By Robert Macfarlane
(488 pages, nonfiction, 2019)
This book blew my mind a little bit. After finishing (and loving) Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, I used the “You May Also Like” feature on Concord Public Library’s online catalog to point me toward more books about ecology, environmentalism, and humans’ relationship with the natural world. What a spot-on recommendation this was!
This book is difficult to classify, as it blends aspects of travel writing, popular science, and philosophy, to create something entirely unique. In a nutshell, it is a story about underworlds — actual underground environments — and the ways that these geographic spaces are intertwined with human psychology and culture.
Beneath our feet, we bury our dead, and extract the most precious minerals. We worship in sacred caves, and deposit radioactive waste whose half-life will likely outlive our entire species. We excavate remnants of the past, and lay down the physical evidence of our present, layer by layer.
Robert Macfarlane draws connections between events and phenomena in ways that never would have occurred to me, but that somehow, brilliantly, work.
In each chapter, Macfarlane travels to a captivating location somewhere on earth, and explores the spaces underfoot with a local expert acting as his guide. He takes us through British cave systems, into a massive network of underground forest fungi, around the Catacombs of Paris, and across fjords and melting Nordic glaciers. To call these trips “adventures” would be an understatement — many of his excursions are rugged and claustrophobic to the point of actually being death-defying. But Macfarlane isn’t traveling simply for the thrill of it (at least, not JUST for the thrill): he is studying the ways that human actions shape, and are shaped by, by the natural landscape. Ultimately, he is conveying the dire importance that humanity appreciate the impact of our actions on this planet, while we are still able to correct course and make ecologically sound choices.
Macfarlane’s language is complex, in a way that almost feels like reading like poetry. This book requires concentration from the reader, but the payoff is worth the effort. Macfarlane describes natural scenery so vividly that I was transported across the globe, keenly feeling the beauty, fragility, and dynamism of each environment. It is a credit to the author that he can make actual ice feel colorful, alive, and engaging even over dozens of pages. Like Braiding Sweetgrass, this title left me feeling inspired, awe-struck, and a little mournful for the planet that is our home.
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Faithe Miller Lakowicz