Underland: An Enchanting Journey into the Hidden Universe Beneath Our Feet
“Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”
By Maria Popova
“To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water,” the great marine biologist and environmental hero Rachel Carson wrote in her 1937 masterpiece Undersea — a lyrical journey to what Walt Whitman had called “the world below the brine,” a world then more mysterious than the Moon — as she pioneered a new aesthetic of poetic prose illuminating science and the natural world.
Nearly a century later, Robert Macfarlane — a rare writer of Carson’s sensibility, who rises to the level of enchanter — extends a lyrical invitation to a vicarious journey into another mysterious earthly universe of all-pervading darkness with Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library).
We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. Look up on a cloudless night and you might see the light from a star thousands of trillions of miles away, or pick out the craters left by asteroid strikes on the moon’s face. Look down and your sight stops at topsoil, tarmac, toe. I have rarely felt as far from the human realm as when only ten yards below it, caught in the shining jaws of a limestone bedding plane first formed on the floor of an ancient sea.
Enshrined in the layers of the underland, in the layered dust of cultures and epochs, are traces of our abiding need for shelter and sacrament, our age-old hunger for knowledge encoded in the stone tablets of dead languages and the rusted instruments of annealed curiosity, radiating a reminder that we are creatures not only of place but of time. Plunging into the time-warping wonderland beneath the surface through the riven trunk of an old ash tree, Macfarlane writes:
Beneath the ash tree, a labyrinth unfurls.
Down between roots to a passage of stone that deepens steeply into the earth. Colour depletes to greys, browns, black. Cold air pushes past. Above is solid rock, utter matter. The surface is scarcely thinkable… Direction is difficult to keep. Space is behaving strangely — and so too is time. Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.
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.
Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives).
Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions).
Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets).
Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.
Echoing Oliver Sacks’s lovely case for nature’s beauty as a lens on deep time and the interleaving of the universe, Macfarlane writes:
“Deep time” is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years. Deep time is kept by stone, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Deep time opens into the future as well as the past. The Earth will fall dark when the sun exhausts its fuel in around 5 billion years. We stand with our toes, as well as our heels, on a brink.
But for all its consolations, such a dilation of the telescopic perspective can be deeply disquieting in alerting us to our own helpless insignificance — motes of matter in a blink of time, adrift amid the unfeeling emptiness of pure spacetime. It takes especial existential courage to inhabit this physical fact with unflinching psychic agency, with the insistence that however brief our earthly time may be, however small our impact relative to the vast scales of time and civilization, we can still leave a worthy mark on an ancient world. Macfarlane cautions against the defeatist cowardice of taking the scale of deep time for permission to squander our precious allotment:
We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.
Long ago, as Johannes Kepler — the first true astrophysicist — was revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, he envisioned the Earth as an ensouled body that has digestion, that suffers illness, that inhales and exhales like a living organism. He was ridiculed for it. Three centuries later, Rachel Carson made ecology a household word. Picking up where Kepler and Carson left off, Macfarlane adds:
When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.
To probe the mysteries of this largely unfathomed underland, Macfarlane explores mines and railway tunnels, catacombs and particle colliders, seeks answers from a spectrum of scientists and indigenous cultures, contemplates the relationship between landscape and language, and draws on the work of pioneers like forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who uncovered the astonishing science of how trees communicate, and evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis, who championed the interconnectedness of life across time, space, and species.
Perhaps the underland’s richest and most dimensional lens on deep time — and space, and self — comes from some of Earth’s most poorly understood yet most essential organisms: fungi. Besides serving as a kind of central nervous system for the forest, fungi account for a quarter of Earth’s biomass and furnish the world’s largest organism — the colossal honeycomb fungus of Oregon’s Blue Mountains, dwarfing the blue whale with its mycelial span of nearly four square miles and its girth of two and a half miles. Four decades after Lewis Thomas wrote about how a jellyfish and a sea slug illuminate the mystery of the self — the most exquisite thing I’ve ever read on the subject, from one of the most poetic science writers who ever lived — Macfarlane draws kindred revelations from the underdog kingdom:
All taxonomies crumble, but fungi leave many of our fundamental categories in ruin. Fungi thwart our usual senses of what is whole and singular, of what defines an organism, and of what descent or inheritance means. They do strange things to time, because it is not easy to say where a fungus ends or begins, when it is born or when it dies. To fungi, our world of light and air is their underland, into which they tentatively ascend here and there, now and then.
