This book starts enticingly with the line ‘The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree’. And so begins a journey underground through various epochs both past and future. It is in the author’s words ‘A deep time journey.’
Having started writing about Mountains (‘Mountains of the Mind’) Robert Macfarlane has continued a similar theme: humans’ relationship with the land in which they live.
This has created a fan base of those who enjoy an evocation of the wonders of the natural world.
It is with this book that he has pushed the boundaries of his own style: it is as if he is creating his own physical language of experience in nature, something akin to poetry. Bees are described as ‘drowsing drowsy’. Later caterpillars ‘seethe’ while birdsong is ‘glittering’.
It would be a standout work for these reasons alone but what makes Macfarlane unique is that as well as being a gifted writer, he is also a proper explorer. This isn’t the writer who likes a bit of a wander; this is serious and dangerous exploration.
From descending into an icehole in Greenland to a claustrophobic experience in a confined space in the bowels of Paris, Macfarlane lives and breathes this unseen world. There are one or two moments when I experienced something visceral – an intake of breath or a genuine shudder at what I was sharing with the author.
There were points that I became lost in some of the detail. There is a chapter where he visits an underground laboratory where someone is researching dark matter. There is too much detail about the investigation into the particle that is assumed to make up dark matter.
That aside, this is the most extraordinary book, owing to its eye-opening subject matter and his highly original style. It is a book that has no comparison I can think of.