Underland, by Robert Macfarlane, Hamish Hamilton, 496 pp, £14, ISBN: 978-0241143803
A hellmouth, as fans of the Buffyverse will know, occurs where the barriers between dimensions are weak or flawed, allowing for portals between our earth and a variety of hell dimensions, encompassing variously both the pagan Otherworld and the Christian Hell. The best-known Irish Christian hellmouth is Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on Station Island, Lough Derg, in Co Donegal; it is an entrance to an Irish inferno where pilgrims were shut in for twenty-four hours at a time to experience the torments of Purgatory. The pilgrimage site is now inextricably associated with Seamus Heaney’s “Station Island”, the title poem of his 1994 collection, which serves as an examination of conscience in the context of the Northern Irish situation.
That cave has long since been closed, but a pagan hellmouth is to be found in Roscommon – at Oweynagat, or the Cave of the Cats, the unobtrusive entrance to which is to be found on private land a short drive from Rathcroghan Visitors’ Centre in Tulsk. The cave mouth is tucked in at the base of a ditch at the end of a farm lane. The landowners evidently have a sense of humour – their black cat greets all visitors to the site and, judging by the pungent smell, uses the entrance to the cave as a convenient covered latrine. The lintel under which you must crawl to enter is a repurposed ogham stone; from within the cave looking back out you can see the inscription, which translates as “Fraoch, Son of Maedhbh”. A couple of metres in, the cave branches in to two tunnels – that on the right has long since collapsed, while the one on the left is a man-made souterrain which descends steeply into a natural limestone cave. It is suggested that a sojourn in the cave may have been part of an initiation ritual; the site is also associated with warrior goddess the Morrigan, who is reputed to erupt from the entrance in the form of a battle crow. Compellingly, Oweynagat is also seen as the entry into Tír na nÓg – the land of youth. One explanation for this is that caves, in which the temperature is cool and unvarying, were used to store perishables such as meat and dairy produce, and this ability to prevent organic matter from deteriorating with age became associated by extension with a land of eternal youth. The site is increasingly popular with unaccompanied tourists wandering across the archaeological mecca that is Rathcroghan, and the thought of sliding down a narrow tunnel into the unknown – possibly to be followed by strangers – is unsettling, so when my fascination with the site became irresistible I booked a tour with Mike McCarthy from the Rathcroghan Visitors’ Centre. McCarthy, who has co-authored a number of publications, including Slí Seandálaíochta Ráth Cruachan (The Rathcroghan Archaeological Trail) and the recently published Rathcroghan ‑ The Guidebook, is a well-informed and enthusiastic guide, who made slithering down a muddy chute into the darkness seem like a perfectly normal activity. There were about a dozen people on the tour. The descent was reminiscent of shuffling down a long slide on your hunkers. We stopped just short of the mud pool at the bottom of the cave; then all torches were extinguished, plunging us into the most profound, velvety black silence. Both darkness and silence are increasingly rare, and suspended in that timelessness the allure of the underworld is clear.
Caves exert as powerful a fascination today as they ever did for our ancestors, perhaps more so: in a world of constant connectivity caves may be the only refuge, and continue to underpin the collective psyche; they are commonly used as symbols, metaphors and motifs in art and literature – think of the fictional Marabar caves in Forster’s A Passage to India, or painter Gwen O’Dowd’s mysterious Uaimh series, which presents an invitation to explore the inner workings of the mind. Angela Bourke has noted how “Medieval stories of heroes who ventured into the body of the earth through caves are echoed in the narratives of modern folklore. In legends still told in rural Ireland, men make their way through mysterious openings: caves, rock-clefts or magical doorways in fairy forts – places well known, but usually avoided.”
