Exclusive interview and extract courtesy of Robert Macfarlane and Hamish Hamilton, Penguin UK
'The way into the underland is through the riven trunk
of an old ash tree...'
We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tar-mac,toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.
The underland keeps its secrets well. Only in the last twenty years have ecologists succeeded in tracing the fungal networks that lace woodland soil, joining individual trees. We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters rees into intercommunicating forests – as fungi have been doing for hundreds of millions of years. In China’s Chongqing province, a cave network explored in 2013 was found to possess its own weather system: ladders of stacked mist that build in a huge central hall, cold fog that drifts in giant cloud chambers far from the reach of the sun. A thousand feet underground in northern Italy, I abseiled into an immense rotunda of stone, cut by a buried river and filled with dunes of black sand. Traversing those dunes on foot was like trudging through a windless desert on a lightless planet.
Why go low? It is a counter-intuitive action, running against the grain of sense and the gradient of the spirit. Deliberately to place something in the underland is almost always a strategy to shield it from easy view. Actively to retrieve something from the underland almost always requires effortful work. The underland’s difficulty of access has long made it a means of symbolizing what cannot openly be said or seen: loss, grief, the mind’s obscured depths, and what Elaine Scarry calls the ‘deep subterranean fact’ of physical pain.
A long cultural history of abhorrence exists around underground spaces, associating them with ‘the awful darkness inside the world’, in Cormac McCarthy’s phrase. Fear and disgust are the usual responses to such environments; dirt, mortality and brutal labour the dominant connotations. Claustrophobia is surely the sharpest of all common phobias. I have often noticed how claustrophobia – much more so than vertigo – retains its disturbing power even when being experienced indirectly as narrative or description. Hearing stories of confinement below ground, people shift uneasily, step away, look to the light – as if words alone could wall them in.
I still remember as a ten-year-old reading the account, in Alan Garner’s novel The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, of two children escaping danger by descending the mining tunnels that riddle the sandstone outcrop of Alderley Edge in Cheshire. Deep inside the Edge, the embrace of the stone becomes so tight that it threatens to trap them:
They lay full length, walls, floor and roof fitting them like a
second skin. Their heads were turned to one side, for in any
other position the roof pressed their mouths into the sand
and they could not breathe. The only way to advance was to
pull with the fingertips and to push with the toes, since it was
impossible to flex their legs at all, and any bending of the elbows
threatened to jam the arms helplessly under the body. [Then
Colin’s] heels jammed against the roof: he could move neither
up nor down and the rock lip dug into his shins until he cried
out with the pain. But he could not move. . .
Those passages took cold grip of my heart, emptied my lungs of air. Rereading them now, I feel the same sensations. But the situation also exerted a powerful narrative traction upon me – and still does. Colin could not move and I could not stop reading.
You began your journey as a writer at the highest of elevations, in MOUNTAINS OF THE MIND. It is fascinating that the latest stage of your journey takes you to the lowest – to the world beneath our feet. Can you tell us what led you there?
Yes - fifteen years and five books have taken me from the mountain-tops to the sunken storeys of place that lie beneath the surface of both land and mind. I only realised this gravitational logic in retrospect, really; that I had descended via the forests and moors of The Wild Places(2007), to the paths of The Old Ways(2012), to the sunken lanes of Holloway(2013) - and now into the underland. All of these books are joined by a fascination with what I've in the past called 'landscape and the human heart': how matter and metaphor reciprocally shape one another, and how people may fall so deeply in love with a mountain summit, or a flooded cave system, or the notion of a nation, that they are willing to die for this imagining (or kill others for it). Darkness and light intertwine in the dreamwork we bring to bear on the places we live in and love; Underland dives deep into that darkness. I wanted to tell a story about the past and future of our planet, and also about the ways in which we have used the underland to imagine ourselves. We bury the things and the people we love -- and we also bury the things we hate and fear.
When you first embarked on the research to prepare for writing UNDERLAND did you have a strong sense of the terrain you would cover, or were the journeys themselves prompted by the book as it emerged? How much was planned in advance, and how much did the book itself guide you as it took form?
The book very much revealed itself, as was appropriate to its subject; I had the strong sense of excavating or discovering a buried structure that was already present. Underland travels in deep time, from the formation of the mysterious 'dark matter' at the birth of the Universe, through into an imagined Anthropocene future, 100,000 years from now. So its time-span is a modest 4.6 billion years, and I had to find a form and a voice that could evoke such inhuman spans of time. The book also tells of my own travels in space over the seven years or so I also travelled myself to many places where the underland drops dramatically away beneath us, or rises up to meet the surface world with great consequence -- from Mesolithic burial chambers in the south-west of England, through the catacomb labyrinth of Paris, to the 'starless rivers' of the Italian karst, to the 'blue of time' sunk deep in the ice of Greenland's great glaciers, trying to fathom something of the many journeys into darkness and depth that we have made as a species.
