I’m not sure this isn’t really something for a Wild Spaces Wild Magic research page rather than a couple of blog posts, nor am I entirely sure what I can add to the massive work that is Rob Macfarlane’s Underland, a moving, detailed, Bible Moralisée that looks at landscape and souterane and human uses for and vision of the spaces we find or create.
OK, instead I’m going to put together some of the images and lines that give me most to think about, whether in terms of the brilliance of their wordsmithing or because their message is worth pondering.
That’s not to say loads more isn’t wonderful: just go read it and make your mind up yourself. I’m not copying the book out or appropriating the ideas: mine is an idiosyncratic selection (a bit of commentary may sometimes set a context), a few lines from a massive work that deserves a good slow read. I said in my initial review on Goodreads how this could be a scripture for our time; perhaps this is my Lectio Divina.
There is a lot to ponder in the opening pages:
I have often noticed how claustrophobia – much more so than vertigo – retains its disturbing power even when being experienced indirectly as narrative or description. p12*
This is the point at which Rob caught me, by moving from this into Garner’s claustrophobic description of the Alderley tunnels in Weirdstone and then into Gilgamesh.
Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving. p13
…to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making an unmaking. p15
The second chapter, Burial, is set in Britain.
We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most. p27
It concerns cave-repository of the dead, but also the tragic death of Neil Moss, an early autumn descent in the Mendips to where
Language is crushed p49
Ch 3 moves to the intense research hidden from the noise of particles in Yorkshire, linked in the book to the network of (nearby and further afield, now ruined) Cistercian Abbeys
in which prayers were offered to a presence disinclined to disclose itself to the usual beseechings p67.
R S Thomas’s voice echoing quite literally de profundis, as Rob moves us past the Komodo Dragon-like mining machinery to a discussion of the term Anthropocene, and how we have reached here. This is one of my favourite passages, and will have to stand for so many:
We all carry trace fossils within us – the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace – and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself. p 79
If someone finds this blog and is wondering what to read at my funeral, that’s the passage.
The wood-wide web, discussed as we explore Epping Forest in Ch 4 is an idea so powerful I am still digesting it. Some beautiful, tender images and amazing ideas. The wonderfully named Merlin Sheldrake, and Rob’s own meditation on roots and language where
The real underland of language is not the roots of single words, but rather the soil of grammar and syntax, where habits of speech and therefore also habits of thought settle and interact over long periods of time. p112
And so on to Paris and the catacombs, for me the most terrifying and claustrophobic exploration in the book. The cataphiles and Hell Well. The Salle du Drapeau. London, and in a slate mine in Wales
a carchive, a slewing slope of wrecks p166
cars dumped to save scrappage.
Death is never far away, and we travel past a not-quite deserted Mithraeum to swimming deep in a submerged system, where a tunnel beckons the author:
The pull of the mouth through that eerily clear water was huge. Just as standing on the edge of a tower one feels drawn to fall, so I experienced a powerful longing to swim into the mouth until my air ran beautifully out. p200
Beautifully. The challenge to find beauty is not always about death and danger: Ch 6 ends with a lyrical description of an Adriatic beach at night where a chill current recalls the snow-fed starless rivers Rob has visited; in ch 7 a near-naked Macfarlane negotiates
the snowmelt bite of the water p232
But the travelogue is not always beautiful, either: there are executions commemorated in Slovenian valleys, and much later there are warnings of the waste storage the Anthropocene demands…
Even in the most overtly spiritual section, where we travel to visit the cave paintings of Lofoten, we are not far from a curious sense of disaster and mystical experience. He ties together the discoveries of Lascaux with the emergence of the news of the Nazi Death Camps, and on leaving the red-painted dancers Rob has
a strong sense of being watched…
What did I see in the dark? A shadow-play of pasts, events refusing sequence, the fingertip drawing its lines through time far from the well-lit world, there in the unfathomable cave. This was a place that absorbed those visitors who crossed its threshold – as it had me, another in the long history of meaning-seekers and meaning-makers in its shadows. p284
What happens next is so deep, and it feels to me so important, I can’t write it out: we see Rob in mourning, and the tutelary genius loci is at best an ambiguous figure. That “strong sense of being watched,” the sentient landscape, brings me from the northerly storms to the Peak District, to Thursbitch and Ludchurch, and since this post started with Garner, I thnk it right to end it here.
*page references are to the Hamish Hamilton hardback, London 2019