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13 June 2012updated 07 Jun 2021 2:34pm

Robert Macfarlane’s Underland takes us to the catacombs and beyond

By Erica Wagner

The Paris catacombs are no secret; quite the opposite, these days. The first time I headed down through the dark doorway near Denfert-Rocherau, back in the early 1990s, you could walk right in; now a queue snakes back and back, humming with nervy anticipation at the thought of coming face to face with death herself. By the end of the 18th century, the cemeteries of Paris were becoming overcrowded so a decision was made to relocate the remains of six million corpses to a limestone quarry beneath the city known as Tombe-Issoire. The ossuary was opened to the public in 1809; “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” warns a lintel deep underground. The former residents of the City of Light have had their femurs and skulls arranged in ghoulishly pleasing patterns around the walls. You can book ahead now; you can even buy a catacombs mug.

Robert Macfarlane is not a man for gift shops. His new book takes us to the catacombs but also far beyond them, revealing the city that lies beneath Haussmann’s broad avenues. The limestone for many of the pale buildings of Paris was quarried from directly beneath the streets: these vides de carrières – quarry voids – form a vast mesh of interconnecting paths, chambers and tunnels which are irresistible to a secretive network of urban explorers who call themselves “cataphiles” – lovers of the below.

Entering these spaces became illegal in 1955, but that was no deterrent. As Macfarlane writes, the space became “a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface”.

All the secret spaces in this remarkable book offer new ways of being and relating: not only to its author, but for the fortunate reader too. Macfarlane – still only in his early 40s – has for the past 15 years been at the forefront of a re-engagement with the ways in which we think about landscape and the human inhabitation of landscape. Seven years ago his book The Old Ways took him along paths of the South Downs and Scotland’s high north, as well as to occupied Palestinian territories, to Spain and the Himalayas. Underland is a companion volume, delving beneath the surface to confront not only the deepest eras of the planet’s past but its most distantly imagined future as well.

Macfarlane, whose work has always been a synthesis of the physical and the literary, begins with a talismanic text. In Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisin-gamen (1960) young Colin and Susan escape from supernatural danger by fleeing into the narrow mining tunnels beneath Cheshire’s Alderley Edge. Colin’s heels, Garner writes, “jammed against the roof: he could move neither up nor down and the rock lip dug into his shins until he cried out with the pain”. For the ten-year-old Macfarlane, this description “took cold grip of my heart”: in Underland Garner’s words foreshadow the ways in which the adult Macfarlane will find himself at the mercy of the depths.

The book is divided into the three “chambers”: Seeing, Hiding and Haunting. “Seeing” ventures into the limestone caverns of the Mendips and down below Boulby in Yorkshire, where physicists – using a “Time Projection Chamber”, a name straight out of Doctor Who – search for evidence of dark matter; in Epping Forest he encounters “the wood wide web”, the network of fungus beneath the forest floor that makes the whole place a co-operative system. “Hiding” dives down below Europe, into those Parisian catacombs before heading to the north-east of Italy, where an underground river “flows more than 1,000 vertical feet below the light”. In Slovenia, beneath pleasant beech forest, he finds “the place of horror” where, during and just after the Second World War, fascists and communists fought bitter partisan battles and “geology and atrocity intersected”.

It is, though, the final section that arouses a sense of dread. When Macfarlane ventures north, to Norway, Greenland and Finland, he witnesses the shocking effects of climate change and visits the “Hiding Place”: a vault 1,000 feet below the surface designed to hold nuclear waste for the next 100,000 years. In the north he witnesses the sharp end of humankind’s destructive effect on the underland: damage, exploitation, poison.

Macfarlane has always had a gift for finding apt companions for his journeys. Lina, a curly-haired spelunker (cave explorer), leads him through the Paris catacombs; in Epping Forest he is entertained by Merlin Sheldrake, as remarkable as his name; in Andøya, in Norway, a fisherman called Bjørnar Nicolaisen surveys his terrain through a pair of Wermacht-issue binoculars that his father took from the Germans. If sometimes these characters seem a bit too good to be true, Macfarlane expresses his own unease, most notably in Paris, where he queries the air of “hipster entitlement” some urban explorers exhibit. His own attitude is one of humility, of intent attention and observation, and it is impossible not to admire his willingness to put himself as deeply in the landscape as it is possible to go, often at some risk.

And throughout there is the grace of his language. The poetry is in the precision, in the way he matches rhythm to place and action. Across that Norwegian terrain he moves “through a bay with rocks as big as houses, navigating a canyon maze between them. Pop of wrack, kelp slicks.” Lying on the floor of Epping Forest and looking up into sunlight, he notes the “slender running gaps” between the crowns of the trees; a terrifyingly narrow passage in the catacombs recalls Colin’s plight in The Weirdstone: “Claustrophobia grips me like a full-body vice, pressing in on my chest and lungs, squeezing breath hard, setting black stars exploding in my head”.

Underland is a startling and memorable book, charting invisible and vanishing worlds. Macfarlane has made himself Orpheus, the poet who ventures down to the darkest depths and returns – frighteningly alone – to sing of what he has seen.

Erica Wagner’s books include “Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Underland: A Deep Time Journey
Robert Macfarlane
Hamish Hamilton, 496pp, £20

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This article appears in the 02 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, A very British scandal