Book Reviews - Summer 2019

Plumbing the Depths

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A writer explores the world beneath our feet

By Thomas Laqueur | June 3, 2019
A manmade cavern on 
Olkiluoto island, on the west coast of Finland: here 6,500 tons of radioactive waste will be stored in 1.9-billion-year-old rock. (Peter Guenzel)
A manmade cavern on Olkiluoto island, on the west coast of Finland: here 6,500 tons of radioactive waste will be stored in 1.9-billion-year-old rock. (Peter Guenzel)

Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane; Norton, 488 pp., $27.95

Robert Macfarlane’s new book, like his earlier ones—about the hold of mountains on the human imagination, about wild places of the British isles, about walking along ancient routes, and about the language of nature writing itself—is exuberantly rich in its range of references and associations, poetically reflective, and breathtakingly well written. It takes him from the earth’s seemingly solid surface into the cracks and hollows beneath, from relatively shallow time—a few hundred or thousand years of recorded human history—to the deep time of the birth of the universe, and the far distant future when the radioactive wastes in a Finnish cavern will still be lethal. The idea of the underground as a place of deep time is not new. There the pioneer geologists of the 19th century had found evidence that the Earth was many millions of years old (and not, as the Bible suggests, a few thousand). The great 17th-century physician and essayist Thomas Browne wrote about how the discovery of burial urns spoke to the essence of what it means to be human. “It is often in the nature of our memory-making,” writes Macfarlane, “to wish to be able to address our dead at particular sites on the Earth’s surface.” But never has the underworld been explored with an eye and a heart more attuned to its wonder and meaning.

Macfarlane begins in Britain—in the mine-pocked landscape of the Mendip Hills of Somerset, where in 1797 two young men chasing a rabbit discovered a cave that held remains, including those of a young child, that had not seen the light of day for 10,000 years. He learns the art of “undersight”—seeing “disguised extents”—from the first of his many ciceroni.

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