DIANE ACKERMAN: I found Underland beautifully written and wise, a haunting book, a treasure, both as personal memoir by one of nature’s keenest celebrants, and as an eye-opening odyssey into parts of the planet we recoil from, or never knew existed, or thought we’d safely hidden from view. It reads like a seamless dive, crawl, and trek through deep time, in sense-rich landscapes, while watching the human saga soar and unravel all around you. I understand you began this book nearly ten years ago, in the midst of many Anthropocene “unburials,” as you refer to them—in which “forces, objects, and substances thought safely confined to the underworld are declaring themselves above ground with powerful consequences.” What are some of the disturbing unburials that caught your attention?
ROBERT MACFARLANE: The idea for Underland first arose in 2010, a year when four differently catastrophic “surfacings” occurred: the Haitian earthquake in January, the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in April, followed a few days later by the explosion of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, and then in August the trapping of thirty-three Chilean miners deep in the San José gold and copper mine, far beneath the Atacama Desert (all of the men were eventually brought back alive to the upper world, after sixty-nine days in the dark, in a rescue capsule codesigned by NASA). It was impossible to me, that year, not to think of what lay beneath the surface—and of the traumas, disruptions, and disclosures that occurred when the boundaries between above and below were breached.
The Deepwater blowout and the Chilean mine collapse laid bare what it is in the interests of both the extractive industries and most consumers to keep hidden from view: that is to say, the largely invisible infrastructure and “slow violence”—to human and more-than human communities—inevitably generated by the staggering extent of our extractive activities as a species. Humans have drilled more than fifty million kilometers of oil borehole alone. Humans have removed the tops of entire mountain ridges to get at the coal they contain. Humans have warrened mines deep into massifs and far out beneath the sea. Technology has amplified human capacities such that we (that is to say, some of “us”) have become immense geological agents, terraforming the underearth at vast cost, incurring largely unmeasured externalities. Haiti and Iceland, by contrast, were declarations of the earth’s own unbiddable, restless powers; a reminder that we exist, as a species, in a slender boundary layer beneath vaults of turbulent air and above seething depths of shifting crust and molten mantle. All four of these events spoke to me of precarity and volatility, and of illumination and ignorance, and I became determined to discover more about what the underland knew, if I may put it like that. It felt a subject that was both urgent and ancient, and so it proved to be.
I made the first sparse notes towards what became Underland in that year, sure that I would write at length on this subject, but without any sense of how to shape or explore all that it held. I began work in earnest on the book in early 2012—and wrote the last paragraphs in June 2018, in the very days when billions of people worldwide were gripped by yet another underworld story—that of the thirteen young Thai footballers and their coach, who on the afternoon of 23 June, after football practice in their home province of Chiang Rai, decided to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex, drawn into the darkness by curiosity and a sense of adventure. Shortly after they had entered the cave, a cloudburst occurred and water levels in the system rose rapidly, trapping all of them around two and a half miles inside the mountain.
And in the intervening years, yes, I found my writing overtaken by Anthropocene circumstances, as what I came to think of a master trope of our epoch—things that should have stayed buried, rising to the surface—recurred across the world: ancient methane deposits released by melting permafrost, the eerily preserved body of a fifty-thousand-year-old wolf pup found by gold miners in the Yukon, the bodies of soldiers killed in conflicts over a century previously yielded up by fast-melting glaciers, the marks of long-vanished prehistoric structures (Neolithic enclosures, Bronze Age barrows) showing themselves as cropmarks on the land’s surface during summer heat waves; aridity as X-ray, drought as hauntology.
ACKERMAN: Climate change unburials have become increasingly visible, and not just to Arctic and Antarctic ecotourists, or climate refugees, or those prone to viewing the whole human saga, swiveling from past to future, elsewhere and elsewhen, dizzying as that can be. Most people can no longer ignore climate change, because it is now happening in their own backyards. They may notice that geese have stopped migrating, or that their annual plants are overwintering, or that Lyme ticks and other “pests” are finding their winters bearable, or their traditional fishing holes are barren, or their seasons are hotter or stormier than ever before. We used to talk about going into the wilderness and leaving only our footprints behind. In the Anthropocene we realize that’s no longer possible, that we’ve touched every inch of the planet, left our neon fingerprints everywhere, and are not only altering the evolution of other species, but tinkering with and imperiling our own evolution as well. You write fervently about climate change, and refer to the sense of claustrophobia it’s created in everyday life. Why is the Anthropocene a time of claustrophobia?
