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Book Scene: 'Underland' is a beautifully haunting voyage

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If you’ve read anything by Robert Macfarlane, “Mountains of the Mind” and “Lost Words” among others, then you know he can take you places.

Since many of us are staying much closer to home this year, his latest book. “Underland: a Deep Time Journey,” is extra satisfying. (He pronounces the title UN-du-lund.) Macfarlane spent seven years traveling hard, haunting places in northern and eastern Europe. His book goes deeper than any travelogue — literally.

The journey starts in Britain, where he enters the site of the Neil Moss tragedy. There’s another passage in the halite salts, which are ideal for dark matter viewing; then an in-depth visit with naturalist Merlin Sheldrake in the understory of the Epping Forest. One of my favorite chapters explores the mutualism of mycorrhizal fungi in the ancient soil.

On the continent, Macfarlane spends a week in the limestone quarries under Paris, which have become their own cities for concealment, crime or pleasure as well as reburial of human bones. The underground waterways of the Carso plateau of Italy take him free-diving. In the Slovenian Highlands, the author enters the “rock perforated by war, full of fox holes,” a chilling place of execution and burial.

In the far North, Macfarlane ventures, often alone, to sea caves along the western coastline of Norway to find Neolithic cave paintings. He tells of oil extraction and the real-life Maelstrom, and in Greenland of the ice-melt of a warming planet unburying the land. Another fascinating guide, a glaciologist, caver, and climber shows us how “ice has a memory” and what we learn about the future from extracting from the past. Then it’s on to the Knud Rasmussen Glacier, where he describes alarming booms of calving, reminding us of the indigenous stories of glaciers as actors. When his group takes turns rappelling into a crevasse, he experiences a strange, beckoning space of meltwater, blue walls and perilous side passages. His final destination below coastal Finland is also the deepest, a hiding place for radioactive waste in the gneiss.

Macfarlane’s way with words will leave you agape. (Krista Tippett refers to him as “the landscape linguist.”) I shuddered at how a descent overtook him, frightening, warning, yet calling him deeper; then lingered over longer descriptive passages:

“As I lift myself into the entry shaft I feel the black stone’s jaws at the empty air below my toes, and then I am out of the swallet and into the hollow, and warm air is rolling around me, and my bones grow again in the storm of light and ferns furl their green over and into me and moss thrives on my skin and leaves teem in my eyes, and Sean and I sit laughing, knowing for those few moments that to understand light you need first to have been buried in the deep-down dark.”

During each leg of the journey, Macfarlane enjoys a rich vein of friendship running alongside. His historical and literary research honor the places he enters. If his telling compels, you’ll find a warren of endnotes for further discovery.

“Underland” is a unique, lyrically woven book of history, geology, wilderness travel, storytelling and nature writing. It is also a moving memoir of the author’s encountering the spaces below, ascending a changed man, to a day where he and his young son explore a deep spring on a fine day. In revealing what lies below the Earth’s thin crust, Macfarlane unearths questions about ourselves and humankind of all times.

• “Underland: a Deep Time Journey” by Robert Macfarlane was published by W.W. Norton & Co. in June 2019. It retails for $17.95.

• Amy Halvorson Miller works for Inklings Bookshop. She and other Inklings staffers review books in Thursday’s SCENE section every week.

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