5 out of 5 stars
Mankind has long looked to the heavens seeking fortune, inspiration and direction. Numerous cultures have all considered the underworld to be a place where a river carried the dead away from the surface, where death abounded, hell, hades and other places were thought to exist. It was somewhere to be avoided. Yet, people have worked underground for thousands of years, tracing and extracting the minerals and ores in the ground, However, it is not something that most people do on a regular basis in the UK now our mining industry is gone. We do head beneath the surface though as millions of people think nothing about going on the tube under London and other capital cities to get to work. However, very few get to go to where Macfarlane is heading.
His journeys into the nether regions of our planet will take him to the catacombs of Paris where his guide knows the numerous passages so well that she doesn’t need a map. Squeezing through tiny gaps, pulling his bag behind him, he will not see the sun for a week. He will venture deep underground in Finland visiting a nuclear waste site. Here they are burying copper and steel tube holding waste uranium, that will have to be buried for thousands of years and sealed behind a million tonnes of rock. The engineer’s joke that they might find the last lot that was buried in the rock they were blasting.
People have been entering caves since time immemorial, some caves are easy to enter, though not straightforward to reach and they reveal art that is millennia old. The caves he visits to see this amazing art are not always the easiest to find, and it is not always the easiest thing to see on the walls as he discovers. Each cave he enters challenges his perception of the underground landscape, having to descend vertically in almost pitch back, wading through underground rivers that might flood with no warning. He sees first hand how the same forces that shape our coasts and mountains, also transform the Underland. Most memorable is an underground chamber where there are dunes of black sands.
In Greenland, he climbs mountains and abseils down a moraine in a glacier and it is as cold and frightening as I’d expect. Secrets from under London with Bradley Garret from the London Consolidation Crew are revealed as they head to places that they really shouldn’t be going. Underneath forests are more than just roots, as Macfarlane understands how trees talk to each other through the Wood Wide Web. One of the deepest points he reaches is to see the place where they look at the stars…
The way into the Underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree…
It is through these and the other locations he takes us, that we get to hear the stories of these places that never see the sun. As will all of Macfarlane’s books, there is a wider message that he is talking about in what has been called the Anthropocene and that is about the damage that we are doing to this, our only planet. The reason he can abseil down the moraine on the glacier is because of global warming and the implications for humanity should the repositories hold the nuclear waste leak or rupture do not even bear thinking about. If you have read any of his previous books then this is a must read. It is not as uplifting as those books as it is much darker given the places he visits and the subject matter but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling. It is not one to read if you suffer from claustrophobia. I like the way that he can link seemingly unrelated subjects from classical history to modern day physics with that common thread of being under the ground. Macfarlane has a way with words that carry you as he heads deep Underland to see our past and glimpse our future. I have been anticipating this for over a year now and it was well worth the wait. If there was one tiny flaw, I would have liked to have seen some photos included of the places he visits.