MACFARLANE: This is brilliantly put. Yes—these are all versions of the experience that Glenn Albrecht has memorably named as solastalgia, which he defines as the psychic distress brought about by watching an environment or landscape change towards the point of unrecognizability around oneself, brought about especially by the effects of climate breakdown, big corporate actors, or other large-scale anthropogenic change. Where nostalgia is the pain arising from moving away from a loved place, solastalgia occurs without you going anywhere; it is the landscape that “leaves” from around you. The last decade—and especially the last two or three years—have seen an intensification and a globalization of this distinctive Anthropocene effect, from Californian wildfires to Hawaii’s plastic-saturated shorelines, the diminishing of birdsong or the decline in insect populations, and the many unsettling phenological shifts you describe.
As to claustrophobia, well, it came to fascinate me in the course of writing Underland. I first had to reckon with claustrophobia as a sheer physical force, and to determine whether or not I could withstand its claims upon me during the journeys I anticipated making. So I asked a friend of mine, the photographer, climber, and caver John Beatty, to take me on a challenging day’s caving in the limestone underworld of the Peak District. He did—so challenging, in fact, that he ended up turning back at a spatially parsimonious point of the system called the Vice. I made it through the Vice, and went on and down into the earth, and found myself both exhilarated and mostly unfrightened by the experience.
Claustrophobia also interested me greatly as a writer, for its power to affect readers vicariously, in their bodies. More so than vertigo, reading about claustrophobia is gripping. It compels what William Golding once called sympathetic kinesthesia: people’s limbs start to twitch, their heart rates rise, their breathing gets faster. All writers want to move people, in one way or another; writing about claustrophobia enables that in a way that can approach the sinister.
And lastly, yes, claustrophobia came to seem to me the phobia of our crisis-stricken, endgame age; the sense of time and space running out, of a narrowing down of opportunity for amelioration or escape. The Holocene was the postglacial period of climatic stability in which the flourishing of Homo sapiens occurred; the Anthropocene is the period of stricken ecologies, resource exhaustion, slow violence, and scarcity in which the species is now floundering. Yet—primarily because of the systemically entrenched nature of the problems—we seem unable to organize against these self-produced confinements. Or, as in a story I tell early in Underland of Neil Moss (the victim in surely the most notorious British caving death of all time), the more we struggle to free ourselves, the more stuck we seem to become. Moss was a twenty-year-old student of philosophy at Oxford University, who in 1959 took part in an exploratory eight-person trip into the famous Peak Cavern system in the limestone of Derbyshire. Descending an unfathomed and near-vertical shaft, Moss lost his footing on the light caving ladder he was using, and became wedged in the shaft. “I say, I’m stuck!” he called up to his friends. “I can’t budge an inch.” Nor could he, and despite the immense rescue attempt subsequently mobilized to free him, Moss died there, suffocated by the carbon dioxide he produced with his last hours of breath.
ACKERMAN: In your writing about the Wood Wide Web, you focus on how behaviors we attach human virtues to—altruism, compassion, affection, tending the sick, etc.—are performed not only by other animals, but by life-forms we don’t think of as conscious, emotional, fearful, loyal, or loving. Would you talk a little about the seamless web of nature, the social nexus of a forest, for instance, and the mutualism of species and how you believe trees communicate as a metaphor for the nature of love? Share a little of that personal vision, please.
