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Underland by Robert Macfarlane review – a dazzling journey into deep time

Limousis caves in Languedoc-Roussillon, France. Photograph: Alamy

Robert Macfarlane has done a lot to keep Paddy’s name and writing style alive and current. His new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, is one that offers a new perspective on the human impact on our planet, is receiving rave reviews.

By William Dalrymple

First published in The Guardian.

Stories of human journeys into the Underworld are as old as literature itself. But few of them are happy tales. Old Babylonian cuneiform tablets recording the Epic of Gilgamesh were first incised around 1800BC. These tell of the Sumerian hero Enkidu who reappeared from a long imprisonment underground in the Netherworld, during which he had to sail through storms of hailstones that struck him like “hammers”, and surfed waves that attacked his boat like “butting turtles”. Gilgamesh questions him: “Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?” “I saw them,” answers Enkidu.

Similar journeys end as darkly for Orpheus, Hercules and Aeneas as they do for their direct counterparts in Finnish, Inuit, Aztec, Mayan and Hindu mythology. In Greek mythology tales of haunting journeys down the rivers of the dead are sufficiently common that they have their own collective noun: katabasis. But for every Theseus who enters the labyrinthine darkness of the Underland to triumph against the Minotaur there are many more Eurydices who never return. Such fears, Robert Macfarlane points out, are embedded deep in our language where “height is celebrated but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being ‘depressed’ or ‘pulled down’.”

There is throughout a transcendent beauty to Macfarlane’s prose, and occasional moments of epiphany and even ecstasy – such as when, somewhere below Trieste, he abseils “into an immense rotunda of stone, cut by a buried river and filled with dunes of black sand”. Nevertheless, his journeys deep into the earth “far from the human realm”, are usually melancholic and claustrophobic, and are occasionally properly frightening.

Some of this comes from the danger and difficulty inherent in underground journeys. In a cave system in the Mendips, a rope thrown down as an escape route becomes entangled behind the belay boulder; only the necessity to regain the surface forces Macfarlane to risk his life climbing up it. Under Paris, he nearly becomes stuck in a narrow vertical shaft as “the stone that encases me, the stone that is measuring me up like a coffin, starts to vibrate … The thought of continuing is atrocious. The thought of reversing is even worse. Then the top of my head bumps against something soft … ”

As in his first book, Mountains of the Mind, Macfarlane remains obsessed by the fear and fascination generated in the human heart by extreme landscapes, and he clearly savours the adrenaline rush – what Al Alvarez calls, in his classic essay on climbing and fear, “feeding the rat”. “I have rarely felt as far from the human realm,” Macfarlane writes, “as when only 10 metres below it, held in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of a warm Cretaceous sea.”

When not getting stuck himself, he regales us with tales of some of those who never returned: in the Mendips we hear “a story that some people in the Peak District do not like to discuss, sixty years on”, of the caver Neil Moss who became wedged in a limestone shaft and, despite a countrywide rescue effort, suffocated before he could be hauled out; he was later “sealed by cement in the fissure that had killed him”. In Italy we are told of “the fallen angel of French speleology”, Marcel Loubens, who winches himself into an abyss only to have his belt clip snap. His injuries, “a broken spine and a fractured skull”, are so severe that he dies in the dark, 36 hours later.

But as always with Macfarlane’s books, the tales of adventures are only a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create. These are concerns that run like dark seams of glittering ore throughout his writing, across several successive books. In his early masterwork The Wild Places he wrote how “the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brochs of the Iron Age. Our roads will lapse into the land.”

This idea is developed at much greater length in Underland: A Deep Time Journey, as premonitions of our present apocalyptic Anthropocene close in around Macfarlane like the shades of Hades around the backward-looking Orpheus. For this book is also about man’s almost incidental place in the world when seen from the perspective of geological time. It is above all a journey into darkness, and the omens are not good. The climatic consequences of human actions are now, he believes, beyond our control. One hundred thousand years ago, three river systems ran across the Sahara. In around 5bn years “the Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel”.

A 50m-deep sinkhole in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. Photograph: Tass

A 50m-deep sinkhole in the Nizhny Novgorod region of Russia. Photograph: Tass

In between these two markers, the signs of our own self-destruction are becoming ever more evident. Philip Larkin thought that what will survive of us is love. Macfarlane is more pessimistic. What will really succeed us, he fears is “plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain”. “What does human behaviour matter,” he asks, “when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of deserts or oceans, morality looks absurd, crushed to irrelevance. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of our eventual ruin.”

Early in the book we visit a laboratory under the Whitby coast where scientists study the traces of dark matter formed at the birth of the universe. Later we ascend from the forests of the Carboniferous period to the wastelands of the Anthropocene. The final sections concern Macfarlane’s visit to what is to supposed to be the most secure place on Earth – beneath Olkiluoto Island on the Bothnian sea off Finland, where nuclear waste will be buried until it becomes safe at the end of its half-life, millions of years from now. Here we catch a glimpse of our “nuclear futures of an Anthropocene-to-come” where “the timescale of the hazard is such that those responsible for entombing this waste must now face the question of how to communicate its danger to the distant future. This is a risk that will outlast not only the life of its makers but perhaps the species of its makers.” After this last quest is completed, the final pages of Underland record the author’s return home, where he takes his young son in his arms and holds him close, as if to protect him from the gathering shades he has learned to converse with and which he cannot now un-see. It is a moving end to a most unsettling quest.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey is, as its title suggests, “a book about burial and unburial and deep time”, “the awful darkness inside the world”, “of descents made in search of knowledge”, to study the places where “we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save”. If fear is a constant companion on such journeys, for the reader at home there are many pleasures, most notably the armchair exploration of a far more benign landscape: the interior of Macfarlane’s magnificently well-furnished mind. For the darkly tangled path this book takes through the labyrinth of history and memory, literature and landscape, high-flown prose and underworldly observation are illuminated by Macfarlane’s inventive way with language. At its best, this has an epic, incantatory quality. There is a rare gift at work here: chiselled prose of such beauty that it can, on occasion, illuminate the darkness below ground as startlingly as a Verey light sent up into the vaults of one of Macfarlane’s subterranean stalactite cathedrals.

