- Media: #Books #Books 2020
"Underland is a story of journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search of knowledge."
In Underland, Robert Macfarlane explores the physical and metaphysical terrain of what lies beneath the surface: from sprawling cave complexes and forest root networks to ancient icebergs and nuclear waste disposal sites. Part history, part travelogue, all around beautiful and thought-provoking.
Underland is divided into three parts:
- Seeing (Britain) - Caving and ancient burial mounds, dark matter observation station and mine, and the forest understorey.
- Hiding (Europe) - The Paris Catacombs, hidden rivers under Italy, Slovenian highlands.
- Haunting (The North) - Palaeolithic cave art, mountain climbing, iceberg scaling, iceberg 'caving', and nuclear waste burial ranging across Norway, Greenland, and Finland.
- [[!Deep time]]
- Love & fear of the natural world
- Psychology of places and their impacts on us
- The search for knowledge
Robert Macfarlane could describe ice thawing and I'd read it. In fact, that is exactly what he does in Underland Part III and I devoured every word.
Parts I&II (see summary above) were my favourite. They focused more on the fascinating terrain and associations than the more introspective travelogue of Part III. The variety, from industrial mines to ancient forests, burial mounds to anarchist urban explorers, was thrilling and made the reoccurring themes that much more fascinating by seeing them explored through so many different lenses.
However, Part III did pack some of the biggest punches. While parts were more mountain climbing diary, others, like the icebergs and nuclear waster burial site, dug in and drew together the concepts from the previous sections into thoughtful musings on our relationship to the natural world and time itself.
Things I loved...
- The writing is positively sumptuous. Some of the most thought-provoking moments come from Macfarlane's metaphors and turns of phrase which bring every topic (yes, including ice melting) to life in a way only words can: blending idea and reality.
- The sheer variety of terrain and conceptual links. Underland goes far beyond caves yet the same themes (especially time, the search for knowledge and identity, and our simultaneous love/fear relationship to everything that lies beneath our feet) reappear. The themes link diverse terrain and make the book flow seamless from above ground to below.
- The blend of physical and metaphysical. Macfarlane looks beyond a surface-level (ha!) tour of the landscape into the psychology, cultural associations, and personal feelings for each unique location.
- I love me some history & nature books and Underland blends both along with modern science and culture study.
- The variety of sources and inspiration is staggering. I do believe this is one of my most highlighted books of 2020 and I have a lot of Topics to Pursue.
- Did I mention the writing?
Things I didn't...
- Occasionally the metaphysical musings go a little bit too far and too personal. I loved when Macfarlane dove into deep time musings about the place, but less so in spots when it felt more about him and his trip specifically. But I'm not a travelogue reader so others may not notice.
- It felt like towards the end Underland skewed more towards the personal and less of the history and fascinating concepts. This makes sense to wrap up Macfarlane's journey, but as above, I personally preferred the sections driven more by the history/nature/science and thought-provoking questions they raised.
[[!A picture is worth a thousand words]]...
- ...But a thousand words can convey ideas and concepts a picture cannot.
- The style and writing Macfarlane employs in Underland go a long way to convey the metaphysical associations and fresh look at the world that he supports. The writing creates a new world and forces you to see the natural landscape from a new perspective.
Through what lens do we see the world?
"...to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it."
- The world is vertical as well as horizontal yet the underland beneath our feet is often forgotten outside of collective legend.
- Time is a lens and the scale through which we look impacts our thinking. This is a living Earth. Landscapes that seem inert come to life when seen beyond our human timescales.
- Macfarlane talks a lot about [[!Deep time]] or geologic time and Underland is written from that perspective: seeing the landscape and our actions from the geologic lens of time rather than our own, much shorter, timescale.
- How does thinking in [[!Deep time]] change our perspective? For one The Earth is not fixed. For another, consequences can be minified or maximised. In Macfarlane's tour of the underland he shows how the land can swallow seemingly permanent structures and ideas (ex: languages, peoples, and living matter) while other decisions (ex: nuclear) have ripples beyond our comprehension.
- Macfarlane suggests [[!Deep time]] is also more apparent in some places than others. As if there are 'thin places' in [[!The terrain of memory]] where time is condensed or suddenly visible. He explores this in a cave with paleolithic paintings, where the ability to touch the past makes him see time in a new light.
- While exploring the forest's understory of roots and fungi, Macfarlane again forces you to question how we classify the natural world.
- He talks with several naturalists who suggest a forest might be best thought of as super-organism. They question whether ‘plants are physiologically separate from each other’, postulating that the ‘mycelial network' of fungus links the plants together.
