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Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Underland

A tunnel that leads to nuclear-waste storage chambers in New Mexico. Photo/Getty Images

In a new book, Robert Macfarlane heads underground to ponder mankind’s effect on the planet.

Travel writer Bruce Chatwin was never one to let the truth get in the way of a great story, because the story meant so much more – carrying, as it does, the psyche of a people over generations. There’s something of this approach, too, in Robert Macfarlane’s wonderfully articulate Underland, although he balances truth and story with an even hand.

In 2003, at 27, the British nature writer won several awards for his debut work on climbing, Mountains of the Mind. With Underland, he takes us below ground – squeezing through the uncomfortable spaces of limestone caves, the tunnels humans have gnawed into the earth and the ever-moving hollows formed by glacial ice.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

These places are terrifyingly cramped and perilous, often because nature’s complexity has made them so. But in the potash mines that extend for kilometres off the English coast, the burial caves of atomic waste in Finland and New Mexico, and the horrible mass graves that Macfarlane and companions find in Slovenia, it’s the human factor behind these hellholes that confronts us. Certainly, fear of one sort or another stitches the episodes of this book together. A young caver trapped in a narrow shaft suffocates in his own breath. Macfarlane crawls through a shoulder-width tunnel far beneath the streets of Paris, feeling the tunnel roof shake against his back as a Métro train passes above.

These beautifully crafted, true stories aren’t just about humankind’s innate fear of the subterranean, or about exploitation of it. They all reflect on our “species loneliness”, the habit we have formed of divorcing ourselves from the world around us in order to feed the monster of progress.

It’s this, says Macfarlane, that has given birth to the Anthropocene, an unprecedented era in which a single species has radically altered both climate and biodiversity. Echoing the biophilosopher Jonas Salk, Macfarlane asks, “Are we being good ancestors”; can we think ahead more than 10 or 20 years – perhaps as far ahead as those interring nuclear waste in vast New Mexican tombs designed to be sealed for 100,000 years? In these critical decades, what can we do to turn this deadly tide?

Macfarlane is challenged by one scientist to make a new language system that reflects our true relationship with nature. This is Underland’s most important undertaking: it employs fluid, shifting language to reconnect us with nature in such a way that we can see how humanity is immersed in it.

It’s only through this cultural, perceptual change that we may be able to avoid catastrophe. The message is that we need a better relationship with nature.

Macfarlane’s colourful companions in these descents into the underworld understand this. Among the most interesting are Parisian “cataphiles” (illegal urban underground explorers), translator/explorer Lucian and partner Maria Carmen (“a natural altruist in a needy culture”) and a grumpy but determined Norwegian fisherman named Bjørnar.

Macfarlane’s gift is to make his own journey through their many stories and speak a deep truth to them all.

UNDERLAND, by Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, $50)

This article was first published in the June 15, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.