An extract from ‘Underland’ by Robert Macfarlane

Ahead of the launch of Robert Macfarlane’s new book Underland: A Deep Time Journey, we are lucky to be able to share an extract to give you a taste of what is ahead.

-From Underland by Robert Macfarlane

It happens that afternoon when we are all together, standing near the tents and talking inconsequentially, enjoying the lethargy of the rest day.

A shot-like snap begins it, whip-cracking across the fjord and the mountain walls.

‘A hunter?’ I say.

But it isn’t a hunter, it is the glacier, and the sound of the crack marks the fall of a bus- sized block of ice from high on the calving face. We do not see it fall but we see it swill back up and bob.

Without that outrider of the main event, we might have missed what followed –  an event that, as Helen puts it later, ‘rarely occurs under witness’.

‘There!’ shouts Bill, but we are all already looking there, where the first block fell, for it seems that a white freight train is driving fast out of the calving face of the glacier, thundering laterally through space before toppling down towards the water, and then the white train is suddenly somehow pulling white wagons behind it from within the glacier, like an impossible magician’s trick, and then the white wagons are followed by a cathedral –  a blue cathedral of ice, complete with towers and buttresses, all of them joined together into a single unnatural sideways- collapsing edifice –  and then a whole city of white and blue follows the cathedral as we shout and step backwards involuntarily at the force of the event, even though it is occurring a mile away from us, and we call out to each other in the silence before the roar reaches us, even though we are only a few yards from each other, and then all of the hundreds of thousands of tons of that ice-city collapse into the water of the fjord, creating an impact wave forty or fifty feet high.

And then something terrible happens, which is that out of the water where the city has fallen there up- surges, rising –  or so it seems from where we are standing –  right to the summit of the calving face itself, a black shining pyramid, sharp at its prow, thrusting and glistening, made of a substance that has to be ice but looks like no ice we have seen before, something that resembles what I imagine meteorite metal to be, something that has come from so deep down in time that it has lost all colour, and we are dancing and swearing and shouting, appalled and thrilled to have seen this repulsive, exquisite thing rise up that should never have surfaced, this star- dropped berg-surge that has taken three minutes and 100,000 years to conclude.

Twenty minutes later and the fjord is calm again. The tide swills gently in rock pools. Lap of water on gneiss, pop of melting ice, sun glittering on the margins of the water, sedge-grass flicking in the wind.

The obscenity might never have occurred. The berg has settled in the water as a sloping blue table, hundreds of square feet in area. Gulls land on this new territory in their dozens, shake out their wings, tuck one leg up into their breast feathers for warmth, hunker down.

I startle a single sanderling from a fold of bronze gneiss. The next day at the tideline I find a small iceberg, rounded and dark blue, stranded in a rock pool. It is a relic of the dark star. I am just able to lift it. I carry it in both arms, cradling it, calling to the others. It numbs my hands and chest. It feels far heavier than it should. I stumble uphill towards the camp and place it on top of a boulder by the tents.

The sun shines through it. Air bubbles inside it show as silver: wormholes, right-angle bends, incredible zigzags and sharp layers.

That night an Arctic fox comes to our camp, a playful blue shadow. The little berg takes two days to melt. It leaves a stain on the dark rock that won’t vanish.


This is an extract from Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane, published by Hamish Hamilton in hardback on May 2nd 2019.


Emily Ketteringham to paint mural at Stanfords Bristol to celebrate Robert Macfarlane’s ‘Underland’.

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