When imagining nature writing, the vision often recalled is one of strolls through the bright blue countryside spotting puffs of cloud or catching fleeting glances of wildlife. Perhaps there is a hill, and from it a good view to tell the story of a place. However, it is not often we look down.
No, not at our own feet; not at the well-trodden path.
Way down. Deep down. Not just the naturally formed caves and holes. The Underland of deep time, of ages and eons and old history, including human history. The Anthropocene.
The book evokes the feeling of a collection of essays tied by the central theme but largely structured around individuals, a grounding point for the reader before the inevitable turn towards the Underland.
In the dark, claustrophobic twists of the French Catacombs, MacFarlane follows urban explorers as they journey through the eerie man-made caverns, passages and tunnels, made by thousands of people over hundreds of years for a myriad of reasons.
In the isolated Norwegian wilderness, the nearly 3,000-year-old Red Dancers of Bukkhammer cave leave him weeping for feelings unnamed in a moment where the barriers of time feel thinnest.
In unfathomable depths under crust and ocean, men search for the origins of the universe, dark matter, all the while extracting from the earth the minerals and composites to sustain the here and now.
These few of the evocative and profound stories straddle the long history of Earth and are given added depth with the glorious, poetic nature of MacFarlane’s writing. His warm, moving prose allow for added depth and levity.
Underland is extraordinary and is needed in a time of hurried nows and frantic self-focus. Undoubtedly nature book of the year.
Reviewed by Kelsey Ward