A Nature Writer for the Anthropocene

In Underland, Robert Macfarlane gives readers new ways to experience the richness and strangeness of a damaged world.

The catacombs of Paris
The catacombs of Paris (Francois Mori / AP)

Robert Macfarlane has spent the past two decades becoming a nature writer for the Anthropocene. His new book, Underland, culminates a first-half-of-life project in which he has worked to understand the mind’s encounter with nature. What do we look for when we go out to meet landscapes and nonhuman things? What do we find, and how does it change us?

In Mountains of the Mind (2003), Macfarlane explored the lure of high places, and the ways Romantic literature helped to transform high altitudes from the terrifying and disgusting places medieval Europeans saw them as to the pilgrimage destinations they are today. The Wild Places (2007) described some of the least human-dominated places in the British Isles, guided by Henry David Thoreau’s theme that “wildness” is a quality of the imagination as much as of the world, and that being in the wild means adjusting the mind’s eye as well as strapping on crampons. The Old Ways (2012) followed paths and sea routes around the British land and coasts, stripping away the overlays of maps and GPS to find the feeling of navigating by stories and pictures held in the mind. Landmarks (2015) rummaged through the word-hoards of Britain’s regional dialects, finding terms such as pallag (on the Isle of Man, a hilltop seen from the sea) and allan (in Cumbria, a piece of land almost completely surrounded by water). The aim of Landmarks was to recover words so particular that they tell you where you are: in what landscape, perhaps at what time of day, in which stage of the seasons and the place’s cycle of work. In 2017, Macfarlane co-published a beautifully illustrated children’s book, The Lost Words, that wove nature terms into spells for reenchanting a world that had lost some of its old magic. It became a best seller in the United Kingdom.

Macfarlane is a seemingly effortless master of two popular genres, travel literature and nature writing. Their perfect blend forms the surface appeal of his books. Like the winsome Bruce Chatwin or the acerbic V. S. Naipaul, he takes you with him from place to place, feeding you the best bits of conversation with the odd and sometimes revelatory characters he meets. Like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, he is an extraordinary observer who, every few pages, will draw you shockingly near to a single stone, the meltwater torrent running through a glacier, or a patch of Cambridgeshire hedge, making it so vivid that, if you are reading attentively, for a few seconds nothing else is in your mind. Both genres often depend on nostalgia (the last this, the vanishing that­) and exoticism (I went to this place where they do, well, you won’t believe). In a world collapsing into mass extinction and growing more globally homogenous every year, the you won’t believe is usually also the last of something. Macfarlane knows the appeal of nostalgia and exoticism, but he also knows that they are dead ends. They fundamentally portray the world as becoming less interesting, less worth working to preserve, less worth the passion of an eager explorer.

Underland makes clear what Macfarlane has been aiming at all along. He wants to do for the broken, fouled, and remnant landscapes of the Anthropocene what his Romantic predecessors did for the high mountains. He is trying to find in places of disgust, indifference, or terror a quality that can answer some new need in the mind, some cultural hunger. And what we need now, he reckons, is a new (or renewed) way of experiencing the richness and strangeness of a damaged world. He is out to model that way of seeing, of reenchanting.

In going underground, Macfarlane is entering more explicitly mythical territory than in his earlier books. The underland is home to Hades, fairy kingdoms, and many other realms of spirits and the dead, from Mesopotamia and Ireland to the indigenous cosmologies of some Native Americans and the Sámi of Finland.

Going there carries risks: The thing about living in disenchanted times is that you can’t conjure just by using old conjuring words. (One of J. R. R. Tolkien’s writing-group members is said to have captured this difficulty when he exclaimed, in response to a new chapter in the master’s epic, “Not another fucking elf!” You don’t say that if you think elves might be real enough to sicken your cow or kidnap your boyfriend.) In an implicit response to this difficulty, Underland rests its ideas on things.

Macfarlane travels with scientists, laborers, and spelunking adventurers in their explorations of underground places: the catacombs of Paris, potassium and rock-salt mines that branch for miles under the North Sea from their entrances in Yorkshire, the blue caverns that meltwater cuts into the glaciers of Greenland. Every descent suggests, contrary to the common Romantic conceit that science kills magic, that the more we learn about the world, the more wondrous it becomes. The more we understand, the more we realize what we do not know, as if the horizons of mystery expand outward, beyond the circle of secure knowledge.

