What the world beneath us teaches us about the world above

Review: Vivien Horler

Underland – A deep time journey, by Robert Macfarlane (Penguin Books)

When I was researching the life of my great-grandfather, a hard-rock miner, I wangled a descent into AngloGold Ashanti’s Mponeng, the deepest mine in the world.

Being 4km below the surface is unnerving – it’s humid, close to 30 deg C, and there is a sense of a lot of rock above you. It’s a pretty hostile environment and it is – I know this is bleedin’ obvious but still – bloody dark.

But man has been going underground for aeons, for three main purposes, writes Robert Macfarlane: “To shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.”

Macfarlane, a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is a brilliant and lyrical British writer, mainly about nature and often about ancient pathways, and his books include Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places and The Old Ways.

This title is a little different, and much of it, as the title suggests, is underground. Macfarlane, who is in his 40s, is not only a brilliant writer with a keen eye for what is around him, he is also impressively fit, brave, and occasionally – to my mind – reckless.

And so he takes us with him on a series of journeys to the underland, to mines, cave systems, underground rivers, catacombs, into icy crevasses, and to an extraordinary vault people are building in Finland to store spent uranium. He is often frightened, but presses on regardless.

And because he’s such a good writer, you feel the blackness, the weight of the rock, the narrowness of the crawlways, the claustrophobia of small, dark places. (If you are claustrophobic, chunks of book are probably not for you.)

It’s also full of amazing facts. For instance, under certain circumstances electrons can – in water – travel faster than the speed of light. Who knew?

Boulby Mine in North Yorkshire is home to the Boulby Underground Laboratory, 1100m below the surface and under the sea.

In the lab a young physicist is seeking evidence of “dark matter”, which Macfarlane describes as “the shadowy presence at the heart of the universe: a presence so mysterious that it has thus far engulfed almost all our attempts either to investigate or represent it”.

And he adds: “It is a paradox of his work that in order to watch the stars he must descend far from the sun. Sometimes in the darkness you can see more clearly.”

At the HQ of the British Antarctic Survey near Cambridge, Macfarlane goes to meet Robert Mulvaney, an ice-core scientist. Mulvaney has been involved in a project known as the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling Project, the aim of which has been to drill and analyse core from the Eemian, the last interglacial period, from around 130 000 to 115 000 years ago.

The Eemian is thought to have had similar climate processes and feedbacks that might be encountered by the end of the 21st century. The period is now “a hot spot for predictive research”, says Mulvaney.

He shows Macfarlane a plastic phial that contains a little sand that came up in a core a kilometre below the ice in Antarctica. The grains are rounded, and Mulvaney tells Macfarlane any geologist would recognise them as being formed in desert-like conditions, rounded off by the wind.

“So what we know from these is that, at some point, the land that now lies a kilometre below the ice was once a Sahara.”

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary episodes in the book describes Macfarlane’s visit to the Finnish island of Olkiluoto, where people are building Onkalo, the “hiding place”. It is designed eventually to accommodate 6 500 tons of spent uranium from Olkiluoto’s three nuclear power stations.

The fuel rods, made of zirconium alloy and filled with spent uranium pellets, will be slid into a cast-iron canister inside a copper canister. When full each canister will weigh about 25 tons. The canisters will then be put on to a bed of clay inside a cored-out tube of gneiss, about 500m down into the gneiss and granite bedrock.

Onkalo is designed to maintain its integrity, without maintenance, for 100 000 years, and is being constructed in the hope its contents will never be retrieved.

At a similar facility being built in New Mexico in the US, an information chamber is being included which will hold stone slabs on to which maps, timelines, and scientific details of the waste and its risks are carved, written in all official UN languages and in Nevajo.

Macfarlane describes our relationship with our blue planet, our only home, and warns how we are recklessly undermining it.

But the book is not all science and facts – much of it is about the beauty of the earth, about the glory of light, wild seas, ancient cave paintings and the magnificence of ice fields.

It is striking how often, when Macfarlane resurfaces after being down deep, his perception of the beauty of nature, the colour of the sky, trees and leaves, is enhanced. Emerging from a cave system in the UK’s Mendips he writes: “A charm of goldfinches flitters away, the birds’ high song glittering around us. I am moved by the generosity of colour and space in this ordinary land.”

Many of his journeys and summits are minutely described, and occasionally in these stretches I felt my attention slipping away. However I suspect this was more to do with the quality of me, the reader, than the quality of the writer and his writing.

I say this because Underland, which was published in 2019 and so is not exactly a new book, has won prizes and been named a “book of the year” by reviewers from every quality publication you can think of, including but not limited to The Times, the New York Times Book Review, the Spectator, the Wall Street Journal, Time, NPR and the Economist.

Read it for yourself. It will change your perception of our world.






One thought on “What the world beneath us teaches us about the world above

  1. David Bristow

    Slipping away … you callow reader you! Maybe reading for “gain”is not the best way to experience books like this. I wonder what he would have made of the Rising Star Cave at the Cradle of Humankind where our hominin ancestors appear to have buried their dead around 500,000 mya – if he is thin he might have made it down there.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *