Eric Boss reviews UNDERLAND
This remarkable exploration of the world under our feet represents the apex of what I think of as “free range scholarship”. Ranging from the study of dark matter taking place in miles-deep vaults to the truly mind-bending network of fungi and plants beneath the forest floor constituting what has been called “the wood wide web”, the truly astonishing physical and cultural existence beneath the streets of Paris, caves and caverns worldwide, and frightening cascades into the hearts of glaciers, this eclectic educational journey takes us into places most of us have not imagined, much less studied. It reminds me of the age when scientists did not specialize as narrowly as now but instead tried to make connections between disciplines to gain a more cogent view of the entire world, including our own vexatious species. They called themselves “naturalists” or “natural scientists” and were about the work of making sense of the universe. There is a charm in this hearkening back to the age of enlightenment, and it’s refreshing.
Some of the science to which MacFarlane introduces us is so astonishing that it might easily be mistaken for fiction. At the very least, these facts could form the basis for some excellent sci-fi stories. The ubiquity of fungi in the biosphere is one of those: imagine a class of beings that could permeate plants, soil, rock, cement and even the human body with complete freedom and even thrive in highly radioactive environments where other entities wither and die. No need to imagine; they’re here.
The chapter on Paris could make a book by itself. The author’s account of being guided through the labyrinth of quarried chambers and passages as well as natural caverns and rivers puts me in mind of Mervyn Peake’s depictions in his classic gothic tale Gormenghast. The menagerie of characters encountered has the taste of a gypsy adventure in the netherworld. Besides being a work dealing with nature topics, physics and history, this book has the underpinnings of a fantasy tale of epic proportions.
Drawing on aspects of mythology, history, geology, biology, mycology, mountaineering, spelunking, environmentalism, counterculture and travel, these adventures would make fascinating reading without the trenchant observations on the interconnectedness of these factors. Intellect is on full display here, along with a remarkably intrepid sense of educational exploration. The sangfroid regarding danger, discomfort and facing one’s fears in perilous circumstances are to be much admired.
A section of the book is dedicated to the world of ice and what it covers, uncovers, destroys and preserves. In the blue light of its depths are to be found the record of thousands of years of climatological data that inform us as we struggle with the changes in the world, both human-caused and natural. In addition to its archival role, it stands as a metaphor for the challenges offered and met by those with the courage to brave its unsure surface and frightening depths.
Also addressed are the places our species is carving out to secure what it perhaps the most toxic product of our time on earth: radioactive waste. Remaining deadly for tens of thousands of years with something like 12,000 tons more being generated each year, the need for places to safely dispose of it is pressing. And not just for us, but for those who come after. How to store it is one matter: how to keep our ancestors from uncovering it is another. How can we be good ancestors? This is an epic work.
Shelf Talker: A mind-trip through the world beneath our feet includes caves, quarries, clandestine temples and an introduction to some of the people who inhabit, study and revere such places. True adventure, science and mythology come together in an astonishing tapestry.