Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)
Horizon, Barry Lopez (Bodley Head, 2019)
Macfarlane’s work has always been about opening our eyes to the landscapes that surround us. This book is different in pulling back the veil on a land that very few of us will ever get to see. There are fewer poets and artists this time round: instead we have the words of cavers and miners, trespassers and geologists. ‘What I thought would be my least human book has become, to my surprise, my most communal.’ Whether barrelling through the tunnels of a potash mine in a clapped-out Ford Transit, several thousand feet below the North Sea, or navigating the tight crawl spaces and catacombs that form a second city beneath Paris, or abseiling deep into a well carved through a glacier by meltwater, his guides are these privileged holders of the arcane maps of the underground.
‘A mountain has an inside’, he writes, citing Nan Shepherd, and as we read we have a growing sense that beneath us is not one solid mass, that the land does not stop at our feet. The choice of the word ‘underland’, in contrast with ‘underground’, suggests that this other realm is not subsidiary to the one we know and make our lives in, but a land in its own right. The portals into it are innocuous above ground: a hollow covered with ferns, an old railway tunnel, but entering them opens onto an entirely other world. In one remarkable episode, he recounts the story of a group of French cavers in the Ardèche who, noticing how smoke from their mosquito coil is wavering, become aware of a thin stream of air emerging from a valley’s side. Moving aside boulders they reveal a narrow tunnel, and where it opens into a chamber, just 30 feet from the surface, they come upon ‘the greatest gallery of prehistoric art ever discovered.’ Mammoths, lions, bears, rhinoceros, the positive and negative impressions of many human hands, reaching out from another age. This is the underland – a world often just metres apart from ours, but out of reach, out of knowledge, out of time.
As glaciers retreat, they are disgorging those secrets: toxic military waste, reindeer corpses riddled with anthrax, the victims of previous wars. Human influence is nowhere more apparent than beneath ground, scored into the earth’s very geology.
The book is split into three sections that take place in three settings – Britain, Europe, and The North – and which allow him to explore the three functions of the underland that he sets out in the introduction: ‘To shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, to dispose of what is harmful.’ These functions are both actual and metaphoric, the underground as much a draw for explorers as a fertile ground for delving into the subconscious. There is something almost mythic in many of these journeys, whether following underground rivers lined by beaches of black sand, or meeting the scientists searching for evidence of dark matter in laboratories deep inside the earth. They are liminal places, beyond quotidian comparison. Occasionally he will flick off his torch and we sit with him in a darkness so absolute that we feel its very weight and presence.
It is the sheer weirdness of these landscapes that lingers. ‘You look as if you’ve been on another planet,’ his friend greets him as he emerges from below. And while it was hard to read The Wild Places or The Old Ways without wanting to go and find them, there is something far less attractive about much of the underland. The claustrophobia is palpable: ‘the clearance above is so tight that I again have to turn my skull sideways to proceed.’ There are numerous stories of underground explorers who never came back up. Neil Moss, wedged in a shaft beneath the Peak District, ultimately interred in cement when his body could not be retrieved. Deon Dreyer, who drowned diving in a Namibian cave system, and Dave Shaw, who drowned attempting to recover him. Soldiers thrown, alive, into the sinkholes and mineshafts of Slovenia during the Second World War. Each time that Macfarlane emerges, blinking at the light, astonished by the vibrancy of colour, we feel relieved to have made it back. The underland holds onto its secrets.
Although not forever. ‘The problem is not that things become buried in deep strata,’ writes the archaeologist Þóra Pétursdóttir ‘but that they endure, outlive us, and come back at us with a force we didn’t realise they had.’ As glaciers retreat, they are disgorging those secrets: toxic military waste, reindeer corpses riddled with anthrax, the victims of previous wars. Human influence is nowhere more apparent than beneath ground, scored into the earth’s very geology: in the 30 million miles of tunnels we have bored, or the halite slowly flowing around abandoned mining machinery, turning their metals back into rock. The book’s subtitle is ‘A Deep Time Journey’, and Macfarlane suggests that in looking beneath the surface, away from the human metronome, we can more clearly observe our legacy, and it forces on us the question ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ In the final, chilling chapter he visits Finland, where a facility is under construction to house nuclear waste for the coming 100,000 years (by comparison, the oldest pyramid is 4,600 years old). This is, he writes, ‘our blackest mass’, our Anthropocene legacy for whatever the future holds for this planet.
