The Sunday Magazine

A journey to the dark and fantastical world beneath our feet

Robert MacFarlane says his work explores the relationship between the landscape and the human heart. With his latest award-winning book, he writes about the most mysterious and mythical landscape of all: The Underland — the underground realm that holds the hidden infrastructure of everyday life, the natural resources our economy runs on, our secrets, and the bones of our dead.
Robert Macfarlane is a writer and scholar at the University of Cambridge. His latest work of nature writing is Underland. (@RobGMacfarlane/, Hamish Hamilton UK)

Robert Macfarlane's work is preoccupied by what the natural world can teach us about ourselves. His first book, Mountains of the Mind, charted people's fascination with mountains in spite of their danger, as well as how tall peaks have stirred the human imagination. 

This stunning debut kick started an illustrious career charting the meditative aspects of walking and observing the world's natural landscapes. His acclaimed books, including Landmarks and The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, solidified his reputation as one of the world's leading nature writers. 

Landmarks is a critically-acclaimed book by Robert Macfarlane. (Penguin)

Having explored the most stunning landscapes that the world above ground has to offer, Macfarlane's latest work delves into the visceral and haunting experience of the universe underneath us. 

Underland: A Deep Time Journey recently won the the Wainwright Prize for writing on nature and the outdoors. It charts Macfarlane's travels underground, how he slipped squeezed and pressed through portals into the 'Underland.' The mouth of a cave, a sinkhole overgrown with weeds and wildflowers, a small gash in the earth and a nondescript metal door all gave him passage into the subcutaneous realm beneath the skin of the planet. 

Few people write about the natural world as vividly as MacFarlane. His prose pulsates with life and glows on the page. This latest book is just as enchanting, as Macfarlane articulates how the Underland, the reservoir of the raw materials that have fueled our civilization, is a place of myth and mystery that holds the secrets of our deep past. 

In addition to his widely acclaimed and award-winning writing, Macfarlane is also a fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, where he researches Geohumanities as a scholar in English. 

From the surface to the underground

Macfarlane's journey into the Underland begins with a description of his entrance into this underground world: "the way into the Underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree". 

Though his description is lofty and poetic in tone, what Macfarlane is describing in the first line of Underland is grounded in observable reality. "There is such a place," he says. "It's in the Mendip Hills in Somerset, southwest England. There is the entry to a cave system in the limestone, which is accessed through the split trunk of a great old ash tree."

Limestone's porous nature — its crevices and exposure to the world outside — became a catalyst for Macfarlane's latest book. He stresses how stories underground constantly expose themselves to the realities above them. 

The way into the Underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree- Robert Macfarlane

He grew up in Derbyshire, England, coal-mining country, next to deposits of the rock. His father was a doctor, constantly treating the miners nearby for industrial diseases. 

"Limestone is hollow stone," he says. "[It's] really soluble in rainwater ... and so it opens up into itself. There's a childhood sense of always walking above 'under-stories'."

Why 'Underland'?

For Macfarlane, 'underground' was not a sufficient term for describing the complicated and conflicted universe beneath us all. 

In conceiving of the term 'Underland', he wanted to encapsulate the wonder and fear of the underground. "I wanted to make it sing strangely as a word, make the ground shiver a little under the feet of the reader," he says. 

"It has that echo of wonderland ... but it isn't only a wonderland. It's a place of fear and horror, as well as astonishment and revelation ... I guess it was a love [of] twisting language and making it jump around in strange ways."

"[Underland] isn't only a wonderland. It's a place of fear and horror, as well as astonishment and revelation," says Macfarlane. (Submitted by Martin Davis)

The paradoxical relationship between fear and wonder that Macfarlane expresses in his book echoes the reading experience. He stresses the viscerality of this work and his desire to have his readers inhabit the feelings of claustrophobia that come with delving underground. 

In 2012, before Macfarlane began writing the book, he asked a caving friend of his to take him to a cave system near Castleton in Derbyshire. "There's a feature called the 'crab walk'," he says. "It's like moving through the inside of a curtain … [and] it has a feature within the crab walk called 'the vice' which is spatially parsimonious shall we say."

"It was a it was a thrilling space to me and a peaceful one a sheltering one … this is one of those rare books where a reader says to you, 'I had to stop reading it.' And this is a good thing. I think this speaks of claustrophobia's power not only in its primary form, but also … [how] it communicates itself incredibly powerfully, vicariously by description." 

Time in the Underland

In his book, Macfarlane describes the dissonance created between human time and time below ground. "Moving through rock ... you are encased in a phase of time that dwarfs the human scale," he says. 

"I use this phrase a lot in the book, 'deep deep time.' It is a journey [of] physical movement through a time that has almost no knowledge of the human units of time." 

Because the Underland is not beholden to conventional human understanding, Macfarlane frames places below ground as being beyond human prejudices. "I'm always interested in how landscape can make us hate, as well as love," he says. 

Ethno-nationalism is in a sense an allegiance to land, to place, that converts it into a hate of what lies beyond the boundaries of that land- Robert Macfarlane

The Underland, he claims, can give us a better understanding of contemporary human affairs. "Ethno-nationalism is in a sense an allegiance to land, to place, that converts it into a hate of what lies beyond the boundaries of that land," he says. 

As Macfarlane argues, the history of the Underland is so beyond human comprehension, it is easy to forget how it draws us together as a species. 

"It's where we keep our dead safe … [It] has three great functions across cultures. To yield, to give us things of value, to dispose of the things we don't want anymore, like nuclear waste, and to shelter. I think it's important to remember how what a function the underworld has served as a shelter over the millennia of species history."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.