Except that while ‘Nether’ looks like a vast sun rising at the end of a sunken lane, it’s not. I remember asking Stanley about the image when we were together one day on Orford Ness, the shingle spit off the Suffolk coast where nuclear weapons were tested in the decades after the Second World War. “‘Nether’”, Stanley said then, “isn’t the sun. It’s the last thing you’d ever see. It’s the light of a nuclear blast that has just detonated. When you look at ‘Nether’, you’ve got about 0.001 of a second of life remaining, before the flesh is melted from your bones.” Oh.
Lustrous and lethal, fatal and beautiful, the image beckons the viewer’s eye on and down into the underworld. As such, it could hardly be truer to the preoccupations of Underland. For the underland is where we have long placed both what we fear and wish to dispose of, and what we love and wish to preserve.
Underland begins in a Dark Matter research laboratory a mile underground, designed to see back to the origins of the universe. It ends in a Deep Geological Repository beneath a frozen northern coast, designed safely to store nuclear waste for half a million years to come. And between those two distant sunken points Underland moves forwards in time, traversing human history from the beginnings of the Mesolithic to the Anthropocene-to-be, crossing subterranean cults and cultures from Mithraism to urban exploration, shamanism to cave-diving, as well as exploring the more-than-human underlands with which we are entangled, from burning oil and melting ice, to the underground fungal networks that conjoin single trees into communicating forests.
The first book I ever wrote, Mountains of the Mind (2003), was about the powerful fascination that mountains exert on the human spirit. I began on the summits of the world’s highest peaks; now, fifteen years on, in Underland I’ve completed a journey downwards to the darkness at the core of our earth and our imaginations. I wanted to write both an ancient and an urgent book, for it seems to me that the stories we tell ourselves now about the underland will be vital to shaping the future of the earth on which we exist. All of our lives are shaped by the underland – yet so few of us choose to look below the surfaces either of our landscapes or of our minds.