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-foot-tall chamber strung with white lights inhabited by under-city adventurers eating brie and Camembert, drinking beer, and listening to David Bowie.
Macfarlane reserves his most spectacular superlatives for Greenland. There, he gazes into a moulin, a vertical shaft in a glacier, finding it “the most beautiful and frightening space into which I have ever looked.” But — by now we, his readers, predict this outcome with certainty — he won’t stop at a look. Among a group of friends, he is lowered by a system of ropes into the “radiant blue” tunnel. Stabilizing himself on an ice spear, he breathes in the knowledge of where he is: 60 feet down inside a glacier. It’s a “deep time dive” that leaves him unspeakably cold, and exhilarated.
Action sequences like this mean the pages of Underland fly fast. At times though, the bigger reward is to allow Macfarlane’s words slow passage across the mind: “Pop of wrack, kelp slicks”; “Glint of ice cap, breach of whales, silt swirls in outflows, sapphire veins of a crevasse field.” The beauty is immense — of the writing and of the natural world it describes.
Yet misery haunts the underland, too. Plastic bottles stud even remote Norway beaches. High-level nuclear waste, the fuel rods containing spent uranium pellets, is being prepared to be sealed underground in Finland’s Onkalo repository. As we now know with terrible certainty, “the fate of ice will shape planetary futures,” and the ice is melting at unprecedented rates.
Macfarlane ensures that our images of the underland are lashed to a recognition of terrible human harms to the environment. His words act as warning. Deep time should be experienced, he says, “as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy.” To save our world will require reimagining our place in it, and doing it soon.
For readers who discover Macfarlane first through Underland, it becomes a glittering invitation to explore his previous nature books, including Landmarks, The Wild Places, and The Old Ways.
Reading Macfarlane connects us to dazzling new worlds. It’s a connection that brings, more than anything else, joy. And that joy in turn connects us to the artists who depicted, thousands of years ago, dancing red figures in Norway’s caves.
Barbara J. King is an author and anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. Her most recent books are How Animals Grieve and Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat.