Underland: A Deep Time Journey
The suffering of most writers is confined to sitting down for long periods, staring at a blank screen.
But Robert Macfarlane suffers much more. He is a travel writer, well used to trudging up hill and down dale, but for this new book he goes down dale, and then continues down and even further down, into underground caves and tunnels all over the world.
In the catacombs beneath Paris, he feels the stone vibrating, and realises that the metro is above him; in Finland, he ventures into a vault 1,000ft below ground, where nuclear waste will be stored for the next 100,000 years; deep down in the Mendips, he tiptoes along a slippery ridge, knowing that if he were to topple it wouldn’t necessarily mean death, but ‘it is definitely a double-leg-breaker’.
In the catacombs beneath Paris, Robert Macfarlane feels the stone vibrating, and realises that the metro is above him
Nor is he the butch, burly, no-nonsense type of climber who takes everything in his stride. Quite the opposite: he is what my PE teachers used to scoffingly call ‘sensitive’, unable to tunnel for more than a couple of pages without blurting out all his fears and neuroses.
In a succession of pitch-black underground locations ‘little demons of worry bite at my stomach’, ‘my heart shivers fast, and my mouth dries up instantly’ and ‘fear slithers up my spine, spills greasy down my throat’. Burrowing in a space so narrow he has to turn his skull sideways to get through, ‘claustrophobia grips me like a full-body vice’.
This is not the book to read if you have ever come over all queasy in the lift down to an underground car park. In fact, it is one of those travel books that might be more accurately classified under H for Horror.
Many of the caves and potholes Macfarlane writes about are associated with the grimmest forms of death. In the Yorkshire dales, two cave-divers found the body of another diver who had died there five years earlier.
In South Africa, a young cave diver called Deon Dreyer died in a flooded chamber 825ft deep. His body was discovered ten years later. A young British diver, Dave Shaw, led the attempt to retrieve Dreyer’s body, but he became entangled in his own safety cord.
Macfarlane takes up the tale: ‘Shaw’s breathing and heart rate increased in the water, and when Shaw sought to move Dreyer’s head, it loosened from his body, then detached completely and floated past Shaw, turning to gaze at him through blackened goggles – the moment caught on Shaw’s head camera. Shortly afterwards Shaw himself succumbed to asphyxiation brought about by carbon dioxide build-up.
‘Four days after Shaw’s death, divers returned to the cave. To their amazement, they found Shaw’s body floating near the roof of the chamber, with his torch hanging beneath him, still on. Illuminated in its beam was Dreyer’s headless corpse.’
But Macfarlane has a deeper purpose than simply giving his readers the heebie-jeebies. Underland is a hugely ambitious book, conceived as a lyrical exploration of the Earth’s underworlds, both in our collective imagination and in reality.
It opens, Alice In Wonderland-style, with the sentence: ‘The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree.’ From then on, Macfarlane embarks on an underground odyssey. ‘We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet,’ he writes, and over the next 400 pages he shows how true this is. In China, there is a cave network so vast that it has its own weather system, with mist and fog. In Spain, there are caves painted by Neanderthal artists who lived up to 65,000 years ago. Below the city of Odessa stretch 1,500 miles of catacombs, down to a depth of 160ft.
In Italy, you can find underground temples to the god Mithras, who was thought to have emerged from the rock itself. Beneath the Anatolian plateau, 20,000 people used to live in a subterranean city, connected to another, even larger subterranean city by a five-mile passage.
One of the most extraordinary places explored by Macfarlane is only a few hours away by train. I vaguely knew of the catacombs in Paris, but before I read Underland, I had no idea of their mind-boggling size and magnificence. Basically, the city of Paris was built over the course of 600 years from stone quarried from below. This means that, in a strange way, the city below is a negative image of the city above, consisting of 200 miles of underground chambers.
‘Paris has another Paris under herself which has its streets, its intersections, its squares, its dead ends, its arteries and its circulation,’ writes Macfarlane. This other city, dark and dank, has been used for everything, from a tomb for six million corpses to a never-ending hidey-hole for the French Resistance. Even more bizarrely, up until 1940, 2,000 mushroom farmers were busy growing their produce there.
IT’S A FACT
Some fans thought brutish, seagull-loving footballer Eric Cantona a bit of a caveman. He was in fact brought up in a cave, near Marseille.
Entering the Paris underworld was made illegal in 1955, and a special branch of the police is still charged with booting people out. But theirs is an impossible – I almost said ‘uphill’ – task, as more and more people have taken to exploring it, using entrance and exit points highlighted on the internet. Elaborate parties are held there – Macfarlane attends a disco, complete with fairy lights, where Going Underground by The Jam is played at full blast. An underground pop-cinema shows appropriately creepy films, such as David Lynch’s Eraserhead.
No faintheart, Macfarlane spent a full week in waders below Paris, moving through tunnels and along underground rivers. ‘Here’s hell,’ says his bossy guide, pointing to a low tunnel. Macfarlane crawls along it, and then looks up a vertical shaft. ‘Above me is a suspended wall of clay and earth, perhaps ten feet high, into which hundreds of human bones are embedded: skulls, ribs and limbs. In the belly of the well below are hundreds more fallen bones.’ Not the sort of holiday to score many stars on TripAdvisor, then.
To prevent Underland turning into a series of one claustrophobic adventure after another, Macfarlane splits it into three sections – Seeing, Hiding and Haunting. These cover the three principal uses human beings have made of the world beneath our feet – ‘to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful’.
It is, in many ways, a brilliant book, which turns our world inside out. Macfarlane is something of a guru figure, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, hundreds of young people now set out to follow him below ground.
But for all its haunting images and luminous ideas, Underland is a book that’s easier to admire than to enjoy. Macfarlane can write beautifully, but often something precious and self-adoring creeps into his prose. Examining ice, he writes: ‘I love that blue with all my heart, dream-dive deep into it, drown in its hue.’
And he is a little too in love with his own sensitivity. Finding old paintings in a cave in Norway, ‘Suddenly, unexpectedly, my head begins to tingle and then my back and my chest start to shake, and I find myself crying, sobs shuddering my body in the teardrop-shaped rift…’
Burrowing in a space so narrow he has to turn his skull sideways to get through, ‘claustrophobia grips me like a full-body vice’
Perhaps I am being peevish, but I also find his overblown love of language a bit of a nightmare. I can just about deal with unexplained words such as swallet, ruckle and parhelia, but do I really need to know the Greenlandic word ‘uggianaqtuq’, which apparently means ‘to behave strangely’, or the Native American word ‘puhpowee’, which means, ‘the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight’?
Macfarlane also makes a habit of bathing everyone he chums up with in treacly, Disney-ish tributes. Ingrid ‘smiles the kindest of smiles’; Bill is ‘gentle and funny of manner’; Lucien has ‘such kind eyes’. And they, in turn, return the compliments. ‘You are a good man, Rob,’ says an old Norwegian sea dog called Bjornar, with ‘a booming laugh’. It’s all a bit mushy. There are times when you wish that just one of them would accidentally-on-purpose point him in the wrong direction, or stick a label saying ‘Kick Me’ to his back.