- This is supported by [[!Mutalism]]s such as that fungi network which benefits both the fungi and the trees, which raises further questions. "...one would predict from basic evolutionary theory that they would be massively unstable, and collapse quickly into parasitism. But it turns out that there are very ancient mutualisms, which have remained stable for puzzlingly long times"
- Further reading: How and why trees talk to each other, Peter Wohlleben's books on trees and natural networks.
Environments are an active force
- Macfarlane's writing beautifully captures the psychology of the diverse environments: from the feeling of almost being stuck in a narrow cave tunnel (not gonna lie, my stomach was churning just reading it) to the feeling of camping on the edge of an ice mountain.
- He demonstrated how places are deeply psychological, not just physical, and can provoke different people, questions, and ideas.
- It was also fascinating to see the interplay of our environment relationships: with the common trends of going beneath ground to seek adventure, wealth, and knowledge but also often finding death.
Terrain of Memory
"Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save."
- Macfarlane mentions Pamela Ballinger's concept and study of [[!The terrain of memory]] at the borders of the Balkans and links this back to our landscapes with the idea that there are what Pierre Nora calls ‘lieux de memoire’ (memory-sites): "places in a landscape where the meanings of history are most actively created and contested".
- This is brought up by the site of an awful killing pit from WWII but links back to many of the other themes in Underland, emphasising how Environments are an active force which shape and carry memory.
- This is also interesting in terms of [[!Cultural memory]]. I wish Macfarlane looked more deeply at the mythological associations of The Underland but he does touch upon and it is fascinating how many of the themes remain consistent across time, place, culture, similar to Labyrinths.
- Is it us or the places who hold and perpetuate these memories?
How we seek knowledge
"...to understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark."
- Another reoccurring theme in the mythology of the underland is heroes venturing into the dark to seek fortune. That fortune changes with culture: a lost love one, wealth & treasure, or knowledge. Macfarlane travels to two underworld treasure-seeking sites of our culture: a salt mine and a dark matter observatory.
- He uses the mythological lens to show how little we have truly changed, if if the treasure and technology differs. Even the quest for knowledge becomes something of a cult and mythological journey. To quote one of the scientists he spoke to: "...the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.’"
- This supports the eternal theme of humanity's need to explore and know, whether that is risking life or limb caving or sitting in an observatory far beneath the surface of the earth.
- This section is particularly interesting because it juxtaposes another implicit but reoccuring theme of Underland: how little we truly see and know.
- "What these observations and others like them suggest is that only around 5 per cent of the universe’s mass is made of the matter we can touch with our hands and witness with our eyes and instruments."
The Arcades Projects
- Macfarlane brings up The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin before beginning his journey into the Paris Catacombs. It sounds fascinating and slightly insane in its scope. Must track a copy down.
- "Rather than writing a linear history of Paris, Benjamin sought to create a kaleidoscope, the crystals of which might fall into fresh patterns with each new reader, even each new reading."
- Linear vs kaleidoscope history reminds me of the earlier idea that The world is vertical as well as horizontal. How does the medium of our history impact how we see it?
Language shapes our thinking
- What we consider to be alive is named as such and affects how we see the world. For example, we see rocks and the earth as inert, even though when considered across [[!Deep time]] they have their own lifecycles.
- Language therefore impacts how we think about the natural world and our relationship to it. This has a knock-on effect in scientific inquires as well because how you think about something determines the kind of questions you will ask.
- [[!Grammar and syntax exert a powerful influence on launguage and its users]]. "They shape the ways we relate to each other and to the living world. Words are world-makers – and language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene."
The [[!Anthropocene]] of language
"As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping."
- Macfarlane touches upon the idea of the [[!Anthropocene]] multiple times. He questions the arrogance of the human-centred term for a issue humans created by that very arrogance of ignoring the environment.
- "The designation of this epoch as the ‘age of man’ also seems like our crowning act of self-mythologization – and as such only to embed the technocratic narcissism that has produced the current crisis."
- He also says the term implies a rhetorical 'we' which 'smooths over severe inequalities' and 'universalizes the site-specific consequences' of the damage.
- The final chapters exploring the burial of nuclear waste also demonstrate [[!The apathy of destruction]] as one of the symbols of the epoch. The ice melts and nuclear waste decays on a timescale that could outlast our languages but Macfarlane implicitly suggests few care and even less changes.
- "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a visitors’ centre."
- Further reading: Exiting The Anthropocene and Entering The Symbiocene
"As a species, we have proved to be good historians but poor futurologists."
Language does not last forever.
"Our language systems are dynamic, our inscription systems vulnerable to destruction or distortion."
