What is the Underland? Of course, there are caves, caverns, underground rivers, and the labyrinths of mythology. But the Underland is more than natural wonders; parts of the Underland are manmade, like the catacombs beneath Paris, nuclear waste repositories, mines, and cave paintings. And Robert Macfarlane wants to explore every inch of the Underland, no matter how remote or dangerous that dream becomes. To experience the Underland, he survives blizzards, freezing water, ice crevasses, blocked cave passages, and oxygen deprivation.
The author’s obsession with all of the manifestations of the Underland, and his willingness to risk his life numerous times to experience it and write this book about it, approaches religious fervor. Numerous times he gets so carried away with his own feelings and ideas that he drifts into irrationality and sentimentality. He even admits it when he is caught up in the concept of the “wood wide web,” the mycorrhizal fungi network that connects all the roots of the plants in a forest. “Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism,” he writes, “I find it hard not to imagine those arboreal relationships in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees.” This is not scientific writing; it is pure emotion, a belief system in the making.
But his book is so enchanting that we forgive and forget the sentiment and can’t wait for his next Underland adventure. I get it and I still am moved by my own most interesting Underland experience. No, it wasn’t walking down an asphalt path to visit the Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns, it was being lowered in a large bucket a mile deep into a New Mexico uranium mine. That Underland was utterly fascinating and scary at the same time. Just like this book.