By Robert MacFarlane

Volumes have been written about mountains and the challenges of climbing them.
In UNDERLAND, Robert Macfarlane asks us to look at what is beneath our feet.
He gives us a guided tour of salt caves where dark matter is studied, burial caves, the catacombs of Paris, underground rivers, limestone shafts in Slovenia entombing victims of mass shootings during the world wars, ocean whirlpools and melting glaciers.
Across epochs and cultures, Macfarlane writes, the underworld has been used “to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and dispose of what is harmful.”
In one section of the book, he talks about the terrifying work being done to create underground storage spaces for radioactive waste. Not only must the waste be stored safely for millennia, ways to communicate the dangers of the area to future humans (or to future nonhuman species) must also be developed. One approach is to use what is known as hostile architecture to make the space so foreboding it would not lightly be entered.
In another, he discusses what botanists are discovering about the root systems of fungi and trees that allow them to share resources for mutual benefit.
Climate change appears repeatedly throughout the book: melting glaciers in Greenland that are changing the face of the continent; anthrax spores being released from rotting reindeer corpses buried in once-frozen soil and corpses of climbers being exposed by retreating Alpine and Himalayan glaciers.
Frequently, Macfarlane talks about scientific issues — cave formation, mines, dark matter research — but always in an accessible way. Sections often open with vivid descriptions of the physical world: “rasp of grasshoppers, burr of bees, scent of herbs. We walk on towards the tinfoil sea.” In another section, he writes about birch trees “seething sulphur” in the fall.
This is an enthralling blend of science, geography, culture and history.

About the Author: Robert Macfarlane (1976 – )

British writer Robert Macfarlane is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, who is known for his books on landscape, nature, place, people and language.

His work is compared to that of John Muir, John McPhee, Rebecca Solnit and Annie Dillard.

His first book, MOUNTAINS OF THE MIND (2003), describes the development of Western attitudes to mountains and precipitous landscape, asking why people (himself included) are drawn to mountains despite their dangers.

It won the Guardian First Book Award, the Somerset Maugham Award and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. It was shortlisted for the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

The book was developed as a film, “Mountain” (2017), which premiered with a live performance of the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House. Narrated by Willem Dafoe, it became the highest grossing Australian documentary of all time and won three Australian Academy Awards.

His second book, THE WILD PLACES (2007), describes a series of journeys he made searching for the wildness remaining in Britain and Ireland. It won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, the Scottish Arts Council Non-Fiction Book of the Year and the Grand Prize at the Banff Mountain Festival, North America’s equivalent of the Boardman Tasker Prize.

THE OLD WAYS: A JOURNEY ON FOOT (2012) describes the years Macfarlane spent following pilgrimage paths, sea roads, prehistoric trackways and ancient rights of way in southeast England, northwest Scotland, Spain, Sichuan and Palestine.

In 2017, he received the E.M. Forster Award For Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2017.

He is married to Julia Lovell, a professor of modern Chinese history and literature. They have three children.


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