Robert Macfarlane, 44, writer and Cambridge University professor, made his name as a revelatory close reader of landscapes and language. His eighth book, Underland – considering underworlds actual and mythical – has been hailed as his most remarkable achievement yet.
In what ways has your scrutiny of “underlands” changed the way you see life above ground?
Above all, it has confirmed my sense of human ignorance and of wonder. We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet. It’s only in the past quarter-century that science has confirmed what many indigenous cultures have known for millennia; that trees are connected into intercommunicating forests by a subterranean “wood-wide web”. In Yorkshire, I watched an astrophysicist search for “dark matter” a kilometre below the fields; in northern Norway, I made a winter journey to a sea cave where bronze age people painted red, dancing figures on to the cave wall. Again and again, I met versions of humans across history drawn down into darkness in search of visions and knowledge. My first book, Mountains of the Mind (2003), tried to explain why people were attracted to the summits of mountains. Now I know this urge to get high is only a few hundred years old; the urge to go low dates as long as we have been human.
How did Underland evolve – what was the timeframe?
The idea emerged in 2010, the year of the Haitian earthquake, the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, and the trapping of the Chilean miners: a year it was hard not to think of how underland shapes the surface world. I began writing in early 2012 and finished the first draft in June 2018, the same month the young Thai football team and their coach were caught in the Tham Lang Nang Non cave system by rising floodwaters.
I was intrigued by your assertion that there is a “bias against depth”?
The dominant associations of underland are negative. This “depth-bias” also expresses itself in language: a “catastrophe” is literally a downwards turn, “depression” is sunken ground and sunken spirits; one “stares into the abyss”. But what came to interest me was the shadow-narrative – the ways in which the underland is also a realm of wonder, revelation, protection.
Protection perhaps… and yet fear makes frequent appearances in your book. How do you manage that?
I distinguish between “fear” and “risk”. One can be afraid when not at risk, and at risk but not afraid. I’m actually risk-averse. But I became fascinated by the peculiar fears of the underworld: claustrophobia with its huge power – greater than vertigo. It came to seem to me that claustrophobia was a sense of time and space running out for our species, of the walls of the world closing in around us. That has proved even more intense as a sensation since lockdown.
How has your lockdown been?
Stomach-flipping worry, heart-lifting birdsong, the struggle of the juggle of three children and a full-time job, a growing scepticism about pandemic utopianism, a sense of huge gratitude for our suburban garden and running even more than usual. On the better days, attempts to make something good out of the grimness; raising money for local foodbanks – that kind of thing. Some evenings, I worked on the lyrics for an album, The Epic of Gilgamesh, with my friend Johnny Flynn, which we’ve now recorded. It turns out to have a lot of the underworld in it.
I didn’t realise you were musical…
I’ve all the technical ability of a mattress. But I love collaborating with musicians. Johnny took care of everything apart from the lyrics (though I may survive as a spectral and tuneless backing singer on two tracks).
And you started a lockdown bookclub on Twitter, reading Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain?
Yes – a conscious effort at remote community-making during the worst weeks of it all. We had participants from around 40 countries “walking together” into the books/mountains!
I wonder about the contrast between being a Cambridge professor and going on sometimes disreputable, dangerous, illegal explorations. Do these offer you a necessary alternative existence?
Writing about the built environment – from nuclear waste repositories to the catacomb labyrinth extending for more than 100 miles under Paris – occasionally brought me into conflict with bylaws, but not for any relish in rule-breaking. The contrasting aspects of my life are entwined: my teaching arises out of my books and my books out of my teaching.
Your wife [the historian Julia Lovell] must worry when you are away…
Not at all. Her fieldwork takes her to some pretty intense places herself – we have, necessarily, a two-way trust relationship.
Have your children inherited the explorer gene?
I’m not sure I have that gene. I’m a committed homebody, happiest when with family. But my children like being among mountains, and my youngest has spent the summer climbing trees and gathering scratches on his legs of which he’s rather proud – does that count?
What does a classic Macfarlane family holiday involve?
We’ve never been abroad as a family – my seven-year-old does not have a passport. So it’s Pembrokeshire, with all the expected elements: beach days, swims, ice-creams, walks, debates over whether or not we should cross the field with the bull in it…
And what of our planet? What hope for the future?
The question at the book’s core is: “Are we being good ancestors?” Mostly, I found the answer to be “no”. But I did find hope too. I found it in people – visionaries, altruists, scientists, activists – and in their refusal to settle for despair.
• Underland by Robert Macfarlane is published by Penguin (£9.34). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15