Adventures in the Underland: A Conversation with Robert Macfarlane
Prolific author and scholar Robert Macfarlane began his literary career at the heights of the world’s tallest peaks. His first book, Mountains of the Mind, explored how summits became cultural touchstones for the West, and why they continue to draw people into beautiful and dangerous terrain. Then, he descended and moved laterally across the landscapes of his native British Isles, stringing together visits to undeveloped natural corners in The Wild Places, and traveling ancestral paths in The Old Ways. His work can be understood as a deep mapping, attaching layers of history and meaning to place, writing invisible context across visible features.
Underland, his latest and most sweeping book, is a sort of inverted apotheosis of this rich, downward arc. Moving from British funerary chambers to undersea caverns where scientists study dark matter, to the catacombs of Paris, to the depths of nuclear waste disposal facilities, Macfarlane turns over and over in his hands our relationship with the subterranean—those revered and reviled spaces where we inter our most sacred objects, our garbage, and our darkest and most enduring fears.
This June, I caught up with Macfarlane by phone to talk about moving beyond nature writing, embracing social media, future projects, and points of hope in a tumultuous future.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah Gilman: You’ve written nine books now, many of them exploring landscapes and the ways that people occupy and relate to them. When did you first fall in love with writing, and was that connected to the natural world for you from the beginning?
Robert Macfarlane: Landscape and language and literature—that trio have woven together from the very beginning for me. There were a couple of writers early on who changed the way I see and the way I write: Seamus Heaney and Barry Lopez. Heaney showed me that words could have a kind of palp and a heft to them. He showed me that although language isn’t matter, it can be given weight. With Arctic Dreams, Lopez blew open what nonfiction might be to me. I met Arctic Dreams in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1990s. I read it and thought, what an adventure this form is. Nonfiction is as free as any novel. You can do whatever you want with it—you can mix anthropology, cultural history, politics, ethics, poetry—and that was utterly thrilling to me.
So, writers sent me to the land, as it were, and then landscape has become my inexhaustible subject. But the nature that I am interested in is the darkness in people’s hearts that makes them willing to kill for love of a landscape. It’s high-level nuclear waste, it’s ruins and neutrinos and weakly interacting massive particles, it’s logging industrial practices and the bureaucratic structures that drive them—these to me are all nature.
SG: In your earlier books like The Wild Places and The Old Ways you identify yourself as a kind of four-dimensional mapmaker, where you reconstruct places through both physical journeys across the landscape but also backwards and forwards in time and deep into the experiences of others who are close to those places. In The Wild Places you search explicitly for unpeopled places, in The Old Ways you follow these ancestral paths, and in Underland you go deep beneath. Is that an intentional trajectory?
RM: The trajectory becomes even more visible when I say that the very first book I wrote, Mountains of The Mind, began at 8,848 meters—the summit height of Everest. So, the trajectory was certainly not a deliberate one from top to depth, but I guess I’m always interested in how every landscape is stratified ethically and politically as well as geologically and ecologically. I’m interested in un-layering and peeling away some of those skins so that you can see what the place is made of. If there is a movement into depth it’s probably a temporal one, backwards in time to the forms of inscription and memory that landscapes carry.
If there’s a question at the heart of Underland it’s, are we being good ancestors?
SG: You wrote in the introduction to Underland that you were surprised by the fact that what you thought was at the outset going to be your least human work turned out to be your most communal. Can you talk about why you thought Underland would be a less peopled book and then how and why it became so human-centric?
RM: I thought it would be a book about rock and ice and trees and seabed sediments and stalactites, and all of the time that they keep and tell, and the stories they archive in their depths. People don’t live underground, on the whole, because there’s no light and it’s hard and dark and confined. So I had this idea that it was going to be a more-than-human book about the liveliness of the more-than-human world. I hope it did become that, but of course the underworld is a place that we go into, albeit then return from. The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest written classical myth with the consultations with the dead and descents to the underworld. This is the absolute fount of story, and I suddenly realized that in a very personal and human way this was about people who are lost, and it was also about what it means to live now. I was very overtaken by the urgency of this book as we move further and further into the Anthropocene, and as things that we thought were buried rise up to the surface.
