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.