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The Waterstones Interview: Robert Macfarlane on Underland

Posted on 3rd May 2019 by Martha Greengrass

In an exclusive interview for Waterstones, Robert Macfarlane discusses mythology, time and delving beneath the surface for his new book, Underland.

From the high peaks of Mountains of the Mind to the lost paths of The Old Ways and the vanishing lexicon of The Lost Words, Robert Macfarlane has traced the way our landscape is fused with language, storytelling and imagination. Nearly a decade in the making, Underland is his enthralling record of journeys into the worlds beneath our feet. From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the hidden catacombs of Paris, and further, to the deepest blue, ancient ice of Greenland, he explores – through myth, memory and experience – our most feared and venerated spaces of loss, discovery and deep time.

Robert Macfarlane and I meet in the first warm week of spring, a day mild enough to sit under the twining branches of Emmanuel College’s magnificent Oriental Plane tree. It’s an appropriate setting to talk about a book that begins with an entry ‘through the riven trunk of an old Ash tree’. As we sit – each with half an eye on the woodpecker that bobs in and out of view behind the branches as we talk, busy with its own tunnelling project – our conversation moves from this light and airy space to the invisible work of roots below and down into the underland.

We begin with time, which seems to have a peculiar and particular elasticity in Underland; at times cavernous, deep and wide and at others, startlingly immediate. In part, this is a book about the very different ways we might experience and understand time, both within and outside of the span of human existence. 

“Across cultures, we recognise that we use the underland to place that which we fear, which might cause harm on the surface, to sort of take it out of time,” Macfarlane says, “and we also use it to place the things we love most and to take them out of time. So I think there is a long-standing, and obviously very varied, cultural sense that time moves differently below the surface. Generally it moves more slowly; this is a place of slower making and slower keeping. Thomas Browne writes beautifully about how underground spaces are, what he calls, ‘conservatories’, the space in which things are conserved from the corruption of the surface world where time moves fast and things are exposed. I love that idea.”

Although the book is subtitled ‘A Deep Time Journey’, Underland is as much a book about our present moment as it is about our distant past and the seeds of its creation lie in three significant and concurrent events. 

“The very first ideas for the book came in the summer of 2010,” Macfarlane explains “when, in the space of five months, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig blowout occurred, off the Gulf of Mexico, and then the Chilean miners were entombed and rescued. And then I finished the book when the Thai football team were being rescued. So there was always a sense of the present pressing on the book, in odd ways.”

To read Underland is to be at once pulled under into the deep flow of our ancient, ancestral past and to be brought up short with the awareness of the urgency of our present and the precariousness of our future. If it is, in part, a book about going down to meet the worlds beneath, it is equally a record of natural revolt, of large-scale and literal uprising, as that which has remained long buried re-emerges.

“I knew I wanted to write about the present and the future, but then these surfacings overtook the book in the course of the years I was writing it,” he explains. “One of the second main interests of the book is that although time has, historically, moved very slowly in the underworld, right now the underland is coming up to meet us. As I say early on in the book, that ancientness that was fascinating to me, that idea was overtaken in the writing of the book by a sense of the underland as something suddenly coming to life. 

“Yesterday there was another report released on the so-called ‘cursed fields’ of northern Russia where these animal burial grounds are being uncovered as the permafrost melts. They are finding fragments of smallpox DNA, they are finding pathogens that we don’t really know anything about, because they were preserved in the bodies of mammoths, naturally occurring anthrax spores are being brought to the surface. There’s evidence all over the world of the underland rising up now.  From it being a place of safety and slow time, it has suddenly become, in our mixed up, accelerated contemporary, something rather more gothic, horrific and dangerous.

“The other thing to say about the underland and time is that, in a way, it’s where we’ve gone to forecast the future. So the sibyl at Cumae stands astride a wooden stool above a fissure into the earth and the vapours rise and prophecies are given. The Antarctic glaciologists drill into a kilometre deep-down core in order that they can forecast climate scenarios. The conclusion from that is, in a way, that time pulls all sorts of tricks underground that we’re not used to on the surface but I think that sense of delving down to look forwards also fascinated me.”

