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Mountaineering in reverse: Tales from the Underland

I‘ve been underground a total of four times. The first was a tour of a gypsum mine with my father when I was a child: as we zoomed past the white mine walls on our underground vehicle, the rounded tunnels appeared wider than they were tall. The second excursion was to a local cave system, where we had to squeeze between two tight rocks and then shuffle our way into the crack (I wouldn’t call it a cave!) sideways, our headlamps picking out the intricacies of rock on all sides. I had to leave quickly; I was terrified that someone would enter the space behind me and that I wouldn’t be able to get out. The third cave was inside a glacier that I studied for my PhD research–an englacial tunnel that drained meltwater during the summer season. Sunlight shone through the ice and filled the tunnel with a soft blue hue. The tunnel itself was large enough almost to stand upright in. The fourth cave was an annotated, tastefully lit museum in the region of South Africa known as The Cradle of Humankind, where many early hominids have been found.

On each of these underground visits, I experienced the mental shift that happens when you move from the land surface to the underground, and then back up again. You descend into a cave feeling as though you’re leaving your life behind and will never see light again; so when you re-emerge, it’s a surprise to remember that there are trees and sunshine aboveground.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Robert Macfarlane. W.W. Norton & Company, 2019. $27.95. [Photo] Penguin Books

Robert Macfarlane captures that liminal moment many times in his latest book, Underland, in which he visits underground places around the globe that are both natural (karst, caves and the forest understory) and human-made (mines, the catacombs under Paris, a chamber built by scientists to find dark matter, and a Finnish storage place for radioactive waste). The threshold between the underworld and the overworld seems like a space where anything can happen. “Darkness might be a medium of vision, and…descent may be a movement toward revelation rather than deprivation,” Macfarlane writes.

According to Macfarlane, people appear to find something similar in caves to what they experience in the mountains–clarity of thought and vision. Macfarlane quotes Theophile Gautier from 1868: “A peak can exercise the same irresistible power as an abyss.” Macfarlane sees the underworld as a mirror image of the overworld, as though you could match bootsteps between above and below: “The feet of the dead, who must walk upside down, touch those of the living, who stand upright.”

Caving, Macfarlane suggests, can thus be seen as the underland equivalent of mountaineering. As people travel through cave systems, they set up base camps and advance camps. In caves with bodies of water, they bring diving gear to plumb the deeps just as mountaineers bring equipment to rise to the heights. Cavers use ropes and mountaineering and backpacking skills, only they look for different landmarks–instead of seeking ridges or gullies, they search for tunnels and cracks. Some cavers also free-dive (diving as far through a water-filled cavity as they can without an oxygen tank), which is almost like free-soloing, but in the opposite direction. In one scene from his book, Macfarlane enters the karst landscape of the Slovenian Highlands, and then he hikes over the top of that landscape to reach the highest peak in the region. He does the same in Greenland, hiking across the glacier ice while also exploring its interior.

Throughout Western history, many stories reveal a fascination with the mystery and allure of the underland, a sense that strange and potentially unpleasant things take place there. Macfarlane mentions the mythical rivers that flow from the upper world into the underland (Lethe, Styx, Phlegethon, Cocytus, and Acheron). In the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and Lewis Carroll all lived in karst landscapes, which are limestone-based and littered with caves and sinkholes. These regions influenced not only the settings of their books, but also the narrative arcs. Macfarlane mentions Poe’s The Maelstrom, in which the main characters are caught in a whirlpool off the coast of Norway; though afraid, they are also mesmerized by this entity that’s drawing them into the depths of the underworld. Macfarlane also refers to Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, in which an extensive underworld is imagined. Finally, Macfarlane refers to Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland as a completely different, perhaps almost hallucinogenic, underland experience.

People rarely think of the underworld–for many of us, it seems out of sight. But we can’t ignore it. While we throw away and forget about plastics, imagining that they’ve been disposed of and recycled or buried underground in a landfill, these objects re-appear on beaches around the world. Many things once buried are later exposed: for example, reindeer infected with anthrax have melted out of the permafrost, infecting local people with this disease; a World War II camp, complete with a nuclear power reactor, is emerging from the Greenland Ice Sheet; dead soldiers have emerged on the Karakoram’s Siachen Glacier…much that was hidden is revealed again, over time.

Throughout the book, Macfarlane’s descriptions emphasize the connections between what is happening above and below ground. The two realms, he points out, are not as distant as it may seem: many subsurface features, such as sinkholes and glacier moulins, connect to the surface. Moreover, human exploitation of the underland for oil, gas and mineral resources is a hallmark of the Anthropocene (a proposed term for our current geologic era that acknowledges how humans have “caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts,” as Joseph Stromberg writes in Smithsonian Magazine.)

Macfarlane has a talent for writing lyrically about science, exemplified in his definition of a trace fossil as “a bracing of space by a vanished body, in which absence serves as sign.” But his poetic imagery also serves a larger purpose. He uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe the near-glacier camp at which he and his two guides stay, noting that they’re camping on “ghost ice,” a location from which the ice that has retreated and left only a trace of itself. Climate change has led to the “ghost glacier,” and it’s climate change that’s exposing what was once buried in the underland of glacier ice.

The most engaging story in Macfarlane’s book is the one about his abseil into a moulin on the Knud Rasmussen Glacier in Greenland, where he was able to view the glacier from inside. Partway down, he gets caught in a waterfall, but he drops to 60 feet to where he’s able to perch on a side channel and observe the meltwater wearing away at the ice. His colleague goes down after him and sings an aria from Tosca. Macfarlane recalls, “The notes pour up through that great blue pipe organ and fly joyfully out into the still air,” showing there is still beauty and wonder even in the Anthropocene.

Underland makes a compelling case for the importance of exploring all the places that influence our life on earth, not just the surface areas. The International Union of Geological Sciences is scheduled to decide on adopting the term Anthropocene for the current geological age in 2021–it’s time to reconsider that what is below our feet is less unyielding and untouched than we may think.