Black Dunes and Starless Rivers in Robert Macfarlane’s “Underland”

In his brilliant book “Underland: A Deep Time Journey” Robert Macfarlane travels deep down. “We know so little of the worlds beneath our feet.” Going low is a counter-intuitive action, author agrees, “running against the grain of sense and the gradient of spirit.” Underlands are dark and claustrophobic, hard to reach and dangerous. It is a challenge to return back safe, to see butterflies and sun again.

Robert Macfarlane worked on the book for almost a decade. Language flows, uplifts, stories frighten to the bone.

Author leads a reader into the tunnel labyrinths under the streets of Paris, takes to a laboratory of dark matter particles half a mile under the North Sea. He explores wonderlands (or w-underlands?) under forest, under rock and blue glaciers of Greenland. He even suggests to dive into the underland of language. “Words are worldmakers and language is one of the great geological forces of the Anthropocene.”

In Italy author searches for a starless river, which has remained almost unmapped to this day. A river that flows under the ground before it empties out into the Adriatic Sea.

“Underland: A Deep Time Journey” by Robert Macfarlane is published in paperback on August 27, 2020. Photo by Beach Books. Borrow the book from the Sea Library.

“Starless rivers run through the classical culture, and they are the rivers of the dead. The Lethe, the Styx, the Phlegethon, the Cocytus and the Aecheron flow from the upper world into the underland – and all five converge in a welter of water at the dark heart of Hades.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

The reason that classical literature run with underground rivers, author explains, is geological: “so much of the landscape in which that literature was lived and written is karstic in nature.” Karst is a topography formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum. It is characterized by underground drainage systems with sinkholes and caves. “Karst is vastly rich in underlands,” Macfarlane writes, “and it is also a terrain where water refuses to obey its usual courses of action.” Rivers disappear and reappear, lakes vanish, sinkholes “pock karst landscapes like gaping mouths”.

“Below the surface – if karst can be said to have surface – aquifers fill and empty over centuries, there are labyrinths through which water circulates over millennia, there are caverns big as stadia, and there are buried rivers with cataracts, rapids and slow pools.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

One such starless river is Timavo, sometimes also called as River of the Night. It starts as river Reka on the border of Slovenia and Croatia, flows in loops above the ground, until at the village of Škocjan it disappears in a canyon. Reka-Timavo runs beneath the ground for around twenty-two miles or thirty-five kilometres. Although systematic exploration of the river’s hidden part continues for more than two centuries, and for last thirty years with an advanced diving equipment, only around 15 percent of the underground flow has been mapped.

Robert Macfarlane travels to il Carso in Italy and descends under it (through something like a shower cubicle in an old hut) to see the starless river flowing inky in the dark. Deep down and far away from blue sky he finds himself surrounded by an otherworldly landscape of black dunes.

“We are terranauts and we have dropped through the roof of this chamber onto another planet – dropped into an underland desert of fine-grained black-gold sand. I shake my head in wonder and fear. Sergio stands quietly beside me. He has seen this place do this to people before.”

A bit further away there’s the river itself. With strange white beings swimming in it and a sound like no other.

“The sound of the starless river is like none I have ever heard. It has volume. Its volume has hollowness. Each sound has its echo, and each echo its interior.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

Chapter ends with author going for a swim at dusk close to Duino Castle near Trieste where the Timavo reaches its final stage and flows out into the Adriatic Sea.

“Lucian and I wade out and launch ourselves in. Salt in the mouth, the sea soft and warm to the touch. I turn shore-parallel and stroke north towards a rocky headland. The moon is a silver tunnel mouth.

Then I am startled to feel, writhing around my legs, the cold currents of another kind of water. It is the blye fingers of the starless river, born as a snow on the Snežnik, plunging underground to crash through its dark chambers and black rapids, and then at last surging out here to surface under the moon.”

Robert Macfarlane “Underland”

“Underland” is “a story of journeys into darkness, and of descents made in search for knowledge.” Robert Macfarlane suggests the paradoxical “that darkness might be a medium of vision, and that descent may be a movement towards revelations.”

Macfarlane’s masterpiece guides you how to see in the dark and how to dive into the chambers of deep time. It is crucial to adjust our eyes to a time that flows in epochs not hours or days. When we manage to do that, “the world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountain’s ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

Author quotes immunologist Jonas Salk, asking what Anthropocene, an age when Earth is shaped by human action, asks of us: “Are we good ancestors?”

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