More selections and thoughts arising from them as I revisit Rob Macfarlane’s Underland. Again, quotations will dominate, with the uncomfortable balancing act of celebrating a great work and wanting to preserve its voice, yet not wanting simply to reproduce it. If you have got this far with me and haven’t bought the book, maybe you should. I am tempted to buy another copy and have it interleaved so I can take note after note.
To back track a little. The previous post left the author in a storm by the caves of ancient cave art, where his journey is remembered
…mostly as metals. Silver of the pass. Iron of the bay and its clouds. Rare gold of the sky. Zinc of the storm in its full fury. Bronze and copper of the sea to the south as I escape. p254*
We are still, in ch 9, in Norway, now looking at the Maelstrom,
the underland of the sea p291
and the complexities of the economics of oil and fishing. The pace changes, and human characters – never far from the narrative throughout most of Underland – are more important. Human geography – and our need to sanitise our use of resources:
Those industries [extracting oil] understand the market need for alienated labour, hidden infrastructure and the strategic concealment of both the slow violence of environmental degradation and the quick violence of accidents. p311
I had not heard the term solastalgia, the “distress cause by environmental change,” so this is eye-opening:
the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control… We might consider John Clare a solastalgic poet, witnessing his native Northamptonshire countryside disrupted by enclosure in the 1810s… a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognizable by climate change or corporate action: the home becomes unhomely around its inhabitants. p317
and we walk a shoreline of human detritus.
Nature is no longer only a remote peak shining in the sun or a raptor hunting over birch woods – it is also tidelines thickened with drift plastic, or methane clathrates decomposing over millions of square miles of warming permafrost. p321
Kulusk now, in Greenland, and the global melt releasing anthrax and revealing hidden military bases.
unweder – unweather p334
uggianaqtuq – to behave strangely p335
and because this section is about exploration of the underland of Greenland, Rob gives us a meditation on ice:
Ice has a memory. It remembers in detail and it remembers for a million years or more.
Ice remembers forest fires and rising sea. Ice remembers the chemical composition of the air around the start of the last Ice Age, 110,000 years ago. It remembers how many days of sunshine fell upon it in a summer 50,000 years ago. It remembers the temperature in the clouds at a moment of snowfall early in the Holocene… It remembers the smelting boom of the Romans…
Ice has a memory and the colour of this memory is blue. p337-8
And then we are off into a glacial landscape where orange lichens and emerald leaves of dwarf willow stand out. The boom of breaking ice, and in the Northern Lights
The mountains shoot jade searchlights into space. p346
Rob descends into a moulin, a meltwater shaft in a glacier,
a portal giving access to the blue underland of ice. p369
and witnesses – with a vivid, almost Chthulhu-like horror a short quotation could not reproduce – the upsurge of a massive berg, ice broken from a glacier.
The penultimate section, ch 12, is no less shocking: our exploration of the “tomb” (RMc’s word) or deep storage facility for our nuclear waste:
The tombs that we have constructed to receive these remains are known as geological repositories, and they are the Cloaca Maxima – the Great Sewer – of our species. p400
They are designed to outlast us, something I find appalling. And even though much of what we create will outlast the individual maker, this is legacy on an altogether different scale. Death haunts so much of this book – echoing the human pattern of burial to preserve or to conceal – until we meet the challenge:
What legacies will we leave behind, not only for the generations that succeed us, but also for the epochs and species that will come after ours? Are we being good ancestors? p410
How do we tell these people/these creatures of a time to come not to disturb the toxic giant we are interring?
Oh, Underland has so much more, even in my own reading, to highlight, to praise, to explore, to discuss, but this is a book to read slowly and then to return to. These notes are for me, really, and some of what I see or connect with seems nefas to share here. As a final non-sharing, I will say that the last, short section, a return home like in The Wild Places, reduced me to tears.
*Page references are to Macfarlane, R (2019). Underland: a deep time journey. London: Hamish Hamilton.
NB The Guardian has a resource of stuff they have produced around Robert Macfarlane, which includes his own very thoughtful illustrated essay arising out of Underland.