- My inner [[!Icon design]]er lapped up the section in which Macfarlane explored the nuclear burial site in Finland and the efforts of the government to devise a warning system that could survive the death of current languages and species.
- So many considerations! The warning system need to be structural, semantic, and capable of surviving utter catastrophe. Talk about thinking in [[!Deep time]].
- This also brought up the concept of [[!Hostile architecture]] which might be used as ‘passive institutional controls’. "The panel members realized, however, that such aggressive structures might act as enticements rather than cautions,". And so we come full circle to the dangers of the underland as an enticement and adventure.
- Further reading: Gov SANDIA report on deterrent markets, Gregory Benford, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates across Millennia
Topics to Pursue
- Stephen Graham, Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers #bookList
- Robert Pogue Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead #bookList
- How and why trees talk to each other
- Exiting The Anthropocene and Entering The Symbiocene
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass #bookList
- The Arcades Project Walter Benjamin #bookList
- Graham Robb, Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (London: Picador, 2010); and Andrew Hussey, Paris: The Secret History #bookList
- Paris' secret underground society
- Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects #bookList
- Bradley Garrett, Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City #bookList
- Cloud and field
- Salomon Kroonenberg, Why Hell Stinks of Sulfur: Mythology and Geology of the Underworld #bookList
- Microbiology in deep caves
- Pamela Ballinger’s outstanding History in Exile: Memory and Identity at the Borders of the Balkans
- John Earle, The Price of Patriotism (London: Book Guild, 2005); Pavel Stranj, The Submerged Community,
- Richard Bradley puts it in An Archaeology of Natural Places
- Reza Negarastani’s extraordinary theory-fiction, Cyclonopaedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials
- Richard B. Alley, The Two-Mile Time Machine
- Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings
- John McPhee, Annals of the Former World (New York: FSG, 1998); Stephen Jay Gould, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle
- The Kalevala. Keith Bosley, ‘Introduction’, TK, p. xxi. Bosley’s introduction and translation are both excellent, and I draw especially on the introduction in this paragraph contextualizing the Kalevala.
- D’Agata, About a Mountain
- Gregory Benford, Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates across Millennia
- "The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful."
- "Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save."
- the Anthropocene, an epoch of immense and often frightening change at a planetary scale, in which ‘crisis’ exists not as an ever-deferred future apocalypse but rather as an ongoing occurrence experienced most severely by the most vulnerable. --> Apathy associated with perpetual crisis
- For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it;
- "We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most."
- "In this way limestone can be seen as merely one phase in a dynamic earth cycle, whereby mineral becomes animal becomes rock;"
- "...to understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark."
- "how thin the border is between the upper and lower worlds, and how hard it can be to pass in either direction."
- "As a species, we have proved to be good historians but poor futurologists."
- Occasionally – once or twice in a lifetime if you are lucky – you encounter an idea so powerful in its implications that it unsettles the ground you walk on. --> Ideas that unsettle the world. Gospel
- "‘I have this plan,’ Merlin says, ‘that for each formal scientific paper I ever publish I will also write its dark twin, its underground mirror-piece – the true story of how the data for that cool, tidy hypothesis-evidence-proof paper actually got acquired. I want to write about the happenstance and the shaved bumblebees"
- Create with care – and do not destroy.
- Going physical to escape digital surveillance. communicated by postcard,
- imperial cartography, as ‘blank space’. How much is left? What is blank space in business. "George Mallory famously answered the question of ‘Why climb Everest?’ with ‘Because it’s there.’"
- ‘Conquistadors of the useless,’ Lionel Terray once called climbers
- One of the agreements tacitly made by consumers with these industries is that extraction and its costs will remain mostly out of sight, and therefore undisturbing to its beneficiaries. Those industries understand the market need for alienated labour, hidden infrastructure and the strategic concealment of both the slow violence of environmental degradation and the quick violence of accidents. Deepwater violated that agreement shockingly, manifesting a substance on which most modern human life depends but that few people encounter in the raw.
- The substances we have made are relentlessly accumulating around us, forming a very present past.
- I realize how configured my sense of distance has become from living so much on the Internet, where everything is in reach and nothing is within touch.
- "Space is behaving strangely – and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows."
- A tunnel network deep in an extinct volcano #locations
- Ghost Dance, a crustal faultline #locations
- A cave network with its own weather system #locations #fragments
- Underground society where metaphors are down instead of up #fragments
- "the land’s submerged past rising up in parched visitation." --> Underground taking over by pushing their city through the surface #locations
- "the Saami vision of the underland as a perfect inversion of the human realm, with the ground always the mirror-line, such that ‘the feet of the dead, who must walk upside down, touch those of the living, who stand upright’."