SG: You’ve said elsewhere that language is a geological force and that the ways we as humans represent other creatures and other people determine the ways that we behave towards them. You essentially made the same argument about maps, that they triage a landscape’s aspects and rank them in order of importance and that those things shape the whole universe of future interactions. It seems like you are aiming to construct a more layered vision of the world, to render the unseeable things about a place seeable through your prose. What biases and perceptions are you hoping most to act on for readers, and what world do you hope to open their minds to in terms of possibility?
RM: This is the question I come back to again and again. I call language a geological force because in a way it drives all our structural and infrastructural decisions. I am very invested in the importance of naming and grammar and description and vision, but I also recognize its limits. The kicker for me, the key, is how do we shift ontologically, in terms of being, in a way that then ramifies into structural politics? If there’s a question at the heart of Underland it’s, are we being good ancestors? Deep time runs backwards away from us, but it also runs forwards away from us.
We are a geologically forceful species right now and the question of whether we are being good ancestors seems to me to be powerfully at work in our political consciousness in terms of climate change and intergenerational justice. The long overdue alignment of environmental justice and social justice is now happening in the public imaginary but has yet to take form within political structures. So, I’m excited about our visions right now but I am pessimistic about our futures.
SG: One of the things I most appreciated about Underland was how it reckoned with the many ways that what we’ve buried below or thrown away resurfaces. The apotheosis of that is carbon dioxide heating our atmosphere and melting our glaciers, which are then giving up what lands and objects they have long buried. You quote Don DeLillo, “what we excrete comes back to consume us.” Knowing this, how should we treat these subterranean spaces in the future, so that what we inter there doesn’t come back to harm us and the living world?
RM: The best answer I can give is what happened in the penultimate chapter of the book, where I go down Onkalo, this hiding place in Finland on the Gulf of Bothnia which is, so far, the only functional high-level nuclear waste deep geological repository site. I went there expecting to find the end of the world and actually what I found was good people trying to do the best job they could with some really bad stuff.
And yes, there were complications. But there’s this Donna Haraway phrase (that’s talked about quite a lot these days) of “staying with the trouble.” Instead of dreaming and idealizing our way out of the Anthropocene in ways that are not attentive to the massive structural and infrastructural revisions that are necessary, she says we’ve got to stay with the trouble and do the best we can. And that’s oddly what I found in Finland. People were planning a just transition for generations to come, even species to come, and that was very moving to me. This is one place where we’ve managed to stay with the trouble and make good collective decisions to the best end we can.
SG: It does feel like there’s this cultural zeitgeist right now where interconnection in the natural world is becoming a theme in more mainstream books. What do you think is happening that these things are rising to the surface for so many people?
RM: There’s incredible work being done by environmental historians and sociologists who are reaching big audiences. I think about Bathsheba Demuth’s book Floating Coast and Elizabeth Rush’s book Rising for example. It’s so exciting to me to see people really working form and working voice as well as this astonishing intensity of knowledge. It’s a really exciting time and I think it’s born of urgency.
I teach this course called Cultures of the Anthropocene in Cambridge and every week I begin each class by reading out the headlines with the harvest of horror from the past week around climate change, biodiversity loss, species extinction. It was at once silencing to all of us and intensifying, a version of that double feeling of helplessness and the need for action and hopefulness. Rebecca Solnit has that great phrase, “hope in the dark.” She’s brilliant on nonlinear change and how protests and literature and culture and street politics have this possibility of rippling and toppling. It all gathers, and when you look back at the big shifts happening you realize that the moment of shift is itself not a single decisive stroke, but the accumulation of many smaller forms of action and discourse. I sometimes remind myself of that—what seems like a pebble dropped without a ripple into the pond is actually adding to a bigger accumulation and bigger changes.
Robert Macfarlane is the author of Underland, Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Landmarks, and The Lost Words, co-created with Jackie Morris. His award-winning books have been translated into a dozen languages and published in more than 20 countries. His work has also been widely adapted for TV, film, and radio by the BBC, among others. He is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and writes on environmentalism, literature and travel for publications including the Guardian, the Sunday Times and The New York Times. Website. Twitter.
Sarah Gilman is a Washington state-based writer, illustrator, and editor who covers natural history, science, and place. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, High Country News, Hakai Magazine, The Washington Post, Adventure Journal Quarterly, BioGraphic, Smithsonian.com, Patagonia’s The Cleanest Line, The Last Word on Nothing, and others. Website. Twitter. Instagram. Contact.