Take those potassium mines under the North Sea. Macfarlane goes banging around down there, far from the “noise” of cosmic rays and other surface disturbances, with veteran miners because scientists are also using the deep mines. They’re looking for traces of neutrinos and other “ghost particles” that might enable us to observe the dark matter that physicists estimate makes up about 27 percent of the universe’s mass, but that almost entirely refuses to interact with the kind of matter that forms us and everything we can touch or observe directly. Particles of dark matter must swim through us, like light through air, or small fish through broad nets.

The underground is mythically associated with another world pulsing just behind this one, sometimes interacting with ours in uncanny ways. That pulsing ended, mostly, with the elves and fairies. But here is the presence of that world again, streaming across the cosmos to make itself fleetingly known in the recesses of a deep mine. A scientist tells Macfarlane how he feels knowing that 100 trillion neutrinos pass like ghosts through his body every second: “When I’m out for a walk with my wife, along the cliff-tops near here, on a sunny day, I know our bodies are wide-meshed nets, and that the cliffs we’re walking on are nets, too, and sometimes it seems, yes, as miraculous as if in our everyday world we suddenly found ourselves walking on water, or air. And I wonder what it must be like, sometimes, not to know that.”

In Paris, Macfarlane finds urban spelunkers who are making literal the novelist Italo Cavino’s famous idea that beneath every city exists an “invisible city” (or a series of such cities) that corresponds to it, yet is in some way essentially different. Every act of functional construction makes a new mystery that haunts the final product. The catacombs of Paris were created by quarrying, as the building-up of the great city aboveground produced emptied-out spaces below, a material photo negative of progress. The catacombs have served as resting places for the bones of the dead, as marching routes for prisoners during insurrections, and as extra classrooms for the Paris School of Mines, which has forgotten about an entire display room of mineral samples that Macfarlane’s friends lead him to, a cabinet of wonders accessible only by crawling on your belly through cuts in stone. Today the catacombs serve, too, as gathering spaces for a demimonde of adventurers who hold dance parties, or just wander quietly, where day and night give no shape to time.

The point of going into an alien space underground has usually been to return from it changed, and that change is a great deal of what interests Macfarlane. When you surface, the world is given back to you, but it is not quite the same. “Green is a new color again,” he writes of reemerging in Paris. Coming out of a tiny crawl space beneath an unimaginable weight of stone in the English Mendips, a cave region threaded with ancient burials, “warm air is rolling around me, and my bones grow again in the storm of light … I sit laughing, knowing for those few moments that to understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark.” He’s describing a kind of ecstasy, even something mystical, that returns our everyday experience to us transformed.

Some of Macfarlane’s destinations are straightforwardly extraordinary: a cave off the stormy coast of Norway, reachable only by a dangerous trek and an overnight wait for the tides to yield, where one can just glimpse a millennia-old painting of dancers; the deep crevasse of a Greenland glacier, which could be the nave of a cathedral in a world carved from blue light. But these places have a meaning beyond being rare and strange. They are bridges across time, where one can feel that thousands of years have collapsed into the space of a tomb, or are held in a hand that touches ancient layers of glaciation or sedimentary stone. For Macfarlane and some of his scientist-informants, rock has a kind of vitality: It is a piece of deep time that you can brush with your finger. Ancient ice is an even more profound and almost living messenger. Like stone, it gathers the past thousands or millions of years, but it disappears into water within days of surfacing to be touched and seen. The depth of time is one of this old world’s most astonishing qualities, but we constantly lose awareness of it, because time is always now. In underground materials, Macfarlane finds palpable pieces of time.

