Tip for Reading List: Sinking Deep into Nature

Underland tells stories of underground explorations — of fungi that live beneath forests in England, catacombs in Paris, a part subterranean river in Italy, and sinkholes in the Slovenian highlands.

To his 150,000-plus followers on Twitter, the English writer Robert Macfarlane supplies a daily ‘Word of the Day’: names of flowers, insects, features of nature, descriptors of the weather and atmosphere — often quaint and pretty, but mostly words you’d struggle to actually use while speaking or writing. In a review of his new book, Underland: A Deep Time Journey, The New York Times called Macfarlane a “fetishizer of archaic and offbeat language”, whose “interest in weirdness, linguistic and otherwise, is always on display”.

Still only 42, Macfarlane has already written several earlier books — Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, Landmarks — about nature, climate, landscapes, mountains, hiking, people, languages, and places. He is seen as an inheritor of the intellectual tradition of naturalist-authors John Muir and Richard Jefferies, as also of John McPhee, Rebecca Solnit, and Roger Deakin. Macfarlane’s The Lost Words: A Spell Book with illustrator Jackie Morris, is a cultural phenomenon in the UK, described by its publisher as a project that “conjures lost words and species back into our everyday lives”.

Underland tells stories of underground explorations — of fungi that live beneath forests in England, catacombs in Paris, a part subterranean river in Italy, and sinkholes in the Slovenian highlands. In the book’s final sections (which he calls “chambers”), Macfarlane visits Finland, Norway, and Greenland. “Why go low? It is a counterintuitive action, running against the grain of sense and the gradient of the spirit,” he says.

The NYT review picks out a “typically crunchy sentence” on what he finds under the Earth: “Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.”

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