Physically, many of the locations of the book seem to be peculiarly designed to challenge a writer, often defying the usual linguistic stores of colour, light and metaphor. Macfarlane admits it presented challenges, “although I wrote 500 pages about it,” he laughs. “I ended up writing my longest book, but I also think it’s my most linguistically paired-back. Yet, in an odd way, these are spaces where humans and proto-humans have gone to make eloquence. The caves of Lascaux and Chauvet, this is where cinema was pioneered with multiple frames of the same moving horse in flickering torchlight. For Werner Herzog and many others, that’s the birth of cinema. One reason it took me so long to write the book was because I realised I was trying to write about all the things we cannot see and say. I found myself shaping myself around this darkness.”

There’s an intense physicality to Underland. One of the skills of Macfarlane’s writing is to bring readers so close to the experience of a space: their hand on the cave wall, their face washed clean in glacial ice-melt, the taste of salt-fish on their tongue. And of course, the terrifying, claustrophobia-inducing moments of a body tightly enclosed in earth and stone. It is not a book for the faint-hearted. When I explain that my own reaction to reading some of these scenes was one of rigid, petrified panic, Macfarlane beams with delight. ‘Brilliant! I’m so excited to hear this,” he exclaims. “I realise that claustrophobia is this astonishing resource for a writer. People’s bodies change, they move, they wriggle, they are gripped. One of the things writers love to be able to do is to move people and claustrophobia moves people in really powerful physical ways. I don’t know anything else that has this effect, so I can write something and people will read it and their whole body will begin to move in response to it. That felt like a kind of superpower really.”

There is a sense, too, that this is a space that demands a physical reaction, an environment that calls to human beings to leave their trace upon it: to dig, to bury, to touch, to mark. I ask Macfarlane about the resonant and repeated gesture of the hand on the wall, an action and an image that echoes throughout Underland’s pages.

“It speaks to me to what is actually not a hand print but a hand stencil,” he says. “So what is left is an absence rather than a mark. The hand is placed and then the ochre is spattered and what we see looks like a print but actually it’s a gestural silence, as it were.”

Our language is so wrapped up with ideas of knowledge and light – we become enlightened, we talk about knowledge being illuminated for us – but to step into the darkness is to break down those accepted ways of thinking about what we know, how we come to know it and how much we still have to learn.

“There are things we can only see in the dark,” Macfarlane agrees. “In The Old Ways I definitely talk about thought being sight specific and motion sensitive. There is this paradox that darkness is so often associated with ‘blindness’ and, therefore, with a problematic association with ignorance and a sort of foreclosing of knowledge. But actually, the underland has so richly been a place where knowledge is sought and found. 

“As soon as you recognise that, you have to dismantle these ideas of darkness and knowledge and the best example of that in the book are the Dark Matter laboratories. There’s this extraordinary archipelago of these sunken laboratories which are the only place where scientists have a chance of seeing or hearing – although neither of those verbs is quite right for what they’re doing – this utterly mysterious Dark Matter. When the atomic world was broken open at the beginning of the twentieth century by Einstein, it was as though as entire underland had opened in the molecular structures of the world. What must it have been like to live through that? Where suddenly the baryonic world, the atomic world, was just shattered and inside all this space emerged. I love the idea of this gradual realisation of how little is known and that is itself a kind of knowledge, an enticement on to look for more. These scientists are looking for matter that will have nothing whatsoever to do with light and the only place they can do that is, if not absolutely in darkness, then at depth. That brought me to this understanding that, in many ways, the underland is a place of revelation.” 

But Macfarlane follows this thought immediately with an assertion about the other, more sinister counterpoint of the underland.

“I should also say that it is also a place of brutality and imprisonment and incarceration and forced labour and hideous exploitation and I write about aspects of that. It is still a place where people are confined; shut out from knowledge, shut out from voice and forced into a kind of silence. It is where the powerless have been placed. I talk about this old axis of wealth at height and poverty at depth and there is much to confirm that in history.  In Las Vegas the poor live in the storm drains and the rich live in penthouses and in ancient Rome the wealthy lived on the hills and the poor lived in the malarial swamps. It’s H.G. WellsThe Island of Doctor Moreau, it’s Caliban and Ariel.

Macfarlane’s writing has always explored the intersection between stories, language and landscape. In Underland that encompasses some of the world’s most prevalent and enduring mythologies: stories of perilous journeys under the earth, communions with the dead and, perhaps most powerfully, the search for a knowledge of the future kept by the deep, dark places and those who dwell there.

