Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Underland: A Deep Time Journey

Do you want to know what “thousands of years of human boring” feel like? Then Robert Macfarlane’s new book of specious speleology, Underland, is for you.

Underland follows its author into a variety of holes, and an even wider variety of pitfalls, some natural, some self-inflicted. Its intent is to explore mankind’s relationships with the world beneath, its method is psychogeographical: while littered with historical anecdote and undergoing frequent outbreaks of nature-writing, the work is largely the first-person narration of a series of European adventure holidays – you know, urban exploration, via ferrata, spelunking – and the thoughts and feelings their landscape inspired: a sort of glimpse into the nether regions of the mind of the errant English don.

Macfarlane does have a theory of holes, such as it goes. The underground is used by people across the ages, he says, “to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable and dispose of what is harmful”, a theory that manages to be simultaneously universal, meaningless and deficient. Yes, it does apply to most of the places he visits – though in some cases only because he visits them in the company of scientists who use the underground spaces (holes in ice caps, the forest floor) to “yield” information. But it also applies to a lot of the things humans interact with. (Like, you know, bottlebanks.) Shelter, safety and sustenance are such basic human needs that it would be difficult to find a single site of human activity not marked in some way by the attempt to secure them, above or below ground. And what about the societies that consign their dead not to the earth, but to the sky, through cremation? What about the Urnfield cultures, which did both? Where does modern transportation – probably the most widespread form of activity below ground – fit in? Perhaps Macfarlane’s style is just not suited to the Central Line.

But what is this consciously styled prose for? When writing about nature Macfarlane slips into a kind of alliterative cod-Beowulfish, no, a sort of Hiawathese, full of obvious and obfuscating rhetorical devices. “A woman wades into the water of a bay, walking the slick stones with the confidence of custom.” – “Where still the mighty moose,” I may as well add, “wanders at will.” He occasionally breaks into apologetic little rhymes: “Up and over crag and boulder to a headland shoulder, each step sore now, the wind colder”. Metaphors are not so much extended as racked – when writing about dark matter, everything is dark matter; when on mycorrhizal networks, everything is a network. Meanwhile, his tendency to enverb nouns and nominalise verbs is a perpetual irritant. Could it be, one asks oneself, that he is trying to parrot The Peregrine, by J. A. Baker? Well, obviously: but the effect is anything but natural.

The trouble is, the inclusion of large tracts of factual information, delivered pretty much straight, between the attempts at lyricism, makes the nature writing sound manufactured: just something one does mechanically, at the end of a chapter, instead of a proper conclusion (because, um, there is no real argument to conclude?). At the same time, with the whole hole-theory so very wanting, the factual passages also feel irrelevant: mere verbatim relation of cool stuff the author found out – and which you, too, could probably find out in the course of a decent Wikipedia binge. Pour in a trough of the kind of science buzzwords obsessed over by people trying to justify the relevance of the Humanities – “Anthropocene” chief among them – and the result is rather like being lectured at a party by someone who doesn’t know you read the same Guardian article as them that morning.

That is probably quite unfair. I’m sure an awful lot of work went into this. [Nine years! Ed.] But it lacks synthesis, and it becomes more and more apparent from the choice of material and interviewees (of which more later) that Macfarlane is only really interested in including research that fits with his own preconceptions, however vaguely proposed. Take, for example, a section on language, something he is evidently keen to opine on, having written a whole book about it (Landmarks) in 2015. The syntactical eccentricities Macfarlane insists on churning out in his descriptive passages are symptomatic of a deeper belief that English demonstrates inadequacies when trying to compass nature; he is determined to pursue these on a linguistic level. Ironically, he sometimes lacks the vocabulary to do so. “We need to speak in spores” he tells a passing mycologist. (The mycologist agrees. What mycologist wouldn’t? He then hastily dumps Macfarlane at a party and wanders off.)

Macfarlane believes that our current grammatical structures “militate against animacy”, taking the example of Potawatomi, a language that distinguishes between animate and inanimate classes of nouns. He believes this distinction “extend[s] being and sentience respectfully and flexibly beyond the usual bearers of such qualities”, a point of view that is, at best, ill-conceived. For one thing, Potawatomi is nearly extinct, so it is going to be difficult to decide for certain whether its animate/inanimate noun distinction is grammatical (like, say, most Indo-European systems of gender) or semantic. Certainly, it would be foolish to see the German language’s masculine/feminine/neuter noun classes as “extending being and sentience”, and such has only ever been done by humourists like Mark Twain: “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.”

Are Potawatomi’s classes set in stone or can they be used “flexibly”, to express a perception of animacy? I am unable to say, and Macfarlane, in his haste to make some sort of point, does not appear to have found out. And even if they were, what psychological or cultural effect would it really have? The author he quotes on the subject, Robin Wall Kimmerer, states in her original article (which Macfarlane does not) that “the relationship between the structure of a language and the behavior characteristic of a culture, is not a causal one”. This is particularly true when we consider that English does have grammatical means of recognising and perhaps “extending” animacy – as do Russian and Arabic – in its case through the use of pronouns and possessive constructions. Macfarlane, in his attempt to suggest that speakers of this particular indigenous language have an innately greater connection to the land – a troubling impulse, smacking of exoticisation – clearly has not thought of this.

This is not unusual; time and again, he is keen to provide cute factoids without an overarching structure to give them meaning, without an argument or even a firm conviction to hold them together. His vague, grand pronouncements – “words are world-makers – and language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene” – have a whiff, among other odours, of the Whorfian; Macfarlane evidently believes that in some sense it is hard to think of things for which we lack words or linguistic structures, hence his recent campaign to have “bluebell” et al. returned to the Oxford Junior Dictionary. This is a largely discredited position, as Kimmerer acknowledges, and potentially a dangerous one: it is, after all, in part an erroneous belief in the sufficiency or insufficiency of particular languages that led to the deliberate extirpation of Potawatomi and many others like it in the first place.

