'Underland' Connects Us To Dazzling Worlds Beneath Our Feet
Added 06-03-19 10:06:02am EST - “The beauty of Robert Macfarlane's writing, and of the natural world it describes, is immense. His words also act as a warning, ensuring a recognition of human harms to the environment.” - Npr.org
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Off the western coast of Norway are sea caves graced by stick figures painted more than 2,000 years ago. Colored red from the iron-oxide pigment used by Bronze Age artists, the figures appear to be in motion, with arms and legs splayed.
Among his travels in Underland: A Deep Time Journey, British nature writer Robert Macfarlane journeys to the remote cave called Kollhellaren on the tip of the island Moskenes to see its dancing figures. To arrive there, Macfarlane crosses a ridge of peaks called the Lofoten Wall, pulls himself out of a snow crevasse into which he had partway plunged, crosses a boulder field through hail and sleet, and eventually enters "the black vault of a cave." Once inside, his eyes seek treasure. "There, there, yes, is a red dancer, scarcely visible but unmistakable... a dozen or more of them, spectral still but present now, leaping and dancing on the rock..." Feeling the past artistry telescope into the present moment, Macfarlane cries as he stands "deep in granite and darkness."
In his latest book, Macfarlane explores subterranean spaces with the yearning of a man who feels awe. Descending below the Earth's surface, he says, brings us into the realm of deep time, a chronology "kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates." In this way, the underland is connected to mystery. Too often that mystery is linked culturally to fear, to entrapment, to death and burial. It is this dark mythology (think Orpheus descending into Hades) that Macfarlane seeks to complicate as he searches for light and knowledge beneath the Earth.
Hardly pristine or unpopulated, the underland is shot through with humans and human endeavors. On the English coast near the town of Boulby, Macfarlane descends a half mile down to meet a physicist holed up in a rock-salt cave who seeks evidence of dark matter. Because salt is dynamic — it actually flows and creeps over time — axes are embedded in the wall in case of sudden collapse. The lab is located right at the site of Boulby's potash mine, which boasts an astonishing 600 miles of underground tunnels and roadways. Macfarlane, of course, wants to explore them. Perched in a doorless van piloted by a mine-safety specialist called Neil who drives it at speed, they rocket through salt in some areas and potash in others. At one point Macfarlane notices a stream of water running down a tunnel wall. Neil explains they're no longer rushing along underground: They are now driving under the sea. On they career for another 20 minutes; in one of the book's most captivating passages, Neil delights in imagining the ship captains riding the waves above them.
In Paris, Macfarlane descends beneath the city and recounts how, in the 18th century, millions of corpses were transferred from the city's swelling cemeteries to these below-ground passages. For a fee, anyone, including families with children in tow, can walk a prescribed track to view the stacked-up skulls and femurs. But no straight-up tourist experience satisfies Macfarlane, so he hangs with a group of below-ground adventurers who guide him through secret and claustrophobia-inducing passages beneath the City of Light. In this "invisible city" they visit wild dunescapes and a 20-ft.-tall chamber strung with white lights inhabited by under-city adventurers eating Brie and Camembert, drinking beer, and listening to David Bowie.
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