Image credit: Tory Kallman / Shutterstock.
Robert Macfarlane grew up obsessed with climbing mountains and nearly died on several occasions as he scaled some of the world’s high peaks. He found a safer way to indulge his alpine passions, writing about the mystique of mountains. As someone drawn to great heights, it might seem odd to discover where Macfarlane landed in his book, Underland, burrowing under the earth’s surface into caves, mines, shafts inside glaciers, even the catacombs underneath Paris.
For Macfarlane, one of England’s most celebrated nature writers, the underworld has its own deadly allure. It’s the repository of nuclear waste sites and burial chambers, both a dumping ground and the portal into otherworldly realms. Passing through darkness becomes a precondition for gaining insight.
Armchair traveling isn’t Macfarlane’s style, so he ventures into these subterranean places, often with guides and sometimes at considerable risk. When he first set out on this project, he wasn’t sure he was up to the task of spending all this time underground. So he called an old friend who’s both a climber and caver, and asked him, “Take me somewhere and scare the hell out of me.” So they went on a caving expedition in a place called Giant’s Hole in England, where they had to slither sideways to slip through small cracks, culminating in the “crab walk.” Crawling through tight passages becomes a recurrent theme of this book, and I confess that reading about some of these adventures had me breaking out into a clammy, claustrophobic sweat.
Underland ranges over vast terrain, both scientific and literary. Macfarlane is a vivid writer, and in conversation veers easily between urgent environmental issues and his own personal exploration.
You call your new book Underland but you definitely give the sense you’re descending into the underworld, with all the mythic weight that goes along with that. Did you feel a presence of death, whether metaphorical or actual, when you were underground?
I did. By the time you’re in your 40s, you’ve known death a few times, known how dark and how irreversible it is. Our oldest story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, from 2100 B.C., is about going to the underworld to look for this precious thing and bring back news of the dead children of Gilgamesh. We’re still doing that. There’s a Bruno Latour line, “We have never been modern.” I came across that again and again. We have glaciologists now who are boring a mile down into ice to bring back knowledge of past climates to foretell our future.
Are the places below Earth’s surface also places of beauty and awe?
They’re certainly places of awe. They’re also places of imprisonment, incarceration, concealment, disposal. An historical place like the Cloaca Maxima, at the heart of central Rome, was the great sewer sump into which classical Rome disposed of all its unwanted filth. They’re places we’ve put the things we fear most and disgust us most. In that sense, they’re not like mountains, although we’ve made a Cloaca Maxima out of Mt. Everest.
We are only beginning to fathom the incredible diversities and depths of life in Earth’s crust.
Underground places always seem forbidden.
Exactly. Forbidden and forbidding. What’s striking to me is we’ve been drawn into the darkness for longer than we’ve been drawn to mountains. The hand stencils on cave walls in Western Spain have been dated to about 65,000 years ago. That’s 20,000 years or so before Homo sapiens is thought to have reached that region. So these are Neanderthal handprints. The idea of us being drawn into the darkness is an ancient longing. There’s also some of the most amazing, eerily present findings from European caves from the last Ice Age. A bone flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture was found deep in a limestone cave. The thought of that flute being played in that cave with ice filling the landscape around it, I don’t know about you, but it sets my spine shivering.
The underground is not just a dead zone. Biologically, isn’t the underground thriving with life?
Oh, my goodness, yes. We are only beginning to fathom the incredible diversities and depths of life in Earth’s crust. The rhizosphere, the soil, if we just take that top level, is a fabulous, vital substance that we hardly comprehend. Early this year, scientists revealed they had found a microbiome about 20 kilometers down into the crust. This is life of such volume that it exceeds by hundreds of times the total biomass of all human life on Earth right now. It’s so diverse they call it the Amazon of the underworld.
What kinds of organisms are living there?
It’s all microbial life. It’s bacteria, predominantly. But in such number and with such complexity that scientists are reeling at this. They call it biological dark matter, which is a great phrase. Then there’s this fungal network, the mycorrhizal network, known durably, wittily, brilliantly as the Wood Wide Web.
