Book Review: Finding Sacred Spaces in the Anthropocene

Robert Macfarlane once again sets out on an adventure to find a sacred space for the Anthropocene.

Robert Macfarlane says somewhat prosaically in his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, that what will survive of us is not love but ‘plastic, swine bones and lead 207’.

In response to this dystopian scenario, Underland attempts to sacralise a geography that he has not explored in his earlier works. The book situates itself in the Anthropocene, a term used to denote humans acting as a geological factor impacting everything from ecosystems to climate change. He does that by investigating the ‘deep time’ that traverses different subterranean geographies such as karsts, caves, and burial sites, with a poignant wonder. 

Travelling through the variegated landscapes of Britain, Paris, Italy, Norway, Greenland and Finland, he descends to the underground to craft this geological narrative. 

Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert Macfarlane, W.W. Norton Company, 2019

For Macfarlane, the Anthropocene is an imminent crisis that can no longer be deferred to some indefinite horizon. In the first few pages, while describing a tunnel that can hold nuclear waste within a volcano, he asks pointedly: “How to mark this site?”

What impels the author is a realisation that the deepest, darkest places of the earth are also spaces that are bound to humans culturally, spiritually and socially. The general tenor of the book is ‘entanglement’, a term increasingly used to signify the interdependencies between humanity and other species.

Thus Macfarlane affirms the Anthropocene’s credo, but in Underland this is undercut by the magnitude and materiality of the earth underneath.

Macfarlane is not unlike W.G. Sebald who in his curiously meandering novels like The Rings of Saturn, had meditated on memory, death and time archeologically by investigating a place and local history.

But Macfarlane approaches the land geologically, letting the stratified landscape speak for itself. He delineates the layers of cultural meanings of these spaces but they cannot efface the originality of the natural forces that he encounters.

Thus, unlike Sebaldian unreliable narrators, the reader is invited to witness the author in action till the very end of the book. There, the landscape and the mindscape merge in a hopeful pathos when Macfarlane hugs his young son sitting by the springs. 

This visualisation of the Anthropocene through the prisms of the human is also the central hazard of the narrative. While attempting to capture the longue durée of the Anthropocene, the author gets mired in a humanity that restricts his panorama.

Macfarlane’s imagination of the Anthropocene risks being anthropocentric that is concerned with our legacy and the relics that we will leave behind. The Anthropocene should not be conceptualised as a new humanism that merely reinvigorates our self-image. 

For Macfarlane, however, it seems to be only a powerful challenge and shock that discloses our vulnerability and radical finitude. In that case, how is the precariousness of the Anthropocene different from the devastations of climate change? Even the provocation of deep time is ultimately sublimated into the question of our human legacy –  “to weigh what we will leave behind”.

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In the apocalyptic climax that he is certain of,  landscapes will become transformed into underlands, forcing him to ask,  ‘What will be our future fossils?’ and ‘Are we being good ancestors?’ Even these dystopian underlands of the future are distinctly human: subways, sewerage systems, catacombs, quarry voids.

The air of doom lends a certain loftiness and universality to the geomorphological spaces such as the moulins and swallets that Macfarlane explores. Yet, most of these investigations happen with human help so we must be wary of the ideological strictures that inform these topographies.

Macfarlane faithfully details indigenous cultures whose language can animate mountains and fire, but they only help him to think beyond ‘western thought’.

As W.J.T. Mitchell argues, landscape is inevitably ideological such that it can naturalise hegemonic relations between places and people while rendering others invisible. Thus, we read about Macfarlane’s easy camaraderie with mostly men who inhabit these spaces through expertise and familiarity. Indeed, at several points Macfarlane’s account seems to devolve into a variety of a romantic solitary male sociable traveller. 

Do we think differently in different landscapes, asks Macfarlane. Representative image of the landscape near Uummannaq, Greenland, and the fastest moving glacier on the planet. Photo: United Nations, CC 2.0

To conceive of deep time, however, we need narrative tools to encapsulate a planetary history that is more than a sum of individuals or human subjectivities. Yet, Macfarlane cannot extend his humility to other creaturely species other than to remark at the pervasiveness of life in these difficult underscapes. Macfarlane formulates deep time as ‘the chronology of the Underland’.

If deep time could restate the human as a type of animal, could we reformulate these underlands as ‘animal geographies’ or ‘beastly places’? Maybe that could have deflected deep time along unforeseen, non-human pathways. More-than-human approaches to geography that reject the human-nature and nature-society dualisms demonstrate precisely such relationalities that exist in human-dominated environments. Instead of such contingencies, however, Macfarlane stresses on a human communality, mostly with people who accompany him on his adventures. 

To be sure, we need narratives of deep, personal, practical engagements with the Earth in the Anthropocene and not only declensionist tales. However, can a narrative propped up by a sole romantic wanderer capture the ethos of deep time without making the geological solipsistic? 

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Underland: A Deep Time Journey is also nature writing that is literary in its quest to unravel thought through language. In his ‘Foreword’ to the anthology A Wilder Vein in 2010, Macfarlane wrote that ‘cognition is site-specific, or motion-sensitive: that we think differently in different landscapes”.

Early on, he traces an aversion to the underland in language in our bias and fear of depth, and a preference for height. He instead wishes for a language that can register the animacy of the mountains, and the earth. This leads Macfarlane to arrive at a thrilling conclusion: language itself has become one of the great geological forces in the Anthropocene.

Pondering over appropriate words for life and death in the Anthropocene, which he calls the ‘epoch of loss’, Macfarlane discusses ‘species loneliness’. It is the intense loneliness that we will experience from the extinction of other species. This is one of the ways that the author tries to resist the solipsism that follows him — by trying to register the loss and land in language.

Certainly, Underland is also great travel writing. Macfarlane’s underground cave has a ‘liveliness’ of things but it is one that draws on the reader to share the author’s exhilaration. We feel Macfarlane’s wonder, and fear while following him in his adventures in these dark, dangerous places.

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The conventions of the genre sometimes limit Macfarlane though because he has to rely on his adrenaline pumping activities to spur the story forward. This is because the incremental style of climate change cannot be easily captured in a commensurable way in a narrative. It is travel writing that situates Underland’s literary geography in the present even as the past reveals a topography that is not untouched.  

Tim Robinson coined the word ‘geophany’ to describe a ‘brief epiphany of place; a sudden showing-forth of the nature of a landscape’. Macfarlane attempts to utilise this intensity of these subterranean worlds to access the ‘geophanies’ of the Anthropocene.

In the book, Macfarlane talks about the Saami vision of the Underland that is a perfectly inverted replica of the human realm where the ground separates as the mirror-line such that the feet of the alive touch the feet of the dead.

The author is entranced by the intimacy of this posture where the dead enact life alongside the living at every moment. Similarly, to chronicle the geological saga of these invisible lands, a deeper sense is necessary of the congruences between human precariousness and cosmic structures. It is to find these undercurrents that Underland invokes a vision of a viable sacred space for the Anthropocene.  

Susan Haris is a writer pursuing her Phd in literature and philosophy at IIT Delhi.