Tuesday 25 June 2019

Macfarlane's 'deep time journey' is a cave of wonders

Nature: Underland

Robert Macfarlane

Hamish Hamilton €21.99

Macfarlane's new book is a potent brew to behold
Macfarlane's new book is a potent brew to behold
Underland

Hilary A White

Eoin McNamee's The Vogue used the imagery of dead bodies shifting about in sandy graves as a metaphor for dark secrets returning unbidden. Like a seam of marble, the idea runs right through this new title from Robert Macfarlane.

Consider for a moment the way in which unstable uranium rods are entombed deep into the earth as a disposal system. How does humanity signpost this threat for subsequent generations (and even different species)?

Although this particular conundrum is less concerned with finding the reflective beauty of the natural world - one of Macfarlane's signature skill-sets - it is in many ways what we've come to expect from this star of non-fiction. There's the danger and risk he visited in his cloud-caressing debut Mountains of The Mind, an examination of his own compulsion to ascend peaks sharp and vertiginous. And there is language, the subject of Landmarks, his 2015 paean to the beautiful but vanishing lexicon of nature.

At the same time, Underland feels like the beginning of a fascinating new movement in Macfarlane's oeuvre. In this self-described "deep time journey", the English author turns his gaze downwards to look at our relationship with what lies beneath. History, deep and calcified, inevitably plays a part and you always expect Macfarlane to do a level of ghost-hunting in his literary explorations. But what strikes you about Underland are the conversations he is having not only with humanity today, but also what we have to say to our future selves in our efforts to be "good ancestors". Oil, plastic and nuclear waste negate these efforts, as do climate change and the chemicals that dissolving permafrost is releasing.

Nature writing is too often merely a beautiful form of reportage. Macfarlane's blend of journalistic investigation, heady poetics, and crisp seismic gauge that verges on the spiritual, is a potent brew to behold. He physically walks us through the "Wood Wide Web", a vast fungal cat's-cradle that exists beneath the forest floor that links trees, sharing resources and communication with one another. It is a dazzling scientific discovery, here given breath and pulse as Macfarlane touches it.

Then there are the caves, those places that have served every purpose, from art galleries to dark matter laboratories. Some, such as in the Mendips in Somerset, are a network carved into the limestone region over millions of years and, like mountains, call to something in us to descend into them. Macfarlane's account of potholing down into this world, or indeed the Paris catacombs, are as tense, clammy and foreboding as the underworld itself. Similarly, his re-emergence above ground trembles with euphoric iridescence.

Ultimately, by placing a foot into the "Anthropocene" and a future full of consequence and calamity, this extraordinary book simultaneously marks a new era in nature writing that feels contemporary, tangible and as calmly intent as the new generation of green activism we currently see mobilised around the world.

Nature has places that look cold and uninviting, it says, but they are in fact astonishing, not to mention a key part of our story.

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