“It is there in the most famous nekyia [a rite where the living call up ghosts of the dead to foretell the future] of classical literature, Aeneas’ descent to the underworld to consult with the shades of Hades. I don’t want to, in any way, suggest that there’s no variation between cultures or some sort of mythic essentialism at work, not at all, but I am interested in all the ways in which, to quote Bruno Latour, ‘we have never been modern’. The nekyia of The Aeneid and of so much classical literature and world myth is repeated in current climatology where you go down to forecast the future.”

Just as Macfarlane mapped the Mountains of the Mind, so, in Underland, he charts another kind of mental pathway into our minds and ourselves, revealing the way that the marks we make in the world around us shape our own internal landscapes.

“I’ve written four big books now and I’ve had the same process with all of them,” he considers, “which is that I get to the end of them and then I look back, as it were looking back across a terrain that’s been traversed, and suddenly all these cairns become visible that weren’t obvious before and that happened very strongly with this one. There was a sense of uncovering a structure that was already present. Mythology and geology are on a continuum, they are the means by which we have variously sought to comprehend this incomprehensible space that is absolutely there a centimetre away from us but invisible and hardly known.”

These underground mythologies often link a journey down to a journey within. There is a shared language to the way we talk about the underland, with its secret spaces and hidden mysteries, and ourselves.

“My father was a lung physician,” Macfarlane says, “and I grew up in Nottinghamshire and I still remember realising that the surface land that I walked on was absolutely riddled underneath itself by coal mining. My father treated coal miners for silicosis and I still remember him telling us about the incredible depths of the body; you flatten all the alveoli and you have the area the size of a tennis court. The idea of this bundled up, complex, hollow space within the body, of amazing extent, and then this amazing, bundled up space beneath my feet spoke very strongly to me. I still remember my dad bringing home these x-rays and holding them up to the window, as a sort of light box, so we could see the lungs of these miners and see where the coal had come into their body. I think from that early point I had a strong sense of the mysterious space of our own interiors. We all carry our own underlands with us and within us and that’s true of the mind as well as the body. They’re often the things we find hardest to see and to talk about.”

One of the pleasures of Macfarlane’s writing is his willingness to be taken over by experience and to convey to his readers those moments of fear, marvel and unexpected joy. His Underland is also a Wonderland, a place where imagination tumbles headlong and surprises wait to be caught in the torchlight. What, I ask, surprised him most on his journeys underground?

“Actually, in one sense, some of the most unforgettable moments were the moments of surfacing and there have been times when it has been almost colourless or the colour palette has been drastically reduced and your pupils have turned into well-holes because they’ve sucked up any available light. The moment of climbing up through the roots of an old Ash tree in the Mendips into a summer’s day, for example. There’s this Tibetan tradition of the Bardo, where the pilgrim is reborn after effectively passing through an underground space. Even if you haven’t seen daylight for days – and I hadn’t seen it for three days after being down in the Paris catacombs – that green just filled the eyes. I was trying to find a way to write about that. You suddenly feel that your bones are green and your flesh is leaf and your eyes explode into your head with colour. It’s very, very intense to surface. I began to realise that those moments of coming back to the light were very intensely powerful. 

“But otherwise there’s just surprise everywhere. One of the oddest things I saw was down in the final burial chambers of Onkalo, the nuclear waste storage facility, 400 metres under the frozen coast of Bothnia, where we’re creating an eternity tomb designed to last 100,000 years when the pyramids have lasted 5,000 years. There was this little melamine table and a slightly wonky chair, like you might get in a municipal leisure centre, and that’s where the forms were being drawn out for the end of the world. I think that combination of mundanity and a sort of epic context, of so much of modernity narrowing down to this question of what we do with what we have made, that was an unforgettable moment. But also seeing three ptarmigan after having been on ice for three days, arranged like notes on a stave. Life. Life and colour.”

At those moments of resurfacing – themselves a kind of rebirth – it’s hard not to feel a quickened awareness of life in all its precious and precarious brevity. It’s a counterpoint to the book’s meditations on the underground as a place of loss, burial and remembrance.

“I wanted to write about that in the burial chapter in the Mendips,” Macfarlane says. “There’s a section where I just talk about the work done by this incredible team of paleoanthropologists, who are able to get into this tiny, tiny cave space and seem to be establishing that very, very early hominid burial was happening there way before the Mesolithic stuff I write about and it reinforces that we are a burying species. We still place our dead underground, we still scatter ashes, we still have a place on the earth where we go to know the body of a loved one is there. These are powerful presences.”