Such a man is Robert Macfarlane, whose masterful Underland delves into the earth in a variety of locations – both natural and manmade, around the UK, Europe, and the Nordic countries. Driven by a personal obsession which overtook his earlier desire for mountain climbing, “What I thought would be my least human book has become, to my surprise, my most communal”, he writes. In Underland, Macfarlane interrogates a number of sites where humans have breached the earth’s crust, from the understorey of forests to remote facilities for the storage of nuclear waste. The connections may be tangential, but all are described in vivid detail, building up a deeply alarming picture of the state of the world we inhabit. The master-trope he found throughout his excursions was that of troublesome history re-emerging, as temperatures warm, ice melts, and nothing remains concealed.
The locations visited in Underland range from the Paris catacombs to the understorey of Epping forest, from a dark matter lab at Boulby to nuclear storage facilities in Finland, from cave paintings in Norway to hidden war atrocities in Slovenia and Italy. What they hold in common is that the human and natural structures are inextricably intertwined; just as the Oweynagat cave consists of a constructed souterrain leading in to a naturally occurring cavern, humans have invaded and expanded underground spaces worldwide, using them for their own – frequently nefarious – purposes. As post-Romantics, we now acknowledge that we separate the concepts of “human” and “nature” at our peril. In this book it becomes clear that interconnection, and interdependence, is a truism; yet in spite of this understanding, humankind’s influence continues to be pernicious, to the point of creating a new geological era – the Anthropocene. By degrading the very fabric of the planet we are part of, we are not being good ancestors.
Macfarlane’s multi-award winning, and bestselling, books have included Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Landmarks, The Gifts of Reading, and The Lost Words – a glorious “book of spells” illustrated by Jackie Morris, which celebrates both nature and language, and the success of which is regarded as a cultural phenomenon. He is a highly influential – not to say messianic – figure in the world of “the new nature writing” and has an exceptionally wide reach, not least due to a well-managed Twitter account with 165,000 ardent followers. Part of the appeal of his work may be the strong descriptive element in his prose, which keeps the reader invested both in the author and what he is experiencing on a very visceral level. Even when dealing with such concepts as the mind-bending “deep-time”, Macfarlane keeps Underland from tilting into being dry or overly cerebral by focusing on physical detail, by tapping into the universal experience of birth and death, and by creating modern archetypes.
Ingress or egress via transitional spaces has long been interpreted as a metaphor for rebirth – so it is that initiates emerge from a confined space into a new and more responsible phase of life. Macfarlane takes this concept and brings the birthing metaphor vividly to life. Wriggling through a crawl space beneath the tracks of the Paris metro, he writes:
The clearance above is so tight that I again have to turn my skull sideways to proceed. The clearance to the sides is so scant that my arms are nearly locked to my body. The stone of the ceiling is cracked into blocks, and sags around the cracks. Claustrophobia grips me like a full-body vice, pressing in on chest and lungs, squeezing breath hard, setting black stars exploding in my head. […] Movement is a few inches at a time, a worm-like wriggle, gaining purchase with shoulders and fingertips. How long does this tunnel run like this? If it dips even two inches, I’ll be stuck. The thought of continuing is atrocious. The thought of reversing is even worse. Then the top of my head bumps against something soft.
The other end of the life cycle is also explored, and it impossible to forget the unbearably poignant description of potholer Neill Moss, who died while exploring the Peak Cavern in Derbyshire, trapped and suffocated in what is now known as Moss’s Chamber, where “the fissure had him fast”. At his father’s request, Moss’s remains were sealed in the chamber, where they remain to this day.
This focus on rites which are deeply ingrained in the psyche, and the strong sensory detail, keep the reader on the edge of their seat as much as any thriller. Added to this is the cast of archetypal figures: all of Macfarlane’s contacts are larger than life, from Lina, his enigmatic guide to the Paris catacombs, who seems to have the qualities of a shape-shifter, to the iconic figure of Bjørnar Nicolaisen. Nicolaisen is depicted like a character from Pullman’s His Dark Materials:
Bjørnar is a fisherman, a fighter, and he understands the underland of the sea, and for these reasons I have come to meet him […] Bjørnar fishes alone [..] There is something of the polar bear to Bjørnar: there in his powerful physique, his heftedness to the north, those white eyes, and of course in his name: Bjørnar, the Bear, from the Old Norse björn. He is an intense, intelligent presence; a person you would want fighting for you and would dread as an enemy […] There is also a strong mystical streak to Bjørnar […] Bjørnar looks often through things: hard into them and right through them with those pale eyes. He looks through people, through bullshit and through the surface of the sea.
