Read This Book

Books I Recommend: Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

The cover of Underland is from the painting “Nether.” While it appears to be roots dangling over a cave entrance, it was meant by the painter to be the last thing you’d see after a nuclear explosion. (Stanley Donwood)

Okay, I cheated. 

As soon as I bought this 488-page book, I flipped to Chapter Five: Invisible Cities. The “cities” referred to Paris and its underground counterpart, 200 miles of quarry voids and catacombs, where cataphiles– lovers of the catacombs – secretly and illegally wander, travel and party.

I needed Robert MacFarlane’s first-hand account of his foray for a story I am drafting. Then, at the end of Chapter Five, I turned back to page one and devoured the rest of this gorgeous book. 

In Underland: A Deep Time Journey, MacFarlane provides a perspective on the world beneath our feet by traveling to eleven places on the planet where the Earth yields, shelters or hides something. In nearly all instances, he is accompanied by a friend, an expert or a guide, his own mythological Charon ferrying him to the underworld. 

The narrative is rich with references from mythology, history, literature, geology, and the world of nature. (Macfarlane also cowrote an award-winning children’s book called Lost Words, with descriptions of terms used in nature.) Throughout Underland, he explores the significance of each location while simultaneously describing his real life adventure in it . Often, his exploits contain moments of gripping fear, amazement, sadness, or ecstatic discovery. At one point under Paris, he turns his skull sideways to squeeze through an impossibly narrow passage when a Metro train roars overhead. On a remote northern archipelago in Norway, he backpacks through hail, sleet, rain, hail again, and up five sharp peaks to a sea cave high on a cliff where dwellers 2000-3000 years ago left their mark on the walls, and mysterious red dancers have been sighted.

Reading Underland was a feast on so many levels: for its exacting botanical and geological description framed in a generous, tender and literary point of view; for its eyewitness account of places with historical and planetary significance; for its radical inquiry into “deep time,” a time before history and a time when we, my friends, will be long, long gone. I will likely never experience the chilling reality of the last place he visited but I’m glad I had a Charon like Macfarlane to ferry me there – and back again.

Extra bits:

  • If I were going to read this book with a glass of wine by my side, I’d suggest this one: ShoneTal Cellars Meredith Mitchell Vineyard 2016 Pinot Noir. I know this is a really weird suggestion, but here me out: like the “deep time” theme of this book, this is one of few wines that are “own-rooted” meaning they aren’t grafted onto rootstock, like most grapevines in the US and Europe. Plus, the vineyard is located on ancient volcano soil in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. That’s what I call “deep time” wine.