Robert Macfarlane is one of my very favourite current authors (he just writes beautifully about nature and history and science), so when I heard that his latest book was about underground stuff, I was slightly dismayed. I don't like underground. Even going into the little mine at Sovereign Hill makes me nervous; I can't help being conscious of the weight of all that stone and rock hovering above my head. However, I am such a fan of Macfarlane that I reserved a copy from the library anyway.

There was a long reservation queue. There was Covid. I had to wait months to get my mitts on Underland. And boy, it was worth it.

I suppose I had expected a series of visits to mining tunnels or scary caves, and there are indeed some hairy passages where Macfarlane is squeezing through narrow gaps in the dark, deep underground; but he also visits the icy wastes of Greenland; parties deep in the extensive limestone catacombs dug out beneath Paris, inhabited by a whole community of explorers; discovers the wood-wide web life creeping beneath the forest floor; and pays a surprisingly hopeful visit to a nuclear waste facility where people are trying to find a way to communicate the danger of this material ten thousand years into the future, when we will be long gone from the face of the world. Upsettingly, everywhere he goes he comes across plastic waste, even on the shores of the remotest northern islands.

But Macfarlane is not just an adventurer, he is also a philosopher and a deep thinker about the meaning of what he sees below and within ground -- burials, forgetting, hiding, safeguarding, sacred art. His journeys under the surface inevitably become journeys within ourselves and into our own deep past.  

Underland is a wonderful book, and gorgeously written. Here is just a taste:

That night the Northern Lights appear for the first time. A scarf of radar-green flutters in the sky. the mountains shoot jade search-lights into space.

We lie on our backs on the cold black air and watch the show, amazed into silence.

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