chronology of the underland…the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretches away from the present moment…measured in units that humble the human instant…kept by stone, ice, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates.”

This is no knockoff of James Tabor’s acclaimed, deep cave exploration Blind Descent.  Not as an adventurer seeking record-breaking cave depths, Macfarlane offers this brilliantly researched work to tease the reader’s understanding of the geologic ways of our planet and, along with it, to explore the writer’s take on the human impact against the natural backdrop.  He has done this with the humility of modern physicists (though physics is not his discipline), who recognize that human knowledge is an island in an ocean of ignorance. 

Robert Macfarlane is a passionate environmentalist and Fellow in English at Emmanuel College of Cambridge University, where he is Director of Studies in English and University Reader in Literature and the Environmental Humanities.  He is a winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters E. M. Forster Award (2017).  Underland recounts his cave explorations in England, France, Italy, Finland, Norway, and Greenland, supplemented with exhaustive research into biology, ecology, geology, history, glaciology, and astrophysics.  His prose has the transcendent beauty of that expected from an English professor, combined with mythological darkness of literature from the underworld, human imagination of ancient Greek, Hindu, Aztec, Mayan, Inuit, and Finnish storytellers.

  He is a profound believer in climate change who pulls no punches in delineating man’s degradation of the environment.  He speaks both to serious laypersons and scientists, asking without preaching, “did we do that?” as he tackles the issues of whether we stand today in a man-made world gone nuts, or whether that change is yet one more manifestation of nature’s power and variability of the Holocene (the official epoch of the planet’s current history).  Implicit in Underland is his suspicion that the “gone nuts” theorem is a popular by-product of the yet unproven exit from Holocene to Anthropocene (the age of man), which he defines as the “crowning act of  (man’s) self-mythologization…and technocratic narcissism” instead of recognizing the vast forces of the agency of nature.  Readers may recall Nobel Prize physicist, the late Richard Feynman, “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

This is no global warming polemic, nor a denier’s playbook.  This is a learning springboard and a summons to get beyond political convenience, to acquire more actionable knowledge of planet Earth and mankind’s feckless stewardship.  Do not be surprised if this book surpasses Macfarlane’s previously acclaimed The Mountains of the Mind (2003), The Old Ways (2012), and Landmarks (2016), and is acknowledged as his magnum opus.  Take the time to read it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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