- "I was given the casket on the condition that I disposed of it in the deepest or most secure underland site that I reached – a place from which it could never return." #adventures
- "A single large stalactite hangs from the chamber’s ceiling which, when struck, rings like a bell, its peal echoing in the cave-space. The stalactite has reached down and begun to absorb one of the skeletons; embedded in it are a skull, a thigh bone and two teeth with the enamel still intact."
- "And in the garden, hanging from the outstretched wings of a towering wooden totem pole, are the flayed skins of two men. ‘Those are our caving suits,’ says Sean, waving towards the skins."
- ‘I called out into it,’ says Sean, ‘and the chamber answered, singing a different note back to me.’
- geologists have discovered buried seas of water in the Earth’s mantle. #locations
- that lush and poisonous little valley #locations
- Breath-catcher #fragments
- "To these subatomic particles, we are the ghosts and ours the shadow-world, made at most of a diaphanous webwork."
- "It is a paradox of his work that in order to watch the stars he must descend far from the sun. Sometimes in the darkness you can see more clearly."
- "If the lab begins to collapse, you grab an axe, hack your way through the lab wall, then hack your way out through the salt to safety.’"
- "the Time Projection Chamber" #locations #rooms
- "geological forms known as ‘slip-rifts’ slowly open and close in the rock, emitting warm air from deep within the earth, such that on cold days the hillside itself appears to be breathing"
- "fungi were understood not only to infiltrate the soil, but also to weave into the tips of plant roots at a cellular level – thereby creating an interface through which molecular transmission might occur." --> Fungi parasite which gives you a root interface #creatures #magic
- "They utterly liquidate our notions of time. Lichens can crumble rocks into dust with terrifying acids. Fungi can exude massively powerful enzymes outside their bodies that dissolve soil. They’re the biggest organisms in the world and among the oldest. They’re world-makers and world-breakers."
- "‘understorey’ is the name given to the life that exists between the forest floor and the tree canopy: the fungi, mosses, lichens, bushes and saplings that thrive and compete in this mid-zone. Metaphorically, though, the ‘understorey’ is also the sum of the entangled, ever-growing narratives, histories, ideas and words that interweave to give a wood or forest its diverse life in culture." --> Understorey dungeon
- A forest as a super-organism #locations
- "If we were right now to lay a stethoscope to the bark of a birch or beech, we would hear the sap bubbling and crackling as it moves through the trunk."
- the realm of fungi? The kingdom of the grey. #locations
- "These little ghosts plug into the fungal network" --> Cyberpunk hackers except they are fantasy druids tapping into fungi network #characters
- the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus #characters
- Nidderdale #locations
- The name that will be given to this discovered city is Derinkuyu, meaning ‘Deep Well’. #locations
- "The man has stumbled into an invisible city – no, a network of invisible cities. There may be more than a hundred such settlements as yet undiscovered, sleeping forgotten beneath the surface of the landscape." #locations
- The Boutique of Psychosis. #locations
- The Room of Cubes #locations #rooms
- The Monastery of the Bears #locations
- an ‘Encyclopedia of the Underground World’. #items
- "‘subterranean city’, shadow twin to the ‘upper world’, and dream-zone to its conscious mind." --> Dreams live there and rise up at night. Go on a dream hunt underground #locations #worlds
- Much of Paris was built from its own underland --> What might be brought up with the stone? Fossils built into city walls #locations
- The residue of over 600 years of quarrying is that beneath the south of the upper city exists its negative image. This network is the vides de carrières – the ‘quarry voids’, the catacombs. The quarry voids had begun to migrate to the surface; the under-city had begun to consume its twin. #locations
- "The result over centuries was a growing glut of the dead."
- Every night for years, horse-drawn funerary wagons containing the bones of the disinterred dead, covered with heavy black cloths, preceded by torchbearers and followed by priests who chanted the Mass of the Dead, clopped through the streets from the cemeteries to the Tombe-Issoire, where they disposed of their contents. --> Procession moving cemetery #scene #fragments #adventures
- subterranean Horticultural Society of Paris #factions
- the cult of the catacombs --> !Cult who believes there are hidden catacombs all around us. Portals in the city. Just need to find the way to open the door #factions
- a convention of trout fishermen far from any river #characters #factions
- the impossible city of Eusapia, in which inhabitants of the living city are accompanied by ‘an identical copy of their city, underground’, a ‘Eusapia of the dead’ which can be accessed only by a confraternity of hooded brothers – though over time the symmetry between upper and lower cities becomes so acute that ‘in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.’ From Invisible Cities
- The Bone Well #locations
- To his eyes, the city was full of portals – service hatches, padlocked doorways, manhole covers – that lay unseen in plain sight.