A similar use of archetypes is seen in Macfarlane’s latest collaboration with Stanley Donwood, Ness (Hamish Hamilton, November 2019), described by the publisher as “a minor modern myth: part novella, part prose-poem and part medieval mystery play”. Here we are introduced to five more-than-human figures, moving towards a chapel on the former nuclear testing site at Orford Ness, where they will converge and become one – ‘Ness is made of tidal drift, green moss and deep time, of lichen-skin and willow-bones. Ness has hagstones for eyes, Ness speaks in birds, and Ness has come to take this island back.” This is myth-making for the Anthropocene era: Macfarlane brings formidable rhetorical tools to bring to bear in the cause of climate activism, and as such is to be applauded.
The issue of climate change is now widely acknowledged to be the defining topic of our age, and has been so for some time among those at the vanguard of the “new nature writing”. It is perhaps not surprising then that there is overlap among writers with shared concerns. The final chapter, or coda, to Underland is titled “Surfacing”, the same title as the recently published essay collection by Kathleen Jamie (published by Sort of Books, September 2019), which is structured around two archaeological digs, one in Alaska, the other on the Orkney Islands. Jamie and Macfarlane could be said to “have history”. In her LRB review of Macfarlane’s The Wild Places (2007), where she coined the unforgettable moniker “lone enraptured male”, Jamie confessed to experiencing a “horrible mix of class, gender and ethnic tension” in reading his work. In the decade since that review, much has been written about these issues in nature writing, and it is hard to imagine that someone without a combination of these advantages could have produced a work involving such daring travel, in such company, and with the time and resources to do it. No matter. At root, Macfarlane’s Underland and Jamie’s Surfacing are describing the same phenomena – the uncovering of the past by global warming, the cyclical nature of existence and the question of what type of ancestors we are being. Jamie – a poet to her toes – says it with characteristic distillation, focusing on a discrete number of locations, whereas Macfarlane is exhaustive in his approach, putting himself repeatedly in life-threatening situations to illustrate the thesis. Jamie’s concept of surfacing is of re-emergence after parenthood, illness and the loss of parents to see the world anew; Macfarlane’s is a more literal resurfacing from the underland, to meet his young child, with the knowledge that he too will die. She is a woman in late middle age, with grown-up children; he is a man in early middle age, with a young family; both are keenly aware of the circle of life and their position in it. Between them, their books make a significant contribution to the literature of the Anthropocene.
Underland is an unforgettable read, which transformed the way I envisage planet earth, and not in a good way. Although Macfarlane offers glimmers of hope, by the time I had finished the book, my vision of the world we live in was of a hollowed out vessel, infinitely fragile and perilously finite, a honeycomb packed with toxic waste which will ultimately disintegrate (at, rather than in, our collective hands) like an aged wasps’ nest, used up and burnt out. Underland raises the question of whether we have reached the point of knowing too much about the world, or at least convinced ourselves that we do. Standing on an icy summit in Greenland, Macfarlane experiences first a sense of fear and awe; then, in the context of global warming and the pernicious and probably irreversible damage caused by humankind, shifts to a position where
I no longer feel awed and exhilarated, but instead faintly sick. Sick at Greenland’s scale – but also by our ability to encompass it. There is something obscene both to the ice and its meltings ‑ to its vastness and vulnerability. The ice seems a “thing” that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.
This is a deeply unsettling read.
Amanda Bell is a writer and editor based in Dublin. Her most recent publication is The Loneliness of the Sasquatch, a translation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock, Alba Publishing. www.clearasabellwritingservices.ie