This is just one of many areas where this so-called “deep time journey” demonstrates its surprising shallowness. While purporting to offer a penetrating view into the substructures of human existence, Underland often seems more closely concerned with the author’s own navel. But then, that’s psychogeography for you: a practice that has of late given a whole sheaf of unremarkable authors a new sense of self-importance. Of course, exploring the countryside is an essential tool in studying it, and its historians do well to heed Oliver Rackham’s advice in his The History of the Countryside: actually looking at the subject is an essential counterweight to misconceptions that pass unchallenged down the written record, while one of the most exciting tasks for anyone researching an (English) locality is to walk out its boundaries as described in Anglo-Saxon records. Rackham recognises that the countryside shapes and is shaped by perceptions of it and that, in seeking to understand its development, a runic poem about sedge, say, provides important source material, while opening up the countryside for the reader’s first-hand enjoyment.

Macfarlane and others like him turn this highly productive method on its head: now the sources, literary and historical, are principally interesting because of the feelings they inspired in this particular author: we are treated, for example, to the unedifying spectacle of Macfarlane and a companion staring at a Slovenian memorial poem they cannot translate, into which swastikas have been carved, and identifying by some extraordinary feat of perception that “something terrible has taken place here”. Later is it explained what and a translation given: but the hierarchy of importance, with the author at the top, has already been set. Macfarlane may want us to believe we are reading him to better understand the world around us, but what we are really being asked to accept is the validity and interest of his perceptions, most of which are only valid or interesting to a limited extent. One wonders whether it was only Rackham’s formidable presence in Cambridge (he died in 2015) that used to keep a lid on this sort of nonsense.

As this book is principally about Robert Macfarlane, it would be remiss not to consider him personally in this review. Writers of psychogeography ought to be as aware of this as politicians who claim to stand up for family values. So, who is the author? He presents, by his own account, as mild-mannered and kind – almost performatively so. According to the people he meets, he is: “a good man” and a “bellissimo animale”, a creature of “heart and kindness”. The compliments are not all one way, however: his interlocutors in this book are described as “magical”, having “such kind eyes”, “two of the gentlest people” or equipped with the ability to look “through people, through bullshit and through the surface of the sea”. (One wonders if that last one, one Bjørnar Nicolaisen, fisherman, was able to see through him. Also, sonar?)

While gushing about the exceptionalism of his acquaintances, Macfarlane can’t resist anticipating any possible hostile readings or showing off his sensitivity to the problematic, even when he has nothing to follow up with. He is keen to signal his awareness of “the historically gendered nature of the underland” but fails to elucidate how recognition has affected his understanding. His take on the cataphiles (or catacomb ramblers) of Paris is also illustrative: while elements of the subculture “fascinate” or “compel” him, he notes that “there are aspects of urban exploration that leave me deeply uneasy, and cannot be fended off by indemnifying gestures of self-awareness[!] on the part of its practitioners”. This is all well and good: he has identified a problem, while carefully and a little unjustifiably distinguishing himself from the problematic element. And then he has done nothing about it. Where are the interviews with the people who actually work underground instead of playing there? He does not seem to have been interested in conducting any – not even a light chat with the Wookey Witch.

We are led to believe by the flap that this book is “global in its geography”. And yes, each section of the book does start with an intonation on the uses of the underground through space and time; in the first, for example, Macfarlane paints a thumbnail picture of 19th-century South African miners dying of silicosis to line “the pockets of shareholders in distant countries”. This is a little disingenuous, however, because no miners, exploited or otherwise, get a look in anywhere in the book. Neither, for that matter, do any mine-owners. The closest we get to what he terms “the extractive industries” is the aforementioned Bjørnar Nicolaisen, who has taken on Norwegian big oil and won a moratorium on surveying round the Lofotens. Victory for the plucky individual is all well and good, but as a contribution to environmental discourse, it fails to match the complexity – or even, while we’re at it, the diversity – of a Roland Emmerich film.

Underland is 400+ pages of pious platitudes delivered by a man who is unable or unwilling to challenge himself or them. He even, for just one final example, repeats the common misconception that “Philip Larkin famously proposed that what would survive of us is love”. This wilful mangling of Larkin for the purposes of a trite one-liner is something that we might expect a Reader in Literature and the Geohumanities at Cambridge to avoid on principle; we might also expect him to have something more interesting to say about a poet who was not exactly silent about people and the landscape (“and now and then a smell of grass/ Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth,/ Until the next town, new and non-descript,/ Approached with acres of dismantled cars”).

But no, there is nothing new here: it is all recycled information, murmured back to the reader in pseudo-melodic tones to reinforce – what? A shallow sense of wonder at the intuitions and sensitivities of Robert Macfarlane? The mindlessness of mindfulness? Who is this book for, if not Robert Macfarlane? This is the question I am unable to answer. But I can tell you what to do with it. If you happen to be given a copy of Underland, perhaps by a viciously amusing relative, the best thing I can advise is for you to drop it quietly into one of those abyssal spaces which we, as a species, are so unutterably bored by. There, hopefully, it will disappear without trace. More probably, though, like an improperly discarded plastic bag, it and its author will end up in endless circulation, floating thinkpiece by moralising tweet through the sickening gyres of the collective consciousness. Society has heaped accolades upon Robert Macfarlane before, and in all likelihood will continue to do so. It is unclear why.

Our verdict:

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