Are these the fungal networks that extend from the roots of trees and allow trees to communicate with each other?
Yes. The popular description is the social network of trees. It’s a mutualism, which is to say the fungi, the hyphae of the fungi, these fine white, ultra slender filaments, interact with tree roots at a cellular level. This mutualism has been around for about 400 to 500 million years but Western science has discovered it in the last 20. The fungi get carbon because they can’t photosynthesize, and the trees get minerals because the fungi metabolize complex minerals using their exo body acids and give phosphorous back to the trees. The trees can also talk to one another. We have to be careful how we describe this. But they can pass resources between one another and pass, to some degree, signals between one another. All of that is happening, buzzing away, and suddenly it shakes the ground you walk on.
Does that give you a kinship with the more-than-human world?
It does. Although I think it’s easy to talk piously about kinship with the more than-human-world. Not that you’ve done that. But many people do. I can be given to it myself. The Sami people have this beautiful image of the underworld where the dead stand with their soles upward, facing the ground. They’re our inverse. We meet them soul-to-sole in both senses of the word. They walk through the ground upright as we walk through the air upright. So, yes, we are profoundly connected to the earth, we’re stuck to it by our feet. But it’s also where we go to exploit, to extract. We’ve bored 50 million kilometers of holes looking for oil. We’re a boring species and an extractive species. So I guess the underworld, the underland, is where we’ve gone to be most miraculous, most compassionate, most tender, and the most rapacious and awful.
I went expecting to find the end of the world.
What does it mean to think in “deep time”?
Deep time is John McPhee’s phrase for geological time. This is the time that makes our minutes and days and months and years look preposterous. Geological time is measured in eons and epochs. It’s important to me to think that deep time extends forward away from us as well as backward behind us. Then we realize we are a geologically reshaping species. We now exist in such number, our powers amplified by technology to such volumes, that we are shaping a planet for deep time to come. We’re doing that with the mass extinctions we’re bringing about, with the radionuclides we’re leaving in the rock strata, with desoiling, with all of the extraordinary orders of magnitude of change we’re bringing about.
Which goes by the name the Anthropocene—the epoch in which we have fundamentally altered geologic history.
Yes, exactly. And there are many reasons to push that phrase. But let’s take it for now as shorthand for the idea that we’re for the first time in our history geological agents. To think in deep time is to ask, “What are we doing? What are we leaving behind? How will we be judged?” An example of that thought experiment was made concrete to me when I went to Onkalo, this Finnish hiding place, where they have constructed the first successful nuclear waste repository. We’ve been digging holes in the ground to get rid of things we don’t want for a very long time. But what we haven’t done successfully is dig a big hole in the ground to put radioactive waste into it. And when you’re dealing with stuff that has a toxic half-life estimated at 100,000 years, you’re thinking in deep time forward.
You’re talking about becoming a good ancestor, you could say.
Yes, that’s a version of Jonas Salk’s brilliant question, “Are we being good ancestors?” And when you meet that question the first time you’re like, “Huh, interesting.” Then you meet it again and it sears your soul, it quarters your heart, and you think forward in deep time: Are we being good ancestors? I went to Onkalo expecting a sort of nuclear Gotterdammerung. I went expecting to find the end of the world. What I found was good people trying to do a good job, the best job they could with bad stuff. Oddly, I found it a hopeful place.
In the Anthropocene, things are also getting unburied. What’s surfacing is eerie, don’t you think?
It’s more than eerie, it’s a horror show. Unburials are everywhere. We are an unburying species as well as a burying one. Fossil fuels are the unburied remains of carboniferous forests. They’re being burned and melting the ice of Pleistocene-era glaciers. They’re shaping the futures of Anthropocene climates to come. The permafrost is no longer perma. It’s melting and what’s coming up is methane, wooly mammoths, 50,000-year-old wolf pups perfectly preserved down to the curl of their lip. In Kashmir, the Dolomites, and the Alps, where the white wars of World War I were fought, bodies are surfacing. These are all ghosts coming back to haunt us.
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.