MACFARLANE: I’m glad that these aspects of that chapter—which is called “The Understory,” in reference to the term of art in forest ecology for those aspects of arboreal and woodland life which exist above the woodland floor and beneath the canopy—stood out to you. That chapter forms part of a deeper subtext in Underland—a word wide web, perhaps—that recognizes and celebrates mutualism both biological and social. I found myself returning again and again to this subject and in the end decided, reflexively, to bury these moments in the book rather than explicitly relating them, thereby allowing readers to perform their own conjoinings. One of the best public moments I’ve had with Underland came while I was on book tour in the US in June 2019. I was in Point Reyes, California—placed right on the San Andreas Fault; those people know all about the earth’s restlessness!—in conversation with the great Rebecca Solnit. Rebecca suddenly produced two pages of notes and began to read out parts of many of the passages in the book concerning mutualism, symbiosis, and reciprocity. It was exciting to me to see the pattern perceived, as it were; those apparently isolated examples standing, reflexively, in mutual meaning-making relation to one another, and together becoming an ethic when encountered in association.
There are, perhaps, two leitmotifs at the heart of Underland (or at the core, perhaps I should better say): one is of the network, the web, and the other is of the opened hand or the handprint. The hand stencil is one of the very earliest extant marks made and left by human beings—created by placing the palm against the rock and then spitting a mouthful of paint powder against it, thereby staining stone and hand back, such that a negative trace is left on the rock once the hand is removed. I take that gesture—the hand opened in greeting, in offer of help, in communication—to be a resonant sign, and modern as well as ancient versions of it are embedded throughout Underland, right down to the very last line of the epilogue, “Surfacing.”
So much of our current crisis—which Jason Moore names not as the Anthropocene but as the Capitalocene—is born of a system that structurally embeds profit above all other kinds of ethos or “good” (cf the obligations of “fiduciary duty”). Yet within the confines of capitalism we still prove ourselves capable of remarkable kinds of giving, trusting, and loving; those forms of open-handed interaction which reach outside the compulsions of proportionate reciprocity or unequal betterment conditioned by capital. “We must love one another or die. / Defenseless under the night,” wrote Auden in his great poem on the eve of World War II. That is the idealized or epigrammatic version of mutualism. Jedediah Purdy, in his superb book After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, unfolds it towards practicality:
People are 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 to love, a quality ... which they can do their best to honor. 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.
ACKERMAN: Speaking of mutuality, there’s no doubt we humans have created a lot of planetary chaos. Mainly accidentally, which is important. Not always accidentally—some exploiters know exactly what they’re doing, and don’t care. But for a long time, we didn’t realize how much we were altering the climate and ecosystems. Now we do. Just think how much we could achieve if we worked together as a species, on purpose this time, to undo our worst mistakes and safeguard the planet’s future. How likely do you think that mutuality might be? The theme of this issue of Conjunctions is “Earth Elegies”—do you feel elegiac about the earth? What hope do you see? What do you tell your children about the state of the climate, the planet?
MACFARLANE: My children are scared. Deeply scared. No ambiguity about it. My students too. When I was growing up in the 1980s, my future horizon, probably like yours, was foreclosed by the possibility of nuclear conflict. Theirs is foreclosed by climate breakdown and mass extinction, an incremental but still calamitous vision. I have frequent conversations with students who have almost normalized this prospect; they feel themselves involuntarily to be entering what E. O. Wilson calls “The Age of Loneliness,” in which our depletion of more-than-human communities results in an emptied, echoing earth.
Personally I am, one might say, more hopeful of our visions than I have ever been before but more despairing of our futures. By which I mean that I think we now see the difficulties more clearly than ever before, and we know better than ever before what must be done, but the window of opportunity to act is closing frighteningly fast. Incidentally, I dislike the tendency to singularize Anthropocene circumstances into a single “wicked problem.” The current conditions were produced by the work of many hands over much time, and they will be turned, if they are to be turned, by the work of many hands too. To fall into binaries of “collapse” and “salvation” is irresponsibly soteriological to my mind. Vulnerability in and culpability for the present mess are unevenly distributed; the solutions too are granular, partial and effortful in nature. No rapture here.