Such notions make this book feel more politically engaged than some of his previous work, more aware of how darkly and complicatedly humans are tangled up with place. ‘What is the relationship of beauty and atrocity in a landscape such as this?’ he wonders in Slovenia. ‘Is it possible, even responsible, to take pleasure in such a place?’ These thoughts are challenging and welcome, and for those that love what Macfarlane does, Underland will not disappoint, the logical conclusion to his descent through the tiers of the cosmos. Yet despite some poignant moments with his children as he contemplates what he has learnt of the planet’s, and their, future, he never quite delves into his own personal underland. He is our guide, and while we feel his fear and awe, he holds himself throughout at something of a distance. I was left with wanting him to dig yet deeper, to feel his own vulnerability in the face of the challenges of the Anthropocene. It is a fabulous journey, a glimpse into an outlandish world and into an alarming future. But how we should try and connect to such a future, and how we should respond, remains perilous and uncertain.
‘To travel, above all, is to change one’s skin’ is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s epigraph on Horizon‘s opening page. Lopez is more traveller than most, this book the product of three decades of journeys through more than 70 countries, and Antarctica. As with Underland, each chapter corresponds to a specific place or journey, but here selected not for their thematic connection, but instead as environments that have exerted a deep influence upon him. Cape Foulweather, on Oregon’s coast, where Captain Cook first sighted America’s western shoreline; Skraeling Island, in the High Arctic; the Galápagos Islands; Lake Turkana in Western Kenya; a journey across the Aboriginal lands of South Australia; Antartica. These are the places he comes back to most frequently in his thoughts, turning them over ‘like familiar coinage’. Each has had a profound effect on shaping his perspective on our world.
Many of his journeys are predicated upon scientific fieldwork. On Skraeling Island he joins an archaeological dig attempting to better understand the lives of the first inhabitants of these bitter places; in Antartica he assists in chipping fragments of extraterrestrial meteorite from the ice; near Lake Turkana he combs the ground with palaeontologists, looking for evidence of our early ancestors. In paying deep and meticulous attention to the landscapes and the ecologies and the experts of these places, he documents the impressions that they make on him. He hikes into the Jack Hills of Western Australia where minute zircon crystals embedded in the ground there have recently been identified as the oldest intact geological objects on the planet – he feels an urgent need to be in their presence. Such missions could feel futile: unlike Underland, there is no apparent logic that holds these various journeys together. But Lopez is the constant, and he is so aware, so observant, so ravenous for knowledge, that he becomes our ambassador, travelling beyond that horizon for us, and bringing back what he finds there.
Arctic Dreams was published in a prelapsarian age when few people besides the scientists working at Exxon and Shell had much idea what the future held for the Arctic. No longer: the future is already here, and in recognising that future Horizon is unflinching.
For all his wandering, Lopez has lived in the same house, on the upper McKenzie river in Oregon, for close to 50 years. And it his ability to navigate these twin perspectives – on the one hand, the wide-ranging ideas of the academic mind, on the other, the deep connection to place of the indigenous mind – that make his work so vital. A storyteller, writes Lopez, is a person who ‘creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself’. The book often feels like propping up a bar with a stranger, being regaled by tales of a life spent roaming – wandering the flattened streets of Kabul; a one-eyed goshawk seen in a Namibian desert; riding out 40-foot waves in an ice-breaker off the northern coast of South Georgia – until these separate stories coalesce in some grander vision. And it is here where Horizon becomes most thrilling, in its constellation of disparate impressions and ideas that range from genetics to zoology, from history to art. He is, by his own admission, ‘always searching’, and we are brought along on this epic search, at times frustrated and meandering, but at times utterly transcendent, and driven always by humanity’s two most urgent questions: ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where are we going?’
Horizon holds together as an autobiography of sorts, and we meet him first as a young boy in California, hunting alligator lizards, entranced by an avocado in his hands and the distant lands that it evokes. From this childhood, ‘longing to go’, he is writing now, ‘having gone’. What, he asks, has changed? Arctic Dreams was published in a prelapsarian age when few people besides the scientists working at Exxon and Shell had much idea what the future held for the Arctic. No longer: the future is already here, and in recognising that future Horizon is unflinching. Lopez has a pragmatism that derives from his naturalist’s scrutiny of the world, and his acceptance at the state of this ‘throttled earth’ can feel at times destabilising and vertiginous. ‘
What would happen to our plans for survival if we were no longer stymied by a belief in the virtue of permanence or no longer distracted by the hope of returning to a world that has already come and gone?’ But this is not resignation, he rails against cynicism as much as he does against false hope. ‘One can choose, as well, to step into the treacherous void between oneself and the confounding world, and there to be staggered by the breadth, the intricacy, the possibilities of that world, accepting its requirement for death but working still to lessen the degree of cruelty and to increase the reach of justice in every quarter.’ Horizon, the product of one man’s deeply felt life, is a passionate call to engage.