In nature writer Robert McFarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey, the author embarks from his native United Kingdom on the equivalent of a mythological hero’s journey to learn about the inner workings of the universe. With classical literature and the grandeur of nature figuring prominently as epic themes in the Underland, McFarlane literally immerses himself in legend in order to pry open the mysteries of uninhabitable or previously unvisited places.

 Whether it is allusions to literary works like Edgar Allen Poe’s A Descent into Maelstrom, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth or Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, McFarlane takes clues from mid-17th century writers to go where they could have only imagined. Be it down the rabbit hole in Mendip’s in southern England leading to a lofty limestone cavern or to Boulby Yorkshire, half a mile under the earth where physicists are seeking evidence about the quarks and sparks in the heart of the universe, McFarlane writes about the discoveries of extreme adventurists and top scientists underground, underwater, or at precipitous elevations. In the Epping Forest in London, he recounts lines from Robert Frost’s Birches to describe a “wood wide web” of trees connected by an underground social network made possible by fungi. 

  The pursuit of nature becomes filled with a world of myth on the scale of the Epic of Gilgamesh written in 2100 BC in Sumeria or a descent into the fires of Hades in Milton’s Paradise Lost. The author suggests that these descents into darkness paradoxically might “be a medium of vision.” 

  Midway through the novel, McFarlane ascends a sheer cliff in Norway that could only be reached by water where he enters a 150 ft. high entrance to a cruciform cave with a 600 ft.-long gallery system. Here, he observes red dancers on the rock reminiscent of the Chauvet Caves in France, and the author finds himself sobbing so close to “the generous figures”—an allusion to the hero’s meeting of the goddess in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces

  When McFarlane reaches the meltwater of the Knud Rasmussen Glacier in Greenland, he is a daredevil willing to drop 20-feet into a moulin below the glacier’s surface as if he were descending a well. He thrashes about in the blue underland of ice until his fellow expeditioners yank him up by a cord. Seemingly unafraid of risking his life for a rare view, he reports on the calving face of fjords with “towers, belfries, chimneys, cathedrals all going over the edge.” One exhilarating scene after another immerses the readers in Macfarlane’s descriptions of radiant blue and dream ice and the aurora borealis like a colorful silk scarf trailing across the Nordic sky—a description of natural phenomenon that brings to mind virtual reality. 

   It seems the author is striving through verse and art to make his encounters with nature that of a haunting epic tale of engagement with “the hard, beautiful landscape of forests, islands, and lakes.” Citing the poem Kalevala, a folk epic of Finland on par with the Illiad and Odyssey, he voyages to Olkiluto, Finland to where uranium, the stuff of high level nuclear waste,  is stored in “more secure …crypts than Pharoah or a supermax prison” in order to keep the future safe of nuclear threat. “We know how to make electricity and death,” McFarlane writes “but we still don’t know how to dispose of it.” 

  “I am seeking not the scattered jewels of epiphany,” the author writes poetically, “but the possible means by which people might move across landscapes with responsible knowledge of the deep past, deep future, and the unknown…”

  Returning to England at the end of his epic journey to walk the nearby woods with his son, the author is aware of their mortality as well as their responsibility serving as a guide for future generations.  The connections between literature, mythology, and present-day observations of nature are aimed at elevating concern about our actions within a fragile environment exposed to man-made threats of epic proportions.  


Citation: Macfarlane, Robert (2019). UnderlandA Deep Time Journey. New York, NY: W.W.Norton & Company Inc.

Artwork: Hofmann, Hans. 1958. Oceanic. Oil on canvas. Washington, DC: National Portrait Gallery.