ACKERMAN: I find all of your books eye-opening, and keenly attuned to the landscape in delicious, appreciative, at times almost forensic detail. They’re full of a physical awareness of what it feels and thinks like to be a life-form here on earth, how intricately one’s mind and body interact with the landscape. It doesn’t matter if the locale is exalting, terrifying, mucky, painful, or deadly—it’s as if the land inks itself onto your body, dot by dot, and later, in the plaintive calm that nature writers also crave, you translate its sensations and ineffable lure into words. Those words are eloquent, often poetic, and you’re frequently driven to widen our lexicon by including antique or rare (but richly precise) words for the land. If one has a hundred words for snow, one understands snow differently. I love how vividly imaginable your landscapes become.
I know from my own experience that making one’s travels replay in a reader’s mind takes hard work, and in my case at least, a glaciation of revisions. Others would probably find that tedious. But I love trying to net something in words, however long it takes, because finding a way to make the world sayable feels minerally, viscerally satisfying. I know you know what I mean. Those two modes of being—fingering the world, reading it with the senses, and then being at a monk-like remove while writing about it—both require intense presence, though the first may include hair-raising dilemmas and frights. As a result, nature writers sometimes live contradictory lives. A lengthy cyclone of intense alertness that’s punctuated by moments of uncertainty, loneliness, discomfort, or danger may be followed by work at the keyboard, with long hours of contemplation, verbal problem-solving, and obsessive research. The writing may happen in attention gulps, while taking part in family life. There’s also the strange circadian transition between seasonal time while on expedition and domestic chronicity at home. Do you find your life divided in that way? You write “Time feels differently reckoned” after going underground: “further deepened, further folded.” In The Wild Places you wrote that “the wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human cultures will pass, given time, of which there is sufficiency. The ivy will snake and unrig our flats and terraces, as it scattered the Roman villas. The sand will drift into our business parks, as it drifted into the brooches of the Iron Age. Our roads will lapse into the land.” How has going underground changed your ideas about time? Could you talk a little about living in “deep time” as opposed to the more comfortable flatlands of everyday life?
MACFARLANE: Your questions are essays in themselves, Diane, and quietly unfold responses in their course that are likely better than any I may be able to offer. The “monk-like remove,” the “glaciation of revisions,” the “mineral” and “visceral” work of “making the world sayable.” Yes, yes, yes! Let me pick up if I may on the invitation to reflect on craft that is tacitly extended above, especially the means by which language might be charged with some version of the “palp and heft” of the given world, and also the means by which human and geological timescale might be brought not into alignment with one another, but at least into sharpening relation.
Language first: I revise obsessively. The first sentence of the book—“The way into the underland is through the riven trunk of an old ash tree”—took weeks to hear and catch; the first fifteen pages or so probably took as long to rewrite and get right as all forty thousand words of the Greenland and Finland chapters. I’m fascinated by rhythm and sound pattern in prose, and am committed to at least trying to give my sentences—even across the course of a 130,000-word book—the same kind of prosodic attention and acoustic life that one would without hesitation give a sonnet sequence. That takes time. A lot of time. When I had a rough first draft of Underland done, I read the whole thing aloud to myself, annotating the pages as I went, wanting to hear the sentences as they will be read in the mind’s ear of someone who is not me; trying to see where slips and trips occurred, or where—as, perhaps, in the description of a “black-star” calving of vastly old glacial ice in Greenland, or some of the “surfacing” scenes after time spent below ground—the rhythms and tempo of the language as it moves might work on the reader in ways that exceed purely propositional content. It doesn’t always succeed, of course, and God knows sometimes I can sound arch or awkward or over torqued. Finding a way—in the revision stages of a big book, with which you have lived for years—to encounter your own writing as a stranger seems to me a hard but necessary thing for a writer to do. When I’d finished a second draft, I let it sit for a few weeks, then picked it up and read it through one evening and night, in one sitting, waiting for what Nabokov once described as “the tell-tale shiver down the spine.” Whenever that came, I knew the writing was working. When it didn’t come for pages at a time, I tried to figure out why and fix it.
