It seems that the things I’m most fascinated by are those that also frighten me the most. Afraid of the deep sea, I’ll spend months reading about naval horrors, devour tales of explorers (whether they survived or not) while also preferring to not really leave my house, and frequently consider booking a trip through the Paris Catacombs despite being somewhat claustrophobic with a face-clawing terror of actually being underground.
Perhaps that’s why I found this book so deeply interesting – an exploration of places I will never, ever go written in such a descriptive sensory style that I at times had to pause and gulp some air as the latest shoulder squeezing tunnel was navigated miles underground, in the dark.
Underland: A Deep Time Journey is a dense, ponderous book that suits its subject matter perfectly. Macfarlane breaks down human uses for our underground spaces – for keeping things safe, for bring useful things out of, and to dispose of or hide things – while visiting a range of wildly different but equally interesting spaces. Whether investigating the fungal network that connects the trees in our forests, prehistoric caves, nuclear substations, mines, the hearts of glaciers, or gigantic tombs, Macfarlane looks at our past while also getting a terrifying glimpse of our future.
The arctic sections are the most apocalyptic – sailing through the ghosts of glaciers that have vanished so quickly in reality that they’re still on our maps, the ancient viruses being released by the corpses being released by the ice, and the buried nuclear waste that should have been ‘preserved for eternity in the perpetual snows of Greenland’ slowly beginning to emerge – and this all conspired with my existing fears of these spaces and the news reports we’ve been receiving on arctic temperatures in recent years to leave me with an even stronger feeling of environmental dread.
But most of all I keep coming back to descriptions of a subterranean market area miles underneath the surface of Paris, where artists have sculpted men trying to walk out of the walls, and wonder if I really ought to visit the catacombs after all.