Please would you introduce your new book, Underland, for us and tell us what an underland is?
Underland's subtitle is 'A Deep Time Journey'; it travels in its course through the past and future of our planet, from the mysterious 'dark matter' formed at the birth of the universe (now studied by scientists in laboratories sunk a kilometre underground), to the Anthropocene future of our troubled Earth (we are presently storing, in deep burial chambers, high-level nuclear waste that will remain harmful for 100,000 years to come). Between these two distant points in "deep time", the book explores the many ways in which we have imagined, explored and exploited the worlds beneath our feet, and the many journeys into darkness we have made as a species.
I spent seven years travelling to places where the 'underland' has exerted great force upon our upper world, or deepened drastically away from it; from the ice-caps of Greenland to the Bronze Age burial chambers of south-west England, from the fungal networks that join trees into intercommunicating forests to the rare cave-art of the remote coasts of Arctic Norway. I found myself writing the last pages of the book last June, when the Thai footballers and their coach had made their own journey of curiosity into the darkness of the mountain cave labyrinth, from which, miraculously, they surfaced back into the light and the arms of their loved ones.
Underland explores the interior spaces of our planet, both natural and human-made. Did you find a difference in atmosphere between these two types of underland?
Each underland space I reached had its own atmosphere, and often the 'human' and the 'natural' were entangled rather than distinct. The 'Cave of the Red Dancers', in which Bronze Age peri-Arctic hunter-gatherers had come to make strange art, around two and a half millennia ago, was a vast sea-cave smashed by waves into the granite of the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway. The cave overlooked the original 'Maelstrom' - the huge tidal whirlpool that spins and unspins near the tip of the Lofoten chain, and has done for countless millennia. It was an astonishingly powerful site, where water and rock both disappeared into themselves—and it took me what became the most dangerous solo winter journey I've ever made to get there. Only afterwards did I realise that in making such an arduous approach to this strong and sacred point of darkness in the landscape, I was repeating a version of what the original artists of the Red Dancers had undertaken, thousands of years previously. As the philosopher Bruno Latour puts it:"We have never been modern".
Why do you think that humans seek out these sometimes small and claustrophobic spaces?
I wrote my first book, Mountains of the Mind, sixteen years ago, trying to answer the opposite question - why are people drawn to mountain-tops at risk of their lives. Now I find myself having descended—by way of The Wild Places and The Old Ways—to consider the storeys of place that exist beneath our feet. There are many answers to the question 'Why go low?', and many of those who have gone low have had little or no choice in the matter - prisoners, workers. I write about these forms of compulsion and coercion, for instance in the chapter on the 'invisible city' of Paris; the hundreds of miles of tunnel-labyrinth that extend beneath the south of the city, formed first as limestone quarry-tunnels to source the stone from which the 'upper city' was built, and then used as catacombs, spaces of internment and rendition, and now as a vast and extraordinary context for the subculture of 'cataphilia'. I spent three days in the (off-limits extents of the) catacombs; the longest I have ever gone without seeing sun or sky. When I surfaced again out of that mirror-world, green, blue and gold were astonishing colours again. More generally, I have spent the past decade, nearly, collecting 'underland' stories, from the Epic of Gilgamesh -- arguably the earliest story in world literature, and which in one of its variants tells of a descent to the 'nether' in search of lost children—through the fanatical testimonies of cave-divers and free-divers, exploring the 'starless rivers' and flooded labyrinths of the world, all drawn for reasons unknown even to themselves to seek what Cormac McCarthy once called 'the awful darkness inside the world.'
The Wood Wide Web, the mycorrhizal fungi that connect individual plants together for communication and to share resources, is one of the most remarkable things I learnt about in your book. How at risk are these natural phenomena due to the way we treat the planet?
The "Wood Wide Web" is a mind-blowing idea to encounter, isn't it? An idea that, as I say in the book, truly changes the ground you walk on; even a city park or road verge looks different once you've discovered what lies beneath it. Fungi and trees have existed in this mutual relationship for hundreds of millions of years—allowing trees to share resources, even to communicate, and joining them into interconnected forests. So this is a mutualism that will surely outlive our species' presence on the planet. Nevertheless, we are of course by our actions making vulnerable some of the most extraordinary phenomena of the world. The American quaking aspen clonal colony known variously as 'The Trembling Giant' and 'Pando' (from the Latin, 'I spread out'), thought to be the largest single organism in the world and around 80,000 years old, is currently dying back due to human activity. I wanted Underland to be a book that was both ancient and urgent, registering both the strange and deeply unsetted Anthropocene in which we live and which we have made, and the deep-time histories and futures with which our species is enmeshed.
My favourite part of the book was the section in the catacombs under Paris, where people risk their lives to visit historical Paris or dance and party, illegally. Where do you stand on this issue - do you believe that places like this should be free to explore or kept guarded?
I'm glad you liked that chapter. The early responses to Underland have been like nothing I've known before with any other book. People seem seized by that chapter in particular; longing - as is often the way with claustrophobia - both to escape its confines and to stay in its grip. I should say that the catacombs aren't statistically dangerous places; there's minor trespass involved in accessing them in the first place, but once you're down there I'd say it's safer than the streets above. An honour code broadly rules this underland; people abide by it or are denounced. People share a sense of shared excitement and endeavour (cataphilia!); I'll never forget coming out of what was the most frightening crawl-space I think I've ever entered (so tight I had to turn my head sideways to progress through it, wriggling with toes and fingers), and entering a 'salle', soaked in fear-sweat and pumped on adrenaline, in which people had set up a music system and a banquet-table; I was handed a glass of vodka while The Jam's 'Going Underground' echoed round the room...