Underland Thoughts II

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, IMG_0149to 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.

Underland Thoughts I

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 C66033DA-9011-4149-85C3-F6FC8F658B52that looks at landscape and souterane and human uses for and vision of the spaces we find or create.

Then don’t.

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

More Dragons: St George’s Day

Ignoring the debates about how much the Church has baptized pagan celebrations, part of me wants to ask people to back off the appropriation of Christian festivals for secular ends, from the feast of All Uncomfortable Family Obligations (25th December) to Chocolate Bunny Day (which this year fell earlier this month).    It is perverse of me, I expect, to push the fact that today is celebrated by many/most Western Christian Churches as St George’s Day, the solemnity that remembers the martyrdom of a saint from the Middle East whose cultus spread during the crusades as a sort of military demi-god. The feast has moved because the week (“octave”) after Easter is deemed to be so special it clears the calendar of other celebrations. I shall not comment on the crusader link, and for now I’ll skirt round those other ways in which tales of George and his emblems and cross have supported or excused violence against the enemies of England or Western Christendom.  It is my fervent hope that, as I said earlier this year, those dragons are in the end going to burn themselves out, but today I find myself in some doubt.59610823_10161841658920341_2877297955658792960_n

Just briefly, however, to reflect on whose saint George is. Not in terms of whose patron saint he might be, if that means who he might support in a battle or a football match, or whatever (all of which seem pretty empty to me, although I recognise the power of Shakespeare both at the time of his writing Henry V and of Laurence Olivier’s stirring speech in his film version), but in terms of tradition.   Tradition is  powerful thing, of course, and the St George tradition renews itself through the institutions of English monarchy, flags on church buildings – and more recently by appropriation of a mythic, medieval past by right-wingers that reminds me uncomfortably of Romanita in Mussolini’s celebration of Vergil. Mind you, Vergil’s own plea to a mythic past is also open to exploration…

What are we left with?  Lots of English images of churches, flags, the rolling countryside of the story of a land fit for heroes that has given rise, indirectly, to the powerful love of landscape and nature that might yet save our environment? Shall I wind up the gramophone and start the Vaughan Williams or Holst … and go on a search for a Land of Hope and Glory of 1220, 1420 or 1950 that never really existed?  It is not to be denied that imagery, music, tradition are key to understanding identity, and these myths are important. Above is a nod, in some form, to the traditional iconography in the red(ish) rose in my back garden this morning, out early, out in time for St George’s day (the white Yorkshire rose is hanging back, I note). So when is St George’s Day? Does the tradition of 23rd April stand, and if we get a new national holiday, that will be it? Or is it something for Christians, with our own calendars, celebrating a saint from such uncertain past histories we are unsure who we are celebrating, or for people looking for an identity?  Do Christians cede St George to people in search of a mascot, a symbol of a (xenophobic, possibly violent and unthinking) nationalism? What did I celebrate when I opened my breviary today?

I have to wonder if what I celebrated was not St George, and certainly not Englishness, but a curmudgeon’s hankering after a faith identity that separates itself – or has been separated – from a nationalist identity, and this is born, in part, from the Reformation script that meant Catholics were seen as in some way foreign. Here we are at the us-and-them of identity: we are us because we are not them. Perhaps this is why a combative dragon-slayer fits so well.  Perhaps we are all looking at mythic pasts for identity guides.  Uncomfortable thoughts on a fine spring morning.

The Importance of Telling the Story

We’re back from the Gambia again. No volcanoes – at least, not of the physical kind – and the experience was on the whole extremely positive. The conversation over coffee goes something like this:

Colleague: So, how was Africa?

Me: Good: one the best, in fact.

Colleague: How come?

Me: Well, a lower number of students helped, and fewer pressures on my time meant I could be there for them when we met up at the end of the day. 