As for time—well, it was quite late in the book that I realized I wanted to tell all of the first-person sections in the present tense. A person at a reading during the Q&A recently put her hand up to say that she’d taken a vow to hurl against the wall the next book she read that was written in the conventional or historical present tense, or both; she asked me why I wrote parts of Underland in that way. My answer was that—while I was sorry for triggering her readerly allergy—this wasn’t done for trivial reasons of vividness or modishness. It was done because the book’s principal chronology is deep time; that is to say the geological expanses of past and future that stretch behind and away from the present moment, and that are both humbling and crushing to consider. Underland argues for a “deep time ethic,” in which contemplating ourselves within a deep-time context should have the effect not of inducing a flat ontology (whereby all things are equalized in worthlessness and transience by this immense perspective), nor of ethical abrogation (on the grounds that “it will all be all right in the end”), but rather of ethically charging us with a sense of responsibility now, minute by minute, for the legacies we are leaving behind as communities and as polities—and also of pristinating the present moment into greater clarity and wonder. Implausible as it seems when viewed within epochs and eons of our billion-year-old earth, we do exist. You do, I do, somehow, now. So the present-tense sections became the knife-edge on which the book’s telling walked, while to either side plummeted away the anchorless fathoms of deep time.
ACKERMAN: I love Mountains of the Mind, in which you find the allure of mountains intensely gripping—literally—as you hold the planet in your arms and grip its pinnacles, ribs, and crevasses.
In Underland you continue that spartan, perilous climbing odyssey, to the summit (or nadir) of otherness, where a climber is as likely to die as to return fleeced in fame. This time it’s crawling down labyrinthine caves, unpeeling strata of civilizations, exploring the convoluted and murky warrens below metropolitan streets, roaming vertical tunnels under the ocean, or abseiling into a glassy, glacial melt shaft in Greenland. Humans have always lived on and off the land, and yet we’ve obsessed about what lies beneath, sending our heroes underground on legendary quests. Why do you think that is? Do you have favorites among such classic stories? Please talk a little about your journey of “deep mapping” the world and what that means to you. Will you ever feel like you’ve completed that personal cartography? Which of your Underland expeditions stirred you the most?
MACFARLANE: I am “north-minded,” as I once wrote in a book called Landmarks. I’m drawn by acculturation and decades of mountaineering and walking to high altitudes and high latitudes; to snow, ice, and rock. It so happens that these places—the thawing poles, the deglaciating peaks—are now also among the front lines of climate breakdown, as the cryosphere thins, the “eternal snows” of the Arctic are shown to be decidedly mortal, and the word “permafrost” seems increasingly absurd. All of which is to say that the last third of Underland, which takes place in Arctic Norway, East Greenland, and Finland in deep winter, is the part of the book I’ll never forget writing, traveling, or thinking. The summer of 2016, when I was in East Greenland, was at that date the summer of most intense melt on record; temperatures in Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, topped 22°C, meltwater began flowing on the ice cap a month earlier than ever before. Icebergs sweated in the fjords, polar bears starved or were shot. It was a shocking, indicting time to be in that place—and to understand that the fate of ice is the fate of us.
Despite and in addition to the historically particularized contemporary experiences that are retold by me in parts of this most recent book, I did also have the sense often that I was merely adding a further iteration to—twist in the tunnel of—a very ancient story form. As you imply, another of the peculiar doublenesses of the underland is that it has long been a realm that compels both aversion and attention. One of the oldest known stories of them all, The Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2100 BC in what we now refer to as Sumeria, contains among its variant passages the story of the servant Enki’s descent into the “netherworld” to retrieve something that is precious to his master, Gilgamesh. Enki endures an arduous and hazardous journey through hailstone storms and violent sea tempests (extreme weather events of ancient Mesopotamia!), only to be imprisoned on arrival in the netherworld. He is eventually freed and carried back to the surface on a lofting breeze. Upon surfacing, he and Gilgamesh embrace, kiss, and talk. Enki has not retrieved the lost object, but he has brought back valuable news of vanished people. “Did you see my little stillborn children who never knew existence?” Gilgamesh asks him desperately. “I saw them,” answers Enki. On first reading that exchange, I came close to tears; Gilgamesh’s longing—his need—for news of his lost children from beyond the pale of life spoke so clearly across more than four thousand years, as did Enki’s calm compassion. It echoed, to me, so many of the stories of parents awaiting news of their children from below the ground or through the veil, right down to the parents of the Thai footballers who waited day after agonizing day by the mouth of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, as rainstorms gathered and the waters rose and fell ...
