Robert Macfarlane (2019) Underland: A Deep Time Journey, London: Penguin Books.

In Underland: A Deep Time JourneyRobert Macfarlane writes about the spaces deep below the surface of the earth which humans have explored, connected to, exploited and revered. His writing is transportive and compelling. In my research into spirituality without religion I found many pages to dog-ear and many quotes I wish I had the skill and courage to have written. 

Here are some of my notes on Macfarlane’s book about themes I always have an ear cocked for: existential despair, science and faith, the relationality of all things, and most of all, the tension between longing and belonging. 

Deep time and existential despair

We can choose meaning. We are an insignificant blip in the arc of time, but we are still a real, contributing form of energy and intention to the overall fate of the universe. We can understand our existence as a chance to enact our responsibility to all beings, human and non-human. 

Macfarlane writes:

There is dangerous comfort to be drawn from deep time. An ethical lotus-eating beckons. What does our behaviour matter, when Homo sapiens will have disappeared from the Earth in the blink of a geological eye? Viewed from the perspective of a desert or an ocean, human morality looks absurd – crushed to irrelevance. Assertions of value seem futile. A flat ontology entices: all life is equally insignificant in the face of eventual ruin. The extinction of a species or an ecosystem scarcely matters in the context of the planet’s cycles of erosion and repair. 

We should resist such inertial thinking; indeed, we should urge its opposite – deep time as a radical perspective, provoking us to action not apathy. For to think in deep time can be a means not of escaping our troubled present, but rather of re-imagining it; countermanding its quick greeds and furies with older, slower stories of making and unmaking. At its best, a deep time awareness might help us see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy stretching over millions of years past and millions to come, bringing us to consider what we are leaving behind for the epochs and beings that will follow us.

When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth. [Emphasis added] (p.16)

Science as an act of faith

Macfarlane travelled to Boulby in Yorkshire to visit a lab which is situated more than half a mile underground. Scientists there seek to detect a particle wind from the Cygnus constellation as evidence of dark matter. The theory is that dark matter mostly comprises WIMPs, “weakly interacting massive particles” which, the theory goes, were created in the seconds after the Big Bang and could account for the mass that is missing from observations of the universe.

Macfarlane asked a physicist named Christopher why he searches for dark matter (pages 67-69).

“To further our knowledge,” Christopher replies without hesitation, “and to give life meaning. If we’re not exploring, we’re not doing anything. We’re just waiting.” 


“My sense,” I say to Christopher, “is that the search for dark matter has produced an elaborate, delicate edifice of presuppositions, and a network of worship sites, also known as laboratories, all dedicated to the search for an invisible universal entity which refuses to reveal itself. It seems to resemble what we call religion rather more than what we call science.”

“I grew up as a very serious Christian,” Christopher says. “Then I lost my faith almost entirely when I found physics. Now that faith has returned, but in a much-changed form. It’s true that we dark-matter researchers have less proof than other scientists in terms of what we seek to discover and what we believe we know. As to God? Well, if there were a divinity then it would be utterly separate from both scientific enquiry and human longing.” […]

“No divinity in which I would wish to believe would declare itself by means of what we would recognise as evidence.” He gestures at the data read-out. “If there is a god, we should not be able to find it. If I detected proof of a deity, I would distrust that deity on the grounds that a god should be smarter than that.” [Emphasis added]

Oof, I love that. “If there is a god, we should not be able to find it.” I went on a not entirely dissimilar journey to Christopher, switching from missionary-level zealotry in my adolescence to astrophysics. But that is where I found my personal Janus: existential despair, the feeling I get when you peer into the abyss; and unavoidable wonder, awe inspired by the mystery of it all. These days I try to let both sides of me have a crack at meaning.  

Fungi and otherness

Macfarlane visited a scientist named Merlin who seeks to track fungi networks. An eighth of the world’s biomass is made up by bacteria living below ground. A further quarter comes from fungi. Macfarlane writes (pages 100-101):

As Merlin speaks I feel a quick, eerie sense of the world shifting irreversibly around me. Ground shivering beneath feet, knees, skin. If only your mind were a slightly greener thing, we’d drown you in meaning… I glance down, try to trace the soil into transparency such that I can see its hidden infrastructure […] What’s the haunting phrase I’ve heard used to describe the realm of fungi? The kingdom of the grey. It speaks of fungi’s utter otherness – the challenges they issue to our usual models of time, space and species. 