And then comes the tricky part: do I launch into more detail, praising (justifiably) Gambia-Extra for their skills at organising us a great stay,  into travellers’ tales of bush taxis or pedagogy or a nice dinner at the incredibly swanky Ngala Lodge? Do I go into what I think Eric Berne calls the “Ain’t it Awful?” game of saying how hard it was? And at heart, how do I talk about the students’ learning and achievement (mindful of Jock Coats’ timely and thoughtful piece here), or explore in just a few pencil-sketch strokes the experience of all of the week?

Cora Player

I have to wonder about why I have these conversations. They are part of the social interaction of any workplace, of course, but in some ways they are advocacy. Telling the story of encountering the crocodiles might suggest to a colleague that it would be interesting to come next year; similarly the Cora Player (right) whose music was so enchanting might attract someone. But it is also possible that the challenges of pedagogy, or the conversations I had about additional provision for children on the autistic spectrum might lead a colleague to think about how different school life is in other countries.

This isn’t to say I preach from a position of superiority or even deeper knowledge. I love to hear the stories from others: similarities, differences; ways in which East Africa faces similar challenges; the ways in which a school in the UK supports or links with a school in the Gambia. I like to hear because I realise how little I know or understand. One thing I learn every time I go the Gambia is that my own view is too narrow: Global Citizenship isn’t just something for students; it’s about me as a learner, too.



Early Years Post Doc

If we assume – I am not sure we can assume – that the advert for a nanny in New York at a sum that no post-Doc and no Early Years practitioner would dream of (current link here: not sure it’s stable)  is not a spoof, then what would it say about Early Years?
It might tell readers that these are people with more money than sense, certainly without a sense of what the market could offer (a similar person for half the salary for example). It might also indicate a willingness on the part of the family to prize academic qualification over professional qualification or experience.
It just might, however, suggest that parents who have the money to do so could think seriously about much they value the education and care of the youngest people in their family. What, really, is the price for bringing up baby? It is as if this advert, genuine or not, points back to George Monbiot’s argument about forests: how can we reduce some things to unit costs?

And yet, of course, we do.  How much can I afford in childcare? What help will the Government give me? How much does a childminder earn?

Until someone shows me otherwise, however, I think I will stick to the position I have reached: that this is not genuine, but a satirical way of criticising either the poor financing of postdoctoral study, or the even poorer salaries of EY workers – or both.

The question remains, however: is cost really reducible to a unit-by-unit cost benefit analysis, or do we have to acknowledge this is a threadbare way of “un-valuing” some things?

How to ask a question

Last Friday and this Tuesday I taught very small classes – ten in each. Something of a luxury, not because the showman is put away in a class that size but really because the academic can come out.

The first class was a sort of guest spot on the outdoors in an international perspective in a module called (surprise!) “Cross-National Perspectives in Education,” and raised questions (I hope) around the validity of evidence from sources grabbed (purposefully) from YouTube, and set in the context of harder (but less immediately illuminating) data such as stats on life span.

The second was my “Becoming a Reader” class, where the ungarded students were lively and argumentative while presenting to one another on issues around reading and memory, reading schemes, motivation…

So far, so good.  What struck me was that the smaller classes gave us all time to listen, to question, to discuss. They gave me time to listen, and to raise questions – and to listen to my own questioning.

But what sort of questions do I raise? How do I challenge students? I think – I hope – I do so with some reference to the kind of progression in thinking skills I’m looking for. I’m looking less for an answer about “How many children attend the pre school in Norway that we saw?” than I am for some response to “What do you see as the drawbacks to the kind of provision we saw?” or “Why might a family education project in Kenya be presented as a women’s empowerment project?”

But do I – do we – model effectively enough the deeper questioning we seek from our students? I ask a student to “be more critical” – but can I, hand on heart, say I have shown the students the kind of questioning I want them to do?

This comes to a head with the students I’m meeting tomorrow, and to the stream of Masters students who have come to me this week to check their essay titles are “on the right lines.” What makes a good question, a good area for a short essay, a fruitful line of discussion?