Like WG Sebald, another teacher of literature, Macfarlane brings the full weight of his erudition to the table. He quotes a dazzling range of poets and novelists and great galaxies of writers on geology, archaeology, mythology, morphology and glaciology, as well as on nuclear science, “dark matter” physics and art history. We swing from the thoughts of Rainer Maria Rilke on the Orpheus myth to the latest discoveries about “hyphae” – “the superfine threads fungi send out through the soil” – then move from learned opinions on Neanderthal rock art dating from around 65,000BC to Sir Thomas Browne (a particularly Sebaldian moment) to HG Wells, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino and Cormac McCarthy.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey is, unquestionably, his magnum opus, a work that has taken him nearly 10 years to complete. Though darker than his earlier books, it is as rich as anything he has ever written, blessed with the scholarship of Sebald, the stylistic felicity of Bruce Chatwin and the vocabulary and syntax of Patrick Leigh Fermor. It contains the summation of his most important ideas.

Nearly 40 years ago, the critic Paul Fussell wrote that with The Road to Oxiana, Robert Byron had done for the travel book what James Joyce did for the novel with Ulysses. This is the flame that Macfarlane has now carried into a new century. With Underland he has written one of the most ambitious works of narrative non-fiction of our age, a new Road to Oxiana for the dwindling twilight of the Anthropocene.

Buy Underland: A Deep Time Journey here.

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Charles Arnold, founder of Patrick Leigh Fermor Society

This is a very belated announcement to inform those who do not yet know, that Charles Arnold, the driving force behind the PLF Society, died on 17 December 2018 following a short illness.

There is little more to say at this stage as the remaining members of the Society board try to sort out affairs.

Ill Met By Moonlight in Melbournopilis, 14 May

Ill Met by Moonlight movie poster – Bogarde as flamboyant Cretan

The Aussies are getting more organised! Even more disturbing the Greek gods appear to have motivated the Melbourne Greek Cultural Centre committee, and in particular the Battle of Crete sub committee, to even more heroic feats of organisation. The screening event that we publicised has moved to a new venue and tickets can be purchased online!

The screening, to be held on 14 May, is moving from the Melbourne Greek Centre, to the Westgarth Cinema in Northcote. Tickets can be purchased here.

We all wish you a very enjoyable and successful evening.

The Cretan Runner Museum

If holidaying in Crete this year, you may wish to make a visit to the Cretan Runner Museum. The Museum celebrates the life and achievements of George Psychoundakis, and is based in his village of Asi Gonia.

It was established by his son Nikos Psychoundakis and grandsons George and Stelios Psychoundakis, in a building built by the late George Psychoundakis himself. The purpose of this museum is to exhibit and share important documents, books, photos, missions with friends and colleagues and other various personal objects of George’s with the public instead of being stored away in cupboards and boxes.

A dedication in Greek by Patrick Leigh Fermor with typical seagulls!

The museum has no website, but there is a Facebook page with further information.

Dervla Murphy honoured by British Guild of Travel Writers

Hilary Bradt (L) and Dervla Murphy (R)

On March 8th, International Women’s Day, the British Guild of Travel Writers announced that they were celebrating Dervla Murphy by honouring her with a BGTW Lifetime Achievement Award for her contributions to travel writing. Dervla was nominated for this honour by BGTW member Hilary Bradt, who said of her career:

“Dervla is the real thing. In an age of gimmicks and promotions, she has travelled for the sheer love of it, for enjoying spectacular scenery away from the crowds, and for meeting people away from the trappings of civilisation. Her 26 fascinating books are a secondary consideration, a natural outcome of her desire to share her experiences and political views (politics are as interesting to her as other lands and cultures).

Dervla’s rejection of comfort is well known, and this has enabled her to travel and live as close to rural people in the developing world as is possible for an outsider. In her 88th year this award is richly deserved.”

Live the Life that Paddy did

An article about the house that explains a little about how you, my dear readers, might stay there!

The house is preparing to open as a luxury boutique hotel for three months of every year. The Benaki will collaborate with Aria Hotels, a hotel and villa company that offers so-called authentic retreats in restored, historic Greek properties.

From 2020, people can rent the villa throughout the summer period in parties of between two to fourteen people. More specifically, there will be five guestrooms, each including a bedroom, an independent workplace (equipped with basic office equipment) and bathroom. Three of the guestrooms will be in the main house where the bedrooms are connected by an arched colonnade, an intentional echo of the Greek monasteries that Leigh Fermor had visited. The fourth guesthouse will be located in the studio where he used to work and write; and the fifth,, at the secondary stone house. To foster sociable interactions in the tradition of the Leigh Fermors, there will be communal spaces such as the main living room that has coffered Ottoman ceilings and ogive fireplaces inspired by Paddy’s Eastern travels. Outdoors, scattered amid the lush gardens, there will also be several scenic sitting areas – some punctuated by serpentine pebbled patterns designed by the great Greek artist Nikos Ghika. (Insider has been told that rates will range from €300 a night for the individual houses – including breakfast, concierge and cleaning, and use of the outdoor pool – and from €2,200 per night for exclusive use of the entire villa.)

Read the entire article here.