This is at times a more sober and more sombre book than any of Macfarlane’s previous works. There is a keener awareness of loss and absence, both on a human and a global scale. ‘Sometimes, in fact,’ he writes, ‘all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.’ 

“Yes. I think this is an older person’s book,” he agrees, “it’s a book written by someone in the second half of life. I couldn’t have written it ten or fifteen years ago. I’ve lived through some deaths and some losses now and they are not explicitly present in the book but they shade the edges of things. More broadly, I think the song of our times is a song of loss. As the Anthropocene accelerates around us we are slowly waking up to this great vanishing: of species, of places, of lives, of possibilities. So I think that I wanted somehow to register that and write about that from a deep-time perspective. To consider not just what is left, but what are we leaving. 

“Claustrophobia is an atmosphere of our times. We are narrowing down; our options are running out, we’re quite stuck. Time and space are closing in around us, as a species and as a planet. I suppose I’ve always been interested in how matter is set ringing as metaphor but is also respected in its own right and so I think the underland is a hugely reverberant and resonant space but I didn’t quite know just how resonant when I started work on it all those years ago.”

Does he think we are more haunted by the underland than by any other space?

“Yes, I do”, he replies, “undoubtedly. Partly because it’s where we’ve put ghosts, it’s where we’ve put memories, it’s where we’ve put trauma. It’s the place things come back from; it’s the source of revenance. Things that are unbidden are resurfacing in a very geopolitical way with a very eerie and unsettling intensity. But it’s also the place we can’t see or only dimly glimpse, the place where entry is only given through certain points. It does haunt us and particularly at this moment of species history because it’s where we see the future. That would be the final turn of the intellectual screw of the book, that the idea of the Anthropocene says ‘what marks will we leave in future record, what will be the strata archive of our species that’s been such a short time on the planet but so consequential for it?’ And that is based on the idea of a future reader, a speculative palaeontologist looking back into the underland and looking at the strata of Homo sapiens. So, yes, I think the haunting now, is the haunting of uncanny time mixing and mingling with a kind of futurology.”

Alongside these spatial hauntings are human stories of those who have lost their lives in the underground. More commonly associated with a vertiginous pull to jump off a high building, or to leap from a cliff-edge, the French term ‘l’appel du vide’ – literally the pull of the void – has a new and equally captivating sense when applied to luring expanses of tunnelling ice, cave sumps and deep, deep water. 

“There’s a line I wrote in Mountains of the Mind,” Macfarlane says, “‘those who travel to mountaintops are half in love with themselves and half in love with oblivion’. I think I did feel that occasionally in the tunnels in Boulby. There is the sense of this mineral life of the earth, this halite of translucent rock-salt, laid down by a sea - the Zechstein - that evaporated 270 million years ago and covered the whole of northern Europe, leaving this translucent strata that moves like ice or glass. These are amazing concepts and substances and they have power.” 

“By far the most dangerous episode in the book was when I was mountaineering over the Lofotens to reach the cave of the red dancers. But that was not sought out, or foretold. I came to realise that in an odd way it was a re-performance of what had drawn the first makers there. They had gone to this place  –  which was really hard for them to get to as well, these were people who lived fine margin lives – they had gone to this remote sea cave on the far side of this island archipelago because it was a giant, ritual space that faced the maelstrom. Here are two portals: one into the world of water and one into the world of rock and the underland beneath. I realised part way through what became this really frightening, troubling expedition that there was some mitigation to my stupidity, in that I was sort of doing what had drawn these people there. Fear and wonder and compulsion are part of the underland.”

The structure of Underland is a conscious mirror of a classical katabasis, or journey into the underworld. Like an ancient hero, the Underland reader is submerged and returns, perhaps, not wholly the same. As Virgil points out, going down to hell is the easy part, it is the coming back that is difficult. 

“It begins with a descent,” Macfarlane explains, “and then there are these chambers and it ends with a surfacing near here, with my son and a coming back to the light and what is valuable. I really wanted the reader to undergo their own journey into darkness and back into light and to ask questions of what they’ve left down there, what they’ve found down there and what they value, what they love. As for what I found, that was true of me as well. I think I came back with a greater sense of love for the living, maybe that’s the best way of putting it, and a greater sense of fear for the future. That’s where I surface.”


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