Tuesday, November 10, 2020

'Underland' by Robert McFarlane

Unexpectedly I fell ill last week, and I'm drugged up with antibiotics and don't feel like singing or playing, which is unusual for me at the moment.

I have been reading this book sporadically for a few weeks and it's been a godsend during today's inertia. There are some irritating things: the friends all have very posh names and unlimited sources of money (ho hum) and there's a tendency to over-use the word 'glittering', but who am I to criticise when the general drift of the book is so intriguing? The author exposes all things underground- deep underground- encountering extensive mining networks, space exploration stations (yes!), cave paintings, human debris (abandoned boats and so on), makeshift prisons, and most importantly, atmospheres. He describes the feeling of underground air, the sensitivity of deep airflow, and spiritual changes that happen when you are at the mercy of the realisation that our time on earth is a mere nano-tangent in the greater scheme of things.

I hate being underground so I'm delighted that Robert McFarlane has explored this part of planet Earth on my behalf. With explorer's gusto, he approaches every subterranean adventure with fresh eyes and the occasional aside and acknowledgement of other explorers in the field, both past and present. He does not ignore women explorers, though his in-person bonding is usually with men (I know such men, and I'm glad it's McFarlane who engages with them and not me).

You could say that explorers do as much to endanger our fragile environment as those liner-loads of cruising tourists, and I couldn't disagree with you. I wanted to visit some of these places just because they are hidden; not the tunnels and caves, but the wonderful parts of the world that are described so beautifully in all their natural glory. Scrubby mountains, dwarf trees, hovering birds, insects and more all casually acknowledge and then ignore the trespassing human and his backpack. The weather, too, is a complete star, sandwiching this overland trekking chap between rough terrains with sometimes merciless beatings.

Imprisoned by a combination of Lockdown Two, drug-fuelled sleepiness and drizzle outside the window, this book is a fantastic escape for the head, not least for its putting of contemporary toxic politics exactly into its small-minded place. Mountains, caves, plateaux: rock on!

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