May 18, 2019 6:46 PM Subscribe
What lies beneath: Robert Macfarlane travels 'Underland.' "From prehistoric cave paintings to buried nuclear waste, underground spaces record how humans have lived. To explore Underland means voyaging into the deep past – and raises urgent questions about our planet’s future." This is a brilliant essay by Robert Macfarlane on the themes of his book Underland.
Spring bulbs push themselves up into flower far earlier than a century ago. Last August’s heatwave in Britain caused the imprints of long-vanished structures – iron age burial barrows, Neolithic ritual monuments – to shimmer into view as parch marks visible from the air: aridity as x-ray, a drone’s-eye-view back in time. The same month, water levels in the River Elbe dropped so far that “hunger stones” were revealed – carved boulders used since the 1400s to commemorate droughts and warn of their consequences. One of the stones bears the inscription “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine” (If you see me, weep). In northern Greenland, an American cold war missile base – sealed under the ice 50 years ago with the presumption that snow accumulation would entomb it for ever, and containing huge volumes of toxic chemicals – has begun to move towards the light. This January, polar scientists discovered a gigantic melt cavity – two-thirds the area of Manhattan and up to 300 metres high – growing under the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctica. Thwaites is immense. Its calving face is the juggernaut heading towards us. It holds enough ice to raise ocean levels by more than two feet, and its melt patterns are already responsible for around 4% of global sea-level rise.
These Anthropocene unburials, as I have come to think of them, are proliferating around the world. Forces, objects and substances thought safely confined to the underworld are declaring themselves above ground with powerful consequences. It is easy to aestheticise such events, curating them into a Wunderkammer of weirdness. But they are not curios – they are horror shows. Nor are they portents of what is to come – they are the uncanny signs of a crisis that is already here, accelerating around us and experienced most severely by the most vulnerable.
These unburials also disrupt simple notions of Earth history as orderly in sequence, with the deepest down being the furthest back. Epochs and periods are mixing and entangling. Our burning of the liquefied remains of carboniferous forests melts glacial ice that fell as snow in the Pleistocene, raising sea levels for a future Anthropocene. Both time and place are undergoing what Amitav Ghosh has called “the great derangement”, torqued into new forms by the scales and speeds of anthropogenic change at a planetary level. “The problem,” writes the archaeologist Þóra Pétursdóttir [pg 18], “is not that things become buried far down in strata – but that they endure, outlive us, and come back at us with a force we didn’t realise they had, a dark force of ‘sleeping giants’,” roused from their deep-time slumber.
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