Underland by Robert Macfarlane
‘Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put… Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become unhomely around its inhabitants.’
It’s a strange twist of fate that I read this book during Extinction Rebellion’s peaceful protests as they seized control of central London. Their mission is to fight against climate breakdown, biodiversity loss, extinction and ecological collapse, and while Underland isn’t a direct tract about any of these things specifically, its readers will discover how impossible it is to write about nature without addressing our broken relationship with the world around us. Underland takes us into the very core of our existence, our species and our planet, and asks one simple question: Are we being good ancestors?
Rob Macfarlane’s latest book is like the rest of his collection - a whirligig of nature, travel, philosophy, pain, joy, light and darkness. But in Underland, we leave the earth’s surface to be guided instead through the hidden lands beneath our feet, places that were not made to welcome humans, often without light, oxygen or space to move. We wander from the Parisian catacombs to Arctic sea-caves, atomic waste strongholds to Bronze Age burial chambers, each hosting something both heimlich and unheimlich in the inhospitable beauty of their spaces.
In its most adventurous parts, I was reminded of one of my favourite novels - Journey to the Centre of the Earth by the French storyteller Jules Verne - in which three men climb into an Icelandic volcano, travel through the earth’s underlands and emerge months later from the Stromboli volcano in Italy. It was written in a time that I can’t help thinking of as precious - when the earth was still so untouched and undamaged, when we were yet to initiate our own destruction, slowly heading towards ecological disaster like one of Rob’s calved icebergs: ‘The next morning, nine bergs - human in their size - have wandered into our bay overnight and become beached. They tick as they melt: nine ice-clocks.’
It’s easy to feel sadness when reading books like Underland, but we are beyond sadness now. Sadness doesn’t achieve anything and the earth needs more from us - it needs action, courage, hope and intelligence. Each chapter of this book has its own moments of beauty and pain, but it is also ripe with Rob’s undaunted ability to linguistically capture the organic nature of nature. Yes there is pain and sadness, but there is also light and human kindness, proving that we can be both the cause and the solution to our environmental crisis.
One of the final places we visit in Underland is an underground storage facility for nuclear waste, where scientists have been trying to translate a message that can be read thousands of years into the future, warning our descendants not to go any further or risk radiation poisoning. It’s a bleak chapter, but it also proves that we are capable of thinking beyond the next election, our own short lives, our own century. How can we transfer that much care and attention for future humans, into care and attention for our own dying planet today? As the brilliant Greta Thunberg says, we must embrace ‘cathedral thinking’ - laying the foundations for a zero carbon future today, even if we don’t yet know ‘how to build the roof’.
Underland is a vitally important piece of writing, delicately captured and hauntingly direct. But of the entire book, it was both the very beginning and the very end that stayed with me afterwards. After deciding to read the acknowledgements, Rob reveals the story behind the beautiful cover artwork, designed by his long-standing cover artist Stanley Donwood. The piece is entitled Nether, and depicts what I (and Rob) originally thought was ‘a vast sun rising at the end of a sunken lane’. How lovely! Except, it’s not. ‘‘Nether,’ Stanley said, ‘isn’t the sun. It’s the last thing you’d ever see. It’s the light of a nuclear blast that has just detonated, seen down a holloway. When you look at Nether, you’ve got about 0.001 of a second of life remaining, before the flesh is melted from your bones.’’
I can’t stop looking at it.
Underland by Robert Macfarlane is published by Hamish Hamilton on 2 May.