Hamish Hamilton, 2019
Reviewed by Ian Mowll
This book is mainly an exploration of the underworld; caves, earth, mines and so on. But the author also ventures beyond this with connected content about dark matter and energy, the burying of radio-active material and the melting of glaciers and ice caps.
Robert Macfarlane is an excellent storyteller; he includes facts, human interest and occasional mythology, all of which are blended together and told at the right pace to make the content interesting and compelling. In addition, he personally explores each place (sometimes putting himself in danger) which brings the stories to life.
The book is also full of interesting anecdotes. For instance, our word ‘understand’ suggests delving below and beneath an idea to fully comprehend it. And the book is very wide-ranging. It includes, for example, explorations of caves in southern Europe, the catacombs under Paris and a fascinating chapter about fungi and the connections they make underground with trees.
One of the many reasons I am drawn to green spirituality is because it embraces the shadow – which mythologically can be called the underworld. This is the unconscious, all that is hidden from immediate view, which might be lost or forgotten and which needs expression. I was hoping that the book would have a good dose of mythology about the underworld but, whilst he occasionally touches on it, this author’s main approach is to report facts and ideas rather than hinting at mystery and meaning- making. Having said that, I think he does a wonderful job of bringing forth intrigue, awe and wonder through his investigations of the underworld.
As one would expect from Macfarlane, there is a theme throughout the book of Earth-care. Nowhere did this appear more vividly than in his descriptions of melting glaciers and his conversations with northern indigenous people about the changes in the glaciers and the wider environment that they have observed in their lifetimes.
I found this book a very worthwhile read and it maintained my interest throughout.