- the buried river of the Fleet. One of London's so-called 'ghost rivers' #locations
- the ‘ghost stations’ of the London Underground #locations
- a woman stops us to ask if we have come from en bas, from ‘underneath’.
- Where the Cocytus runs, its currents call out constant cries of pain as they tumble over rapids and swirl around bends.
- the vanishing lakes #locations
- Twice in the history of Mantua the Grail was buried and lost, twice it was unearthed. Now it is kept in the cathedral crypt, in an iron strongbox with eleven different locks, each lock openable by a different key and each key kept by a different cleric.
- ‘The sinkhole gets hungry,’ says Lucian.
- Rivers disappear and so do stories, only to rise again in unexpected places.’
- A river mouth which babbles the forgotten stories of the bones over which it flows underground. Need to find mouth #locations
- ‘And here, the earth itself is tidal. Truly! The rock here reacts to the draw of the moon, just as the water of the ocean does.
- Timavo – which they sometimes call here the River of the Night.’
- the starless river
- the Underground Astronauts.
- We are terranauts and we have dropped through the roof of this chamber onto another planet – dropped into an underland desert of fine-grained black-gold sand.
- gatekeeper and guide to the abyss.
- Dreams live there and rise up at night. Go on a dream hunt underground. Or do you actually descend at night? Invading the dream city with sleeping forms #seed
- Nine Wells Wood #locations
- the Occupied Territory of the West Bank #locations
- "This is not a rainforest but a mist-forest, and through it runs this otherworldly river." #locations
- Together the leaves form a Totenpass – a death pass or death map.
- Impossible islands grow to the west. --> Growing islands. The sea where islands are constantly growing
- a tiny village called Å #locations
- The Troll’s Eye is a wave-smashed tunnel around 100 feet in diameter, running east–west wholly through the rock of a small island, in which the setting orange sun is framed once a year. #locations
- Norse myth that the recently dead must be helped on their journey to the otherworld by the provision of ‘hel-shoes’
- I can see white waves foaming on black boulders, a scatter of driftwood timbers – and, puzzlingly, hundreds of perfect spheres, dark orange in colour.
- Time isn’t deep, it is always already all around us. The past ghosts us, lies all about us less as layers, more as drift. Here that seems right, I think. We ghost the past, we are its eerie.
- Each time he finds them his heart leaps too and there is a collapse of time, or a coexistence of multiple kinds of time
- The hands of the dead press through the stone from the other side, meeting those of the living palm to palm, finger to finger … Time proceeds according to its usual rhythms beyond the threshold, but not here in this thin place.
- The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Chauvet Cave) #locations
- where a battle over the sea’s underland is under way. Caves under the ocean #locations
- I think of the Old English term unweder – ‘unweather’ – used to mean weather so extreme that it seems to have come from another climate or time altogether.
- Ice has a memory. It remembers in detail and it remembers for a million years or more. Ice is a recording medium and a storage medium. It collects and keeps data for millennia.
- At that depth, the compressed ice acts like a blanket, trapping the geothermal heat emanating from the bedrock. That deepest ice absorbs some of that heat, and melts slowly into water. This is why there are freshwater lakes sunk miles below the Antarctic ice cap
- the intricate cartography of map lichens
- A land whirlpool "It acts on the landscape around it as a whirlpool acts upon the sea, such that everything seems to tend towards it." #locations #fragments
- The ice is talking!’
- ! An invisible glacier exuding cold, animals frozen within. A wall so clear and cold it is invisible
- we pass the remnants of an American Cold War --> Frozen fort/doomsday cellar revealed in melting ice. Dungeon raid. Beware radioactive waste and get out before guardian thaws
- The face is a Gothic city being pushed into the sea. Towers, belfries, chimneys, cathedrals, finials: all are going over the edge. Tunnels, crypts, cemeteries: all will be shattered into bergs.
- Glaciers appear in these stories as actors – aware and intentful, sometimes benign and sometimes malevolent.
- They tick as they melt: nine ice-clocks.
- This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a visitors’ centre.
- The Kalevala is a haunting epic that has preoccupied me for some years, obsessed as it is with the power of word, incantation and story to change the world into which they are uttered.
- He enters the tunnel and finds himself in a deep ‘grave’, a ‘demon … lair’. He has stepped, he realizes, into the throat of a buried giant called Vipunen whose body is the land itself.
- I think of Sebeok’s ‘atomic priesthood’ charged with conveying warnings across generations in the form of folklore and myth.