We reach for the stars and keep our eyes to the skies, but how often do we look below our feet and wonder what lies below the grass or sidewalks we tread on every day? What intricate networks lie just below our toes? Could we ever glimpse them? What could we learn by journeying through them?
In the mesmerizing Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane enthusiastically conducts us on such a journey, descending into solid rock to a repository designed to store nuclear waste in Finland, swimming down through sea caves in the Arctic and crawling into the “invisible cities” below Paris.
In Paris, for example, he and fellow claustro-philes follow a map that offers advice about passageways (“Low, quite low, very low, tight, flooded, impracticable, impassable . . .”), also naming places along the underground paths in the depths below (Crossroads of the Dead, the Chamber of Phantoms, the Chamber of Oysters). In England, Macfarlane traverses caves, learning “undersight” as he crawls through narrow spaces, “face forced into wet gravel.” Macfarlane also reveals the fascinating existence of what he calls “the wood wide web,” an intricate and mysterious network that joins below the ground to make forest communities. He introduces readers to Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who has discovered that an underground network of “mycorrhizal fungal species” links trees to other trees.
Blending classic stories of descent into the underworld—the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Aeneid, for example—with his own lucid stories of his experiences in geologic time, Macfarlane poetically concludes that “darkness might be a medium of vision, and descent may be a movement toward revelation rather than deprivation.” He discovers that every culture places into the underland “that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.” As Macfarlane descends through some of these narrow passages in search of enlightenment, we often hold our breath and feel our hearts racing, but when he emerges we see with him the beauty of the world beneath our feet.