The journeys in the book are sometimes perilous – and at the very least alarming to consider for anyone with a fear of enclosed spaces. Did you grow up with a passion for caving, or is it something which you have had to learn?
Claustrophobia seems to me one of the most acute of the common phobias. I noticed many years ago that even when reading or hearing about confinement or entrapment, people begin to shift uneasily, moving their bodies around in sympathetic discomfort. That fascinated me -- and also suggested to me an extraordinary resource for a writer: writers long to make people feel things, well, deeply; to shake their hearts and shift their bodies. To take as my subject an experience that affects people so profoundly seemed an opportunity as well as a constraint. The responses to Underland from its early readers have been like nothing I've known before, in terms of the intensity and passion of response. A number of people have described a feeling of being unable to read on, but unable also to put the book down. That seems a powerful place to bring readers to.
Of all the descents you have made, is there one which you would place above all others from an emotional or even spiritual perspective – for the feelings you felt?
Undoubtedly the remote sea-cave above the Arctic Circle to which I travelled alone in winter, mountaineering over the Lofoten "Wall" (the granite ridge that runs down the spine of that extraordinary island chain), to reach. There, almost 2500 years ago, hunter-gatherers made much more perilous journeys to cross the threshold of light and dark that lies inside that sea-cave, and then to make art in the darkness; painting in red iron-oxide pigment the leaping, dancing figures of humans, who came almost-alive in the half-light to them, as they did to me when I reached that site after a two-day journey that had surprised me with its danger and hardship. I wept that day, seeing those red dancers on that ancient sea-shaped granite, for feelings I could not name then or now.
It happens that afternoon when we are all together, standing near the tents and talking inconsequentially, enjoying the lethargy of the rest day. A shot-like snap begins it, whip-cracking across the fjord and the mountain walls. ‘A hunter?’ I say. But it isn’t a hunter, it is the glacier, and the sound of the crack marks the fall of a b us- s ized block of ice from high on the calving face. We do not see it fall but we see it swill back up and bob. Without that outrider of the main event, we might have missed what followed – an event that, as Helen puts it later, ‘rarely occurs under witness’.
‘There!’ shouts Bill, but we are all already looking there, where the first block fell, for it seems that a white freight train is driving fast out of the calving face of the glacier, thundering laterally through space before toppling down towards the water, and then the white train is suddenly somehow pulling white wagons behind it from within the glacier, like an impossible magician’s trick, and then the white wagons are followed by a cathedral – a blue cathedral of ice, complete with towers and buttresses, all of them joined together into a single unnatural sideways- collapsing edifice – and then a whole city of white and blue follows the cathedral as we shout and step backwards involuntarily at the force of the event, even though it is occurring a mile away from us, and we call out to each other in the silence before the roar reaches us, even though we are only a few yards from each other, and then all of the hundreds of thousands of tons of that ice-city collapse into the water of the fjord, creating an impact wave forty or fifty feet high. And then something terrible happens, which is that out of the water where the city has fallen there up- surges, rising – or so it seems from where we are standing – right to the summit of the calving face itself, a black shining pyramid, sharp at its prow, thrusting and glistening, made of a substance that has to be ice but looks like no ice we have seen before, something that resembles what I imagine meteorite metal to be, something that has come from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour, and we are dancing and swearing and shouting, appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive,exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced, this stardropped berg-surge that has taken three minutes and 100,000 years to conclude.
Twenty minutes later and the fjord is calm again. The tide swills gently in rock pools. Lap of water on gneiss, pop of melting ice, sun glittering on the margins of the water, sedgegrass
flicking in the wind. The obscenity might never have occurred. The berg has settled in the water as a sloping blue table, hundreds of square feet in area. Gulls land on this new territory in their dozens, shake out their wings, tuck one leg up into their breast feathers for warmth, hunker down. I startle a single sanderling from a fold of bronze gneiss. The next day at the tideline I find a small iceberg, rounded and dark blue, stranded in a rock pool. It is a relic of the dark star. I am just able to lift it. I carry it in both arms, cradling it, calling to the others.
It numbs my hands and chest. It feels far heavier than it should. I stumble uphill towards the camp and place it on top of a boulder by the tents.
The sun shines through it. Air bubbles inside it show as silver: wormholes, right- angle bends, incredible zigzags and sharp layers. That night an Arctic fox comes to our camp, a playful blue shadow. The little berg takes two days to melt. It leaves a stain on the dark rock that won’t vanish.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane, published by Hamish Hamilton May 2019.
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