“You look at the network,” says Merlin, “and then it starts to look back at you.” [Emphasis added]

I don’t know if I have had that sensation or if I have been projecting it on to my local forest. But sometimes it feels like the trees and rocks have something to communicate and I should really listen. I don’t know how to listen, I don’t speak the language. Which is maybe just an excuse for not listening.

Who gets to “belong” 

Macfarlane visited the sites of Balkan massacres, where bodies were tipped underground into deep caves. These places are known as “foibe,” which means sinkholes used for killing. 

Macfarlane writes (page 225):

The numbers and identities of those who died in foibe vary considerably, with the numbers given often depending on the political alignment of the researcher in question. In all cases, at stake is what Pamela Ballinger – in her major study of “the terrain of memory” at the borders of the Balkans – refers to as “autochthonous…rights,” meaning the battle for the right to claim authentically to “belong” to a given area of land, rock and soil. [Emphasis added]

This question plagues me. Am I allowed to belong to the Dharawal Country where I live, although I am the child of colonisers and immigrants? 

Longing for home

Macfarlane writes about how a sense of belonging is also unsettled by changes to the environment. He talks about “solastalgia,” (page 317), a term

…coined by Glenn Albrecht in 2003 to mean a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.” Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales when he realised that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control. He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness. Where the pain arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, the pain of solastalgia tends to be irreversible. Solastalgia is not a malady specific to the Anthropocene…but it has certainly flourished recently. “Worldwide, there is an increase in ecosystem distress syndromes,” wrote Albrecht in an early paper on the subject, “matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes.” Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become unhomely around its inhabitants. [Emphasis added]

The “modern uncanny,” the ‘Ungeheim’ in German, which could literally be translated as ‘not of the home.’ Reading about solastalgia, something twangs inside my ribs; the word is the call, the note it sounds inside me is my response. Call and response between those who long.


Macfarlane treks glaciers on Kulusuk Island, south-east Greenland. He describes the sensation of experiencing human smallness, using the Inuit word “ilira” (page 362):

A powerful dissonance overtakes my mind, whereby everything seems both distant and proximate at the same time […] The immensity and the vibrancy of the ice are beyond anything I have encountered before. Seen in deep time – viewed even in the relatively shallow time since the last glaciation – the notion of human dominance over the planet seems greedy, delusory.

Up there on that summit, at that moment, gazing from the Inner Ice to the berg-filled sea, the idea of the Anthropocene feels at best a conceit, at worst a perilous vanity. I recall the Inuit word I first heard in northern Canada: ilira, meaning “a sense of fear and awe,” and also carrying an implication of the landscape’s sentience with it. Yes. That is what I feel here. Ilira. It’s comforting.

I have had the experience of feeling tiny. It’s a useful feeling, reminding me that my story is not the one that this universe bends to. The universe curls around life, but not necessarily mine. 

Creating home

Macfarlane visits Olkiluoto in Finland, a repository for nuclear waste He recounts a haunting Finnish legend in which some sort of dark matter is dug up from the ground that should never have been brought to light. Macfarlane wonders if this is an ancient tale that embeds knowledge we now ignore. Should we focus our energies on being good ancestors? Macfarlane recalls a paragraph he copied out of After Nature by W.G. Sebald:

People are at best able to change their ways when they find two things at once in nature: something to fear, a threat they must avoid, and also something love, a quality…which they can do their best to honour. Either impulse can stay the human hand, but the first stops it just short of being burnt or broken. The second keeps the hand poised, extended in greeting or in an offer of peace. This gesture is the beginning of collaboration, among people but beyond us, in building our next home. [Emphasis added]

Home. It’s hopeful to think we can create it, perhaps best by building one that we will never get to live in. 

Excerpts from Robert Macfarlane (2019) Underland: A Deep Time Journey, London: Penguin Books.