Deep Time and Deep Places with Robert MacFarlane

Wow, where do I begin telling you about Robert MacFarlane’s masterpiece Underland? MacFarlane is a literary natural history writer and literature professor at Cambridge, and he uses a God-given gift of language to write about underground spaces and subterranean journeys he takes over 7-8 years filling 20 notebooks with notes and sketches. Underland has been described as “an epic explorations Earth’s vast subterranean landscape in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself.” It is a narrative non-fiction account of MacFarlane’s journeys into mines, catacombs, caves, moulins which are melting tunnels inside of glaciers. He goes into unbelievably deep and scary places in which I sometimes held my breath until he re-emerges back above ground. And why does he do this? To study deep time which is time measured geologically “in units that humble the human instant: millennia, epochs and aeons, instead of minutes, months and years. Deep time is kept by rock, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates…” He talks about the Anthropocene- The Age of Man and the human impact on the natural world. Each age has its own tell-tale signs left for future generations. MacFarlane says our age will leave plastic, domesticated animals, coal and fertilizers. He writes that “plastiglomerate” is the “emblematic substance of our epoch.” He is sicken by the plastic debris floating in the bays of northern Scandinavia above the Arctic Circle and says, ” the density of human debris is shocking. Fishing buoys, toothbrushes, bleach bottles, tangled fishing nets, thousands of unidentifiable shards.”

MacFarlane studies prehistoric cave art all over Europe; he goes into caves so deep that cave divers set up base camps and advance camps all through them; he explores underground rivers and aquifers that run for miles underground; he gets momentarily wedged in a tight spot exploring unmapped tunnels in Parisian catacombs; he tours a potash mine in England that runs underground ranging from 4500′ deep in Yorkshire out into the North Sea- 600 miles of mazes.

MacFarlane also talks about violence in the landscape ranging from sinkholes and caves as places of death and suffering during civil unrest and war, specifically the West Bank, Slovenia and the Scottish Highlands. He writes, the “landscape itself had become an actor, agent, combatant” as a means of execution, also violence as in the Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 which still hurts my heart.

One of the scariest and most treacherous places MacFarlane explores is the Knud Rasmussen glacier in Greenland that is part of the Knud Rasmussen mountain range which is uninhabitable. He writes that ice has a memory and the color of the memory is blue. The blue is called the “blood” of the glacier. “Ice is blue because when a ray of light passes through it, it hits the crystal structure of ice and is deflected, bounces off into another crystal and is deflected again, bounces off into another, and another, and in this manner ricochets its way to the eye.” I saw a photo of MacFarlane descending 60 feet by rope into a moulin which is a vertical shaft caused by melting water on a glacier. The intensity of the blue inside the shaft was breathtaking, almost a surreal color. He writes that mapping and Google Earth cannot keep up with the rate of sea ice melt and that “Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic are now front-line territories, in which the fate of ice will shape planetary futures.” There is a melt site on the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctic the size of Manhattan that has already caused an increase in sea levels by 4%. MacFarlane writes, “the ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.”

In closing, I must agree with a reviewer for the Telegraph, in which he writes, “I turned the last page with the unusual conviction of having been in the company of a fine writer who is- who must surely be- a good man.” Yes, and I have been in the company of a good man who took me on some amazing journeys who let me see in my mind’s eye some amazing things.

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