In Mountains of the Mind I was concerned with tracing—mapping, if you like—the revolution of perception that wild landscape, especially mountainous landscape, underwent in what might loosely be called “the Western imagination” between the later 1700s and the present day. Though the break or turn is not absolute, it is largely true to say that through the medieval and early-modern periods in Europe and, subsequently, colonial America, mountains were regarded with trepidation, awe, and fear, but were not perceived as secularly transcendent spaces, or as structures to be climbed to their summits. Then a combination of economic and cultural forces, beginning with early Romanticism—including Edmund Burke’s popularization of “the sublime” as, really, a driver of the tourism industry in his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful—helped bring about the transformation that now sees, this year, more than two hundred climbers in a queue on the summit ridge of Everest, dying slowly from exposure and altitude, in order to have their photographs taken on the earth’s highest point.
What struck me early on in my research into the underland was how very young, historically-culturally speaking, this mountain love is, and how very, very ancient, by contrast, the draw down into the darkness of the underworld is. Recent advances in thorium-dating techniques have allowed researchers to establish that the earliest “artworks” on cave walls in western Spain—a hand stencil, a red circle or dot, a rough red ladder—are around sixty-four thousand years old. That predates the estimated arrival of anatomically modern humans into the region by around twenty thousand years. Neanderthal artists went into the dark to make those marks.
As for cartography: well, yes, I have for a long time been interested in practices of “countermapping,” most particularly associated as a practice with indigenous or suppressed cultures who seek to disinter and reinscribe forgotten or overwritten toponymies and modes of perception. I first encountered this idea in Hugh Brody’s magisterial Maps & Dreams, and have pursued it ever since. Mapping is always partial, and for that reason is always an expression of priority—and often an expression of power. The countermappings I have undertaken—explicitly figured as such in The Wild Places (2007), which set out to offer a rebuke and alternative to the road atlas—seek to invite revisions of the world. In Underland that has meant making visible those aspects, psychological as well as geological, that we have sought to bury, suppress, hide, or render obscene. Such things have—in trauma theory as in geomorphology—a tendency to resurface. “What we excrete comes back to consume us,” as Don DeLillo grimly puts it in his epic 1997 novel Underworld.
ACKERMAN: Most readers probably think of you as a writer, a walker, an explorer, an academic, a climber, a caver, an open-air thinker. It may surprise them that, in Underland, you’re drawn both to urban exploration and wild places. Equally? You’ve said that Underland is “a book about death, disposal, darkness, trauma, harm, killing, mass graves, and nuclear waste,” and that it’s probably the “strangest thing I’ve ever written or ever will write.” I don’t doubt it feels that way to you. But as a reader, I find your books all part of a single mosaic that, could it ever be completed, would reveal us to ourselves fully, with perfect clarity, along with every other facet of the earth we have the privilege to briefly inhabit. That’s an impossible quest, I know, but each book adds more interlocking pieces to the mosaic. I wonder what you’re tempted to write about next, what glistening shards of that mosaic now tempt you?
MACFARLANE: It would indeed be an impossible quest, a Borgesian pursuit of the totalizing vision of the habitable earth; across, perhaps, between Funes the Memorious and the “Imperial Cartographers” who sought to make a one-to-one scaled “Map of the Empire.” And of course as you know and as Borges reminds us, such visions are futile, tending to perilous. The scraps of the imperial map are left rotting in the desert, having destroyed the empire they set out to represent; Casaubon in Middlemarch wanders lost in his quest to find the “key to all mythologies.” Tim Robinson, one of the greatest living writers of and on place, speaks warningly of the “delusion of a comprehensible totality.”