Masters at the long view of survival, fungi offer a model of unparalleled grit — they were among the first organisms to return to the site of atomic devastation in Hiroshima and their soil presence is an indicator of a forest’s resilience. With an eye to the wisdom of the more-than-human world, to which native cultures have been attuned for millennia and modern science is only just beginning to awaken, Macfarlane considers how fungi challenge us to reconceive some of our basic human constructs:
Orthodox “Western” understandings of nature feel inadequate to the kinds of world-making that fungi perform. As our historical narratives of progress have come to be questioned, so the notion of history itself has become remodelled. History no longer feels figurable as a forwards-flighting arrow or a self-intersecting spiral; better, perhaps, seen as a network branching and conjoining in many directions. Nature, too, seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms: not as a single gleaming snow-peak or tumbling river in which we might find redemption, nor as a diorama that we deplore or adore from a distance — but rather as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part. We are coming to understand our bodies as habitats for hundreds of species of which Homo sapiens is only one, our guts as jungles of bacterial flora, our skins as blooming fantastically with fungi.
A century and a half after Whitman’s famed observation that we contain multitudes, Macfarlane roots the metaphysical insight in the physical reality of our creaturely nature, entwined with other natures:
We are beginning to encounter ourselves — not always comfortably or pleasantly — as multi-species beings already partaking in timescales that are fabulously more complex than the onwards-driving version of history many of us still imagine ourselves to inhabit.
Given that we have hard enough a time living with full awareness of our belonging to the web of life, of our intricate connection to other living beings, it takes a special wakefulness to fathom our connection to nonliving matter. Even if we know that we are made of dead stars, it is only an abstract knowledge. We so easily forget “the singularity we once were,” as the poet Marie Howe so splendidly captured our cosmic belonging. In the underland, moving through the time-stamped bedrock of being, Macfarlane finds a powerful reminder:
We tend to imagine stone as inert matter, obdurate in its fixity. But here in the rift it feels instead like a liquid briefly paused in its flow. Seen in deep time, stone folds as strata, gouts as lava, floats as plates, shifts as shingle. Over aeons, rock absorbs, transforms, levitates from seabed to summit.
We are part mineral beings too — our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones — and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land. It is mineralization — the ability to convert calcium into bone — that allows us to walk upright, to be vertebrate, to fashion the skulls that shield our brains.
The mineralization of living matter, with its mediation of life and death, furnishes a profound lens on our humanity, on the interchange between being and has-being:
Geologists and palaeobiologists speak of “trace fossils.” A trace fossil is the sign left in the rock record by the impress of life rather than life itself. A dinosaur footprint is a trace fossil. The enigmatic doughnut-shaped flints called “paramoudra” are thought to be the trace fossils of a burrowing worm-like creature that lived vertically in the seabed during the Cretaceous, its breathing organs just above the level of the silt. Boreholes, funnels, pipes, slithers and tracks are all trace fossils — stone memories where the mark-maker has disappeared but the mark remains. A trace fossil is a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.
We all carry trace fossils within us — the marks that the dead and the missed leave behind. Handwriting on an envelope; the wear on a wooden step left by footfall; the memory of a familiar gesture by someone gone, repeated so often it has worn its own groove in both air and mind: these are trace fossils too. Sometimes, in fact, all that is left behind by loss is trace — and sometimes empty volume can be easier to hold in the heart than presence itself.
Couple Underland, a wondrous read in its entirety, with Macfarlane’s poetic rebellion against the impoverishment of our nature-related lexicon, then revisit the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd — whose work Macfarlane resurfaced after decades of obscurity — on how mountains deepen our relationship with nature.
Published August 16, 2019