The underland is a place of enormous historical, cultural, and geographical significance. What lies beneath the visible and conquerable terrestrial surface has been a source of fascination and terror, becoming, in the myths and metaphoric expressions of the Western imagination, a site of what is negative, irrational, mortifying, and hence necessitating suppression.

At the start of his book, Underland, which chronicles the author’s journey through various underground structures – limestone caves, ancient cenotaphs, mycorrhizal colonies beneath the soil, quarries and mines, the catacombs of Paris, and nuclear waste dumps – Macfarlane delves into the rich cultural life of the underworld in various modes of representation, including the English language.

Depression, catastrophe, cataclysm – these abyssal words indicate not just a cultural suspicion of the subterranean as geography and figuration, but also refer to epistemological and ontological biases built into thought and perception that privilege certain modes of being, action, embodiment, comportment, articulation, and relationality.

An alternative philosophy

Western rationality is grounded in the supposed irrefutability of empirically observable and measurable variables. The philosophical image of man is that of the upright, forward moving vector of progress on evolutionary and historical trajectories, whose cognitive superiority is defined as the ability not only to perceive the external world of stimuli needed to survive but also the capacity for deliberative self-reflection and intellectual abstraction.

Philosophy favours the visible, its dominant epistemic modes are those of vision, clarification, illumination, enlightenment: alethia and its specular cognates, where to see, to be in positions of visual command of the world is also to know, comprehend, and by extension actively control the visible world designated as mysterious and dangerous but ultimately passive and governable. Macfarlane’s book about the underland enters this well-entrenched worldview tied up with histories of colonialism, liberal capitalism, and the structure of bourgeois subjectivity, becoming a source for alternative philosophies of life, sociability, coexistence, individuation, time, and knowledge.

What lies beneath

Underland begins by describing a set of interconnected but disparate geological structures beneath the earth’s surface and the different ways in which these have come in contact and become entwined with human practices and beliefs. For instance: An underground burial chamber containing the mummified remains of a young mother and her stillborn child, a stone cave with handprints embedding a cryptic archaic narrative of adventure or distress, the flooded underground cavern in Thailand which held thirteen trapped members of a soccer team for nine days, the world’s largest quarries engaged in excavating valuable substances from the earth’s interior, giant landfills waiting to serve as reservoirs in which governments, military organisations, and multinational corporations hope to seal into eternal silence the toxic and lethal secrets of their nuclear exploits.

Through these different human uses of the underland emerges its common identification as a place that serves a threefold function: To shelter and preserve what is valuable, to extract what is useful, and to dispose of what is harmful. Macfarlane’s journeys are thus organised around these activities, on the surface appearing to be motivated like, most travelogues, by an anthropological focus, but in fact departing or finding themselves variously rerouted by the demands of geography itself, and the rich vitality of its subterranean substances.

This material poetics of the underland is what Macfarlane attempts to listen to, which shocks and exhilarates in equal measure his terrestrial sensibility, and that ultimately provides new rhythms, inflections, and expressive idioms to his prose. Under the surface of the earth different conceptions of space and time emerge. Lithic time unfolds on a grander scale than the limited calibrations of historical temporality, the mineral formations of underground structures having lives of slow accumulation spanning millenniums.

A different time scale

This dramatic scalar difference in how nonhuman entities occupy time not only shatters a view of reality structured from the sole perspective of human experience, it also alerts us, as Rob Nixon has persuasively argued, to the unpredictable, enduring implications of human activity for planetary life.

Planetary time is deep time in which gestation, transformation, growth, and perishing take place at rates of speed and slowness that are beyond the instruments of human measure. Deep time in turn generates a specific configuration of violence that Nixon terms slow violence: Forms of human-induced damage to the earth’s resources and ecologies that, although specific to contemporary capitalist and post-capitalist practices across the globe, will have lasting, even irreversible effects at a planetary level.

The catastrophic conjunction of deep time and slow violence is nowhere better evidenced than the very concept of the Anthropocene. Inspired by the image of the fossil, the Anthropocene is the name for an epoch in which humans have become a geological force – on that, however, can be stratigraphically recorded only long after humans have perished, perhaps as a result of the consequences of their own actions.

As Macfarlane suggests, in such speculative futures, the fossil evidence for human existence will be an entirely new assemblage produced by humans called plastiglomerate, lithic substances held together by grains of indestructible microplastic. While, to paraphrase Nixon, slow violence is difficult to recognise precisely because its effects work at the planetary rather than human scale, encompassing a mode of slowness for which we don’t have chronometric apparatuses, one can discern some of its implications under the surface of the earth, forced to deal with nonhuman spatiotemporal registers.

An elegiac tone

Thus, these journeys through the underland become gestures of bearing witness to our Anthropocenic legacies of planetary destruction, a mourning for environments, ecologies, and diverse lifeforms that are directly imperilled by our relentless exploitation of the planet. Travel writing in the Anthropocene must necessarily acknowledge the changed reality of topography, even as it reckons with its own ideological complicity in imperialist and anthropocentric idioms of relating to the nonhuman world and its otherness through gestures and strategies of commodification.

In that sense Underland strikes a different note compared to Macfarlane’s earlier writing. The elegiac tone, most strongly asserted towards the end of the book, in writing about the experience of melting glaciers in Greenland, is the travelogue’s ethical stance, a melancholy ethics that has at its perceiving centre a subject who is not quite able to comprehend the lost object but nonetheless suffers the pain of being exposed to radical changes in capacities for feeling and expression as a result of his/her entanglement with that which is lost.