Our relationship with time, and our planet are as much the theme for Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, “Underland” (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, 2019), as is the more literal exploration of underground spaces in a variety of places around the globe.
Reading the book could not have come at a more opportune moment for me. I’m finding ‘time’ an extremely confusing concept, with things that happened over 40 years ago feeling more ingrained on my memory than events which happened five years ago, and routines in my life which took place over 25 years ago having greater clarity than things which took place daily just ten years ago!
As William Dalrymple notes, the journeys in Macfarlane’s book – including chemical mines in Yorkshire; catacombs below Paris; nuclear waste burial tombs in Finland; and worlds underground from Somerset and Epping Forest, to Italy, Slovenia, Greenland and Norway – are “a takeoff point for discussions of deeper concerns: the relationship between [hu]man and landscape, the instability of time and place, and perhaps above all, the fragility of all we are and all we create.” (Guardian, 11/05/2019).
As Macfarlane identifies, such fears are embedded deep in language, where “height is celebrated, but depth is despised. To be ‘uplifted’ is preferable to being depressed, or ‘pulled down’.”
As Barbara King writes, the book “connects us to dazzling worlds beneath our feet” (npr, 3/06/2019), but in doing so, Macfarlane also introduces readers to many deeper ideas about our relationship to the planet, which I was ashamed to say I had yet to unearth for myself.
One of those is the Anthropocene – the idea, still under debate, that we have entered an entirely new geological epoch superseding the ‘Holocene’ (which was ushered around 11,700 years ago, immediately after the last ice age), and ‘welcomed’ in a new one, defined entirely by the human race’s capacity to have completely changed the planet, particularly through the scale of resource depletion, atmosphere pollution, and the rate of plant and animal species extinction. Proponents of the Anthropocene estimate it is most likely to have started in earnest in the mid 1900s, and is certainly felt and seen keenly underground.
Another idea is that of ‘Solastalgia‘ – a term Macfarlane notes was coined by Glenn Albrecht to mean a form of ‘psychic or mental distress caused by environmental change.’ It is a specific term, related to the unhappiness of people whose landscapes are being transformed about them by forces way beyond their control. And Albrecht proposed this specific term to describe a very particular kind of homesickness. Whereas the pain of nostalgia comes from moving away, the pain of solstalgia comes from staying put. And where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by returning, the pain of solstalgia tends to be irreversible. I regularly hear that howl.
Track: from album ‘Solstalgia’, Rafael Anton Irisarri: “Coastal Trapped Disturbance”
Like a lot of the book, this suggests much more about relationships with the planet, and between each other – and how any harmony is being disrupted. It looks at how language is used to express much about these relationships. I love how Macfarlane yearns for a language which better recognises and advances the animacy of our world – and he cites the example of ‘Potawatomi’ – a Native American language of the Great Plains, where the ratio of verbs to nouns is 70% to 30%, Almost everything is animate – whether a boulder, or a bay, for example, suggesting more of a symbiotic relationship with humans. Very different from mainstream society today, particularly in the UK.
One of the points which stuck most keenly for me, for example is that about how trees are able to communicate with, and support each other, underground, using fungi – but much of what we are doing is even helping to put a stop to that too.
Macfarlane elaborates on how, deep underground, ‘the same three tasks recur across cultures and epoches: to shelter what is precious [memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives], to yield what is valuable [information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions], and to dispose of what is harmful [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.’
But the thread which is most enduring throughout the book is about deep time. When quoting Sven – an old friend of Bjornar, his host in Norway, I was reminded of two of the fairy characters of Charles Kingsley – Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid – in The Water-Babies.
‘I always make sure to cut the throats of the lumpfish before I take the roe out,’ says Sven modestly, as if confessing a substantial charitable donation.
‘Some “environmentalists” say we shouldn’t kill the lumpfish for its roe,’ he continues. ‘But the rest of the fish is not for eating. Just two patches of meat on its cheeks – so we take the roe, cut out the cheeks, and return the rest of the fish to the system of the sea. It feeds that system. They don’t understand that the sea needs feeding, just like us.’
Bjornar grunts, ‘I expect to be returned – how do you say, in my next life – as a lumpfish. So I always cut their throats before I take their roe, just as I would like to have my own throat cut before I have my roe taken.’
‘Do as you would be done by,’ I say. ‘The golden rule of reincarnation.’
On so many levels, deep down, and across time, what Macfarlane reveals and documents so beautifully is that much in our relationship with the planet is out of sync, but he finds refuge, and illumination by going underground. I certainly did, in reading this book at a time when I was feeling like this too, and was most certainly taking cover from human-kind, and how it was expressing itself particularly on social media. The book has helped a great deal indeed.