In other portions of Underland, Macfarlane is interested in how it might be possible to move between the upper and lower worlds more easily, or even to hold both together in our minds. In an essay closely aligned with Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Overstory, Macfarlane wanders London’s Epping Forest with a mycologist fortuitously named Merlin, meditating on the consciousness of trees. We have learned in the past two decades, thanks to pioneering work by the forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, that the forest minds of Tolkien’s ents and Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke may be not entirely fantastical. Trees share food, warn one another of threats, and are generally linked by webs of roots and fungi, which symbiotically carry chemicals from one root crown to another. The meaning-makers and ideologists that we are, people have already hastened to paint these “wood-wide webs” as proof of nature’s inherent socialism, or of rational markets in goods and services among tree species. But an honest assessment has to stick at the uncanniness of it. We know something is there, hundreds of millions of years older than us, and that it is behaving rather like a nervous system, a brain, a seat of consciousness. Does it make meaning? Does it have experience? If it does, could we ever know it, or does it pass through our world like neutrinos ghosting through our livers and brains? “Walden, is it you?” Thoreau asked, meaning roughly, Can I ever know what you are? Macfarlane’s scientists show him that is not an inapt question to ask of a place. Whether to expect an answer is another question. If only your mind were a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning, Macfarlane imagines the forest saying, over and over, to ears that cannot hear but that should maybe listen anyway, out of respect for the something that is there, just underground.

Macfarlane is the least portentous of prophets, and Underland is not, in the usual sense, a political book. He is a listener and observer, always careful to position himself as the slightly hapless but eager tagalong to someone else’s revelatory work. He is careful to acknowledge his sources, and gives special attention to the words of women and indigenous people, notably the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, whose Braiding Sweetgrass is a striking treatment of the ways language can cultivate a sense of community with living things that are not human. But Underland has a project that is quietly prophetic and political.

This age of rolling ecological crisis poses all kinds of hard questions. Will rich nations fall into petro-nationalism of the Russian and Trumpist variety, or achieve the deep decarbonization that is currently being called the Green New Deal? Do we face resource wars and a new colonialism aimed at securing food and water for the powerful, or will new regimes emerge to share wealth and burdens? And in a world where humans are the agents and victims of environmental catastrophe (though not always the same humans, at least not during the same decades), how will we think about our place in the world? Macfarlane’s writing is a gamble that the answer to this last question will matter for the others, too.

Human identity is never far from a picture of what kind of world this is—hostile or welcoming, ancient or young, eternally abiding or speeding toward doomsday. Our identities are rooted, too, in how we suppose we fit into this world: as sojourners on the way to heaven, as masters of a creation that we can use up as freely as builders at a lumberyard, or just as things among things, woven from the same humus and stardust as the mushrooms and the anthracite coal. Who we believe ourselves to be is closely bound up with what we will fight to preserve, and what we are capable of loving.

Past a point, resources are zero-sum. But the richness of experience need not be. The value of our lives depends intensely on material wealth, but wealth is not enough, and for some purposes it is not even necessary. In a more meaningful world, some of us might be satisfied with less, or just be more satisfied. We might rage less, be less restless, listen less to everyone with something to sell, from national politicians to advertisers. If only your mind were a slightly greener thing. Macfarlane’s gamble is that we can make our minds greener, more attuned to deep time, more aware of all the strange reality that pulses around and through us, and might make the world enough for us, and worth fighting to preserve. We might feel more solidarity with other humans who, like us, have surfaced for a moment in deep time.

The underground has always been threatening and empowering, a place of interment and transformation. It is where mourning comes to rest, and where life mysteriously returns. It is where we bury what we hope to never see again—and where the past waits to return to us in strange new ways. Macfarlane and his companions watch a glacier calve in Greenland and see “a whole city of white and blue” collapse into the sea, followed by “a black, shining pyramid … thrusting and glistening, made of a substance that has to be ice but … has come from so deep down in time that it has lost all color, and we are dancing and swearing and shouting, appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing.” In an age of ecological catastrophe, the surface world and the present are full of these mixed things, blending the exquisite and the horrible. Any decent way through this time will need to find, in the exquisite and the horrible, reminders of the utter preciousness of ordinary places and things. Underland shows that the world is not disenchanted, and that our minds need not be either. Mystery abounds, and grows with knowledge. Maybe, like dark matter, it makes up more of the universe than the parts we know. We have to learn to go out and meet it, together.