I have a long-held fascination with the root networks of fungi, only recently revealed to thread our underworld in a delicate, almost invisible vastness weaving for miles beneath the deep dark soil, helping our tree-friends along the way.
But “Why go low?” MacFarlane asks in Underland. It turns out the reasons are many…
Whether metaphorically, psychologically or physically, sometimes it is necessary to go ‘into the dark’, to discover ourselves and our deepest longings, desires and fears. After all, we cannot appreciate light until we have experienced darkness.
Before turning the first page of Underland, I impulsively inhaled, deeply, as if I myself were about to plunge bodily into the underground. I felt on the threshold of a journey, about to discover the foundations of our existence. To be whispered a long-kept secret.
But while the underland does indeed ‘keep its secrets well’ this quest of a book gives us a glimpse into that tantalising ‘beneath’. Deep into icy mouths of glacial moulins, out onto wave and wind-battered Arctic plateaus, into a whirlpool’s swirling abyss, caves untouched by human hands and down, down beneath our own sprawling cities; through passages and tunnels in search of an antidote to societal convention.
Meandering through captivating subjects told in exquisitely vivid prose, the joy of Underland is in seeing a world most of us will never see (a certain bravery is required to traverse ‘the below’). However, it is also a stark and perhaps final warning of what we are losing.
Loss permeates this book.
Plunging the reader into ‘deep-time’, Underland reminds us of the unbounded and powerful force nature is, and consequently how bound we as a species are to it. As objects, stories and landscapes arise from their deep-time slumber, it is perhaps an apt metaphor for our current consciousness.
Somewhere over the centuries we forgot. In the very soil of the underland we inter and entrust our most precious dead, those we love so they may go back to the earth, to remain part of it; part of us. We have forgotten the wisdom of the trees, how they talk to and draw strength from one other. We have forgotten that our knowledge, culture, identity, story, myth and lore originate in nature; often from the darkest and deepest of sources.
The underland connects landscape to memory. Sites of memory are where meaning and landscape merge, where ice becomes a museum and a cave an art gallery. As the underland begins to relinquish some of its secrets, brought about by the devastation of the planet, this book is a timely reminder. As McFarlane descends ever further and deeper into its ethereal depths, a message emerges. A warning, perhaps.
The legacy of our decisions ripple through the book as they do through the underland itself; in the nuclear waste we bury deep within the earth to the seams of plastic sure to be uncovered by future generations. What does this say about us? How can we rebuild our relationship with nature?
I think stories help. Like MacFarlane’s recent book The Lost Words, in collaboration with artist Jackie Morris, Underland reminds us of our profound connection to the natural world. Landscape is sentient. It is our heritage; past and future, and it is waiting to be ‘re-found’.
I tried to read this book while always being in nature, in dark places and light, woods and meadows. I finished the book sitting coat-less in park on a warm and sunny winter day – far too warm and sunny for a winter day. It seemed disconcertingly fitting; the pleasure of warm sun on one’s face obscuring a deeper, more terrifying truth.
The last chapter moved me the most. It illustrated the privilege of sharing this planet with our children. Through their inquisitiveness and amazement of its wonders, the same is awakened in us.
MacFarlane’s book makes the ‘netherworld’ reachable. It does not shy from uncomfortable truths. It raises questions and hope. Rendering the invisible visible, it is a profound, reflective journey. I urge you to take a deep breath and dive straight in.
NB I recommend reading the acknowledgements to discover the prescient meaning behind the startling cover image.
Underland is available on 2nd May 2019, published by Hamish Hamilton.