Things To Look Forward To 

David Gaunt has owned Gleebooks with partner Roger Mackell since 1976.

May 2019

 - Thursday, May 09, 2019
Looking back I think perhaps I should have made Richard Powers’ The Overstory my book of 2018 (which is not to say that my choices in the November Gleaner—Julian Barnes’ The Only Story and Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut—were not also best reads). I talked myself out of Overstory (‘overlong, prescriptively drawn characters, a vehicle for moralising, albeit on behalf of the very future of the planet’)—but I shouldn’t have, because it contains, in spades, the best writing about trees and their vital centrality to life on earth I’ve ever read. And if that seems a weak argument, just read it and see for yourself. Breathtaking, spellbinding and beautiful. 

I was reminded of Overstory when I saw this reference from Powers, to Robert Macfarlane’s new book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Says Powers: ‘Macfarlane has been on a decade-and-a-half-long journey to restore us to presence and mindfulness of place. This latest volume, extending his peerless, lyrical attention to the subterranean, is profound in every sense of the word. It changed the way I think about the deep, hidden roots of our life on this planet’.

Indeed, as if to complement the brilliance of Powers’ fiction about trees, this is non-fiction of epic proportion, about the land, the space, the world, beneath us. Those of you familiar with Macfarlane’s earlier books, particularly The Old Ways, The Wild Places and Landmarks know him as an all-but-peerless writer about landscape, place, travel—and our relationship to the world of nature. But Underland has an urgency, an amplitude and a comprehensive response to its subject that is on anther level. Certainly, like Powers’ Overstory this a big, challenging read, and there’s the odd flat spot. But it is thrillingly ambitious, and important. This is a journey through ‘deep time’, traversing myth, the spread of geological time across the aeons till the present day. Rich in scientific and historical detail, it is still an extremely personal narrative, written with Macfarlane’s trademark lyricism, and full of extraordinary anecdotes of his own travels in the ‘underland’ (the catacombs of ancient Paris. In the end, it’s also a cry from the heart, about the future of the Earth, as the age of the Anthropocene, threatens it very existenc: ‘Time is profoundly out of joint, and so is place’. It’s Macfarlane’s achievement to show us that, literally, from below the earth’s surface.