I think we’re back, to a greater or lesser extent explicitly,  at Gibbs’ reflective cycle and Bloom’s taxonomy.  Watch out for that threadbare carpet, please, as I suggest

  • To what extent do you think you can rely on…
  • How valid do you think the argument is…
  • Can you use this argument in a different context/Can we explain this another way…

…are  good ways [for me] to go, rather than nervously saying “Do you understand this?” “Are you with me?” or (in some ways the most cowardly of all) “I’m assuming you’ve all read this.”

This would/could/might lead to better questions at least at M-level or L6. Armed with this – or having armed my students with it? – I can genuinely expect essay proposals that are not “How can a practitioner support role play effectively?” but “To what extent might practitioner support improve children’s experience of role play?” or “What theoretical background might a practitioner employ to understand role play in a setting?” Tentative. Exploratory.


Whereof one cannot speak…

What to talk about today?
Goodness: from PISA to Tom Daley, there are lots of stories to look at, from (on a different tack) the HE action to odd but delightful metareporting  (Twitter – Guardian-Academic Journal) on academic blogging.

I’d like to make

  • some witty mash-up line about at least two of these (“Tom Daley came out yesterday, PISA came out today; I know one piece of news gladdens the heart,” doesn’t do it, really) or
  • some deep and meaningful connection between workload and blogging

or at least use the Wittgenstein line as an excuse to remain silent on all these subjects, since they are beyond my ken and  I will only talk drivel. But even using that as a line has been trumped by this from poetry rapgenius:

You probably need to read the whole book to get the punchline.

Yes, you probably do.

So here are the Guardian on PISA, the Indie on Tom Daley and the really interesting (and free access) article on academic blogging from Mewburn and Thomson. They can speak for themselves and I should be silent.


Gambia – Rewarding?

“So, how was Gambia?” The Gambia was what it always is when I go: an opportunity to learn, hot, a bit stressy, and that oddly fuzzy phrase rewarding. What does that really mean? I’m writing from the perspective that I come back, of course, happy to be back, relieved that the organisational difficulties (more or less) resolved themselves, and that the Health and Safety issues were (more or less) OK. Using Gambia-Extra certainly made the organisation go more smoothly. Alan and Tony were brilliant. Relief at how well it went is certainly part of it – and the enjoyment I took while there is in no little measure due to their thoughtful, hard work.

Crocs 2013

So it went OK.

What did I learn? Is the “reward” about what I now know about myself, about the Gambia?

Brikama 2013

Well, the inservice course teaches me a lot every time:  enthusiastic and committed Gambian professionals make this a wonderful opportunity for me, and I’ve mentioned this before. The challenge of teaching without as much tech support hones my skills no end, makes me think differently about my pedagogy, and the debate this time around how to organise for play and for observation with a ratio of one adult to 40+ children told me a lot about how deep my own assumptions about early learning go. I really like the photo I’m including here because it shows me really enjoying what I’m doing – not easy sessions, but teaching, listening, interacting.

Interacting. Hmmm. There’s an interesting idea. A lot of other assumptions go out of the window too: how students relate to tutors; how language changes; how the immediate challenge of relating session by session to students becomes a different thing when it runs from before breakfast to after-dinner drinks.

Bakau dawn 2013

But are these what make this trip rewarding? I know more about the students that come, more about myself, more about the Gambia.  This time I also got a bit of a sun tan, saw the dawn rising, and the grey stretch of the Atlantic, and travelled more independently than on any of my previous trips. Is this what made it rewarding? What does rewarding mean?

Enjoyment is part of it, in immediate pleasure (a cold Julbrew by the pool at the end of a journey on several bush taxis) and also in some longer-term contentment. Feeling good because I know I was learning is also part of it. Feeling good that a project has gone well enough, that people are already thinking about Gambia 2014, that there are writing and research opportunities that have grown from the discussions in the evenings…

So, this is even woollier. Feeling good.  Perhaps the best approach is simply to look at where I see this nebulous “reward” coming from: I think it comes from the change I see – in me, and in the students. More confidence, change in perspective, change in skills.

And maybe that’s some of what the other course participants felt too. I hope so.