That all said, I do see most of my books as parts of an unfinishable whole; I began on the mountaintops with Mountains of the Mind, and have ended up in the darkness of the underland, a trajectory that’s taken me seven or eight books and over two thousand pages to complete. I’m sure there are people who hope that’s it from me, a gravitational logic resulting in a full stop and silence. Maybe it will be, in terms of long books at least. I have recently completed a book called just Ness that may well run Underland close for strangeness. It took three years of work on and off, but is only ninety-six pages long. I don’t know quite how best to characterize or describe it: an attempt to write an atomic-age version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, perhaps, or a medieval mystery play for the Anthropocene? It is fictional, but not a novel. There are aspects of superhero/Marvel culture to it, but the heroes are not Captain America and Iron Man— rather, five protean beings—“he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” and “as”—who embody different forms and forces of the natural world, and who converge on a shingle spit known as The Ness to prevent the fulfillment of a destructive ritual performed by a technocratic and power-addicted male figure known only as “The Armorer.” The book was written in part in the shadow of Trump—though I am rather loath to let his name pollute anything I write—and in part in the shadow of renewed and mutated fears of nuclear war. Climate breakdown has, for good reasons, moved center stage as the eschatological catastrophe of our age—but just offstage continues to lurk the nuclear threat. Anyway, I digress—but Ness stands in family relation to Underland, a strange kin of a kind.
I might end, then, by speaking beyond the page to other forms of “work” that I see as important, but that have little or nothing to do with writing in the literary sense—and that are nevertheless more broadly part of what you call the “glittering mosaic” to which we all bring tesserae. Returning to the idea of climate breakdown being too often singularized as a “wicked problem,” the question I am most often asked by people is: “What can I do?” There is a longing for change and a wish to drive change, mingled with an uncertainty about how best to act for the good. The cultural theorist Sianne Ngai recognizes and names this modern affect as “stuplimity,” a modern mash-up of “stupefaction” and “the sublime,” characterized by awe at the scale of the problem on the one hand, and a dulled concussion and fatigue arising from relentless exposure to its symptoms on the other. That is to say, one is knocked into a state of paralysis or pessimistic stupor by the sheer, iterated monstrosity of the situation— and ends up either failing to act or “consuming” the virtuous actions of others (what Robert Pfaller calls “interpassivity”) in substitute for taking action oneself.
There is of course no easy solution to this recognizable feeling— but I can say that nothing makes me despair like resignation. The crises of the Anthropocene exist across the scales, from vast systemic global injustices to tiny losses of habitat and imperceptible biodiversity declines in specific places. This is the perniciousness of the Anthropocene, but also its “weakness,” as it were. What degrades across scales can be remedied across scales. Some of the most important “writing” I take myself to have done in the past five years has been drafting website copy for the young charity Action for Conservation, of which I’m a founding trustee; some of the most important “reading” I take myself to have done has been scrutinizing its policy documents along with my fellow trustees. This is hard, mostly thankless work: but what it results in is, it seems to me, vital—young people between twelve and seventeen, many of them who find nature hard to access, taken on free summer camps to the Welsh coast or the South Downs, conservation workshops delivered in schools, local environmental projects devised and driven by young people, and—just launched—the world’s largest youth-led landscape regeneration project, beginning in South Wales last summer, and due to run for an unlimited time into the future, seeking to transform the biodiversity of thousands of acres over dozens of years—all of it properly steered by teenagers. In September 2018, while finishing Underland, I co-edited The People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, which detailed two hundred implementable ideas for change in the structural, political, and cultural relations between humans and the living world in Britain. Young people delivered it to Whitehall at the head of a march of ten thousand people, and though its ideas ended up being largely ignored by government (sigh...), it has been taken up by NGOs, individuals, and communities in heartening ways. I see these versions of engagement—enabling people to come together as communities rather than driving onwards only as individuals—as thriving alongside, rather than in tension with, writing challenging five-hundred-page books!
Donna Haraway’s justly famous phrase for the task that faces all of us is “staying with the trouble.” There is no prelapsarian state of nature to be returned to, or even briefly accessed. It is impossible now to write from outwith a context of damage, decline, and injustice. The trouble needs to be clearly seen, and organized against up and down the levels, from local to global. But—and—keeping hope, love, wonder, and the belief in possible betterment in view; this too is part of the work of staying with the trouble.