Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: Underland: A Deep Time Journey

From Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert Macfarlane:
Open quote 
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)."

An adventurer's journal of exploring caves, mines, and vaults, covering the Earth's history from prehistoric cave paintings until the far future when landfills full of plastic and deep stores of lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain, are all that's left of our stay on the planet.

Grade: B-

The excerpt from the book is dry. It's a comprehensive synopsis of the book. It reads like a Wikipedia article. But the book itself is not dry. It's lyrical, right from the first sentence: "The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree."

Robert Macfarlane takes the reader with him as he explores caves and mines, archaeological digs and scientific experiments, glacial moulins and Parisian catacombs. You'll learn a little about nuclear waste disposal, WWII fighting in the Balkan mountain caves, and prehistoric cave painting. All of it told with a writer's love of language. Here, for example, is how Macfarlane describes entering a care in the English countryside:

"Over field and down into bower of elder and old ash, moss plushing rock to soft gold-green. Follow the stream bed through gorse and bracken, setting fieldfares flaring to the west with chatter and crackle. Swallows skimming meadows on the fly, blowy warmth in a north-east wind. On and into the deep-set hollow, a last nod to the sun — to the light falling through leaves in nets, to the buzzard drifting over — and then we are down a hole in the stone-cold soil, worn to a swallet by the run of a stream, into the earth's gullet, into the black bite of a polished stone-vice set carelessly and wondrously with the spirals of ammonites and the bullets of belemnites, and down into trouble."

I found myself wanting each chapter expanded to book length. I found myself wanting to go with Robert Macfarlane as he ventures into these alien realms. "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."

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