Robert Macfarlane has to be one of my favorite nature writers as of late. His latest, Underland, takes us on a journey to the ground beneath our feet. The book focuses on a number of discrete stories and adventures, all of which are unified simply due to the fact that they take place in the ground beneath our feet and uses these experiences to describe the concept of “deep time”.
What is deep time?
For deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: millennia, epochs and aeons, instead of minutes, months and years. Deep time is kept by rock, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates. Seen in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains rise and fall. We live on a restless Earth.
A few other reviews on Goodreads have mentioned that they felt the book didn’t ultimately have a point. I kind of agree with that — you could almost treat each section as its own short story.
That said, I loved every moment of it. Each section was beautifully written and I loved reading Macfarlane reflect on his experiences, reflecting on the things we are leaving behind for future generations, and pondering what each place (or the idea of each place) he visited means in the greater scheme of things to humanity.
Perhaps above all, the Anthropocene compels us to think forwards in deep time, and to weigh what we will leave behind, as the landscapes we are making now will sink into the strata becoming the underlands. What is the history of things to come? What will be our future fossils? As we have amplified our ability to shape the world, so we become more responsible for the long afterlives of that shaping. The Anthropocene asks of us the question memorably posed by the immunologist Jonas Salk: ‘Are we being good ancestors?