Welcome to Scientific American’s Science of Summer Reading. I’m your host Deboki Chakravarti.
Sometimes on Science Talk, we have conversations with authors about their books. But this series is a little different.
What I love as a reader is seeing how books can end up feeling like they’re in conversation with each other, even when they’re not written to do that.
So this month, I’m taking on two science books at a time and just…chatting with you about them. I’ll be talking through what the authors made me think and feel.
Maybe you’ve read these books yourself. Maybe you’ve even had some of the same feelings…or maybe not.
And if you haven’t read them, well, maybe this Science Book Talk will inspire you to.
Today we're going to be exploring the abandoned and underground worlds that, for however removed they may seem from people, embody our many contradictions.
Prologue: The Books
The first book is Underland: A Deep Time Journey, by Robert MacFarlane.
In Underland, MacFarlane explores several different types of underworlds throughout Europe, beginning in Britain, traveling through the rest of the continent, and then heading further north.
The journey takes us from cave systems to buried cities to glaciers, all revealing different realms underneath our feet, and the aspects of geology, history, mythology, and biology that they both bury and reveal.
The second book is Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape, written by Cal Flyn.
Flyn tracks abandonment through multiple angles, beginning with the way wildlife responds to the seeming loss of a human presence.
These could be areas impacted by war, radiation, economics, or climate. But abandonment is not simply a matter of ecology, it’s a thing that is driven and experienced by humans too.
And so Flyn explores the present human realities of abandonment to understand the implications this may have for us and our planet’s future.
Chapter 1: Defining Places
“Abandoned” and “underland” both have distinct connotations to a reader, but they are also not strictly defined terms with scientific definitions—at least, not in the context of these books.
Instead, these are words that allow for interpretation, allowing us to assess their meanings in the locations that are described by the authors, and the underlying connections that arise in those descriptions.
In Underland, the settings are myriad. We trek through the catacombs of Paris. We navigate rough terrain to see cave art in Norway. We hike across glaciers.
Some of these places are proximal to towns and cities, and some are not.
But they all have some kind of lore attached to them, whether that’s the enthusiastic, scientific explanation of the wood wide web underneath our feet, or the tale of a cave exploration gone horribly wrong.
The stories are as important as the physicality of the settings themselves, transcending the space between us and those underlands, while also passing on through time.
And time itself connects these spaces, or rather a very disorienting sense of it. The subtitle of the book is “A Deep Time Journey.”
Whether we’re traveling through underhands near or far, the one thing that seems to unite them is the sense that these are spaces that distort your experience of time.
Early in the book, Macfarlane writes, “Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.”
And we proceed to read this almost tangible distortion of time in various different ways. Bodies lose their sense of circadian rhythm, and time sometimes collapses into milliseconds, or at other moments, seems to reverse.
The linkage of space and time is not knew to our understanding of physics, but it’s interesting to see it applied here in a geological and biological context. It’s a reminder that space and time have physical definitions for us, but they are also experiences.
One of the ideas repeated through Underland is that this other world is a mirror world, a world like ours only not. And so time becomes one of those strangely mirrored things, disorienting the way reflections often are…but also informative the way that reflections often are.
It’s what allows astronomers to study the skies while underneath the ground, or a writer to connect to ancient art after a harrowing journey.
The settings in Islands of Abandonment are also quite varied. At times, we are in cities, exploring the social consequences of abandonment.
At other times, we are touring an island abandoned by humans, its domestic cattle left to become feral again.
But even the notion of abandonment is not necessarily a strict one. After all, there are spaces that people may abandon, only to return to—like those returning home to a land wracked by radiation.
But there’s a sort of structural looseness to these spaces, which feels similar to the spaces of the Underland in how they teeter on the edges of familiar worlds.
Except that the worlds of Islands of Abandonment are not quite the mirror worlds of Underland. Rather, they feel like specific inverse worlds compared to spaces that we might not consider abandoned.
After all, some of these spaces are quite visible and near, like the formations Flyn writes of called the Five Sisters—hills made out of waste from oil drilling, located about 15 miles away from Edinburgh, sites that would appear to be unattractive and abandoned except for the new life springing from them.
Of those hills, Flyn writes, “If we want to do the best for the environment, what we need is a new way of seeing: a new way of looking at the land.”
This is a space where the aesthetics are unfamiliar and revealing, similar to how the flow of time in the underland is unfamiliar and revealing.
The underland and the abandoned are, as a result, both expansive in their mysteries.
And across them both is a sense of isolation, but one that unites and brings people together. It’s a paradox, but just one of many that comes up in both books.
After the break, we’ll explore more of the contradictions and paradoxes that make up the underland or abandoned worlds in these books.
And we’re back, with more Science Book Talk.
Chapter 2: The Many, Many Paradoxes
Both abandoned and underland spaces suggest isolation, and that is a real aspect of those spaces in these books.
But however remote the locations visited are, many still have a strong social element to them as well, built in some ways on their remoteness.
In Islands of Abandonment, for example, Flyn explore the loose social structure in the abandoned space of the Salton Sea.
In Underland, Macfarlane experiences something similar following the groups that explore Paris’ catacombs.
The cohesiveness built on non-cohesion is a paradox that feels natural though, a cause and effect of the very traits that makes these spaces feel so distant and yet so attractive.
And other paradoxes and contradictions appear throughout these books.
Macfarlane emphases three functions of the underland that appear again and again: “to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful.”
The mirror world of the underland is thus also a contradictory place, embedded with our own extremes of love and fear.
And even in those contradictions lie other contradictions, like early on as Macfarlane documents one of the most poignant roles of the underworld: burial.
He repeats, “We are often more tender to the dead than to the living, though it is the living who need our tenderness most.”
Those are burials of things we love, but then there are burials of things we fear, like nuclear waste. Whatever it is, we bury our best and worst selves in the underland, but the burial is not itself an endpoint.
It’s dynamic because eventually, what we put in to the earth will one day come up again. And if it comes up again in some new form, that change is the point.
The contradictions of the underland are not a static moment in time. They’re more like a cycle, running through both our world and this mirror world.
This sense of a cycle built on contradiction underlies so much of what Islands of Abandonment is trying to understand about our own interactions with the natural world.
In an early section, Flyn documents how the United States’ use of the Bikini Atoll as a sight for nuclear weapons testing destroyed the local ecology. And yet over time, it left the area unsuitable for human entry, which allowed the populations of fish and coral free to grow and recover.
Our actions left the area destroyed, and yet the destruction provided a barrier necessary for the area’s recovery.
This type of cycle is examined further in the relationship between war and ecology, where areas left desolate during immense violence are able to rebound ecologically. As Flyn writes, “Fear, therefore, is a force that shapes the world.”
This is a deeply uncomfortable cycle to examine because of the human suffering that is inextricably wrapped up in it. And Flyn’s goal is not to argue that we should seek out human catastrophe as a solution to our environmental woes.
The goal instead is to understand and see these cycles as they play out, to understand the ways that our social lives are baked into nature’s most intrinsic cycle: adaptation.
After all, cycles may suggest a return to some original point, but evolution is a cycle that pushes us past our origins.
Flyn writes, “Nature has—or rather, some of her constituent members have—the capacity to survive in conditions that would once have killed them, the ability to adapt to a befouled and ruinous world, and even thrive there.”
In one section, Flyn explores this in the specific context of what it means for an animal to become domesticated, and then to become wild again.
These are states of being that cycle in relation to us, but they are also constantly evolving for the animals themselves—in this case, with regards to a group of domesticated cattle turned feral after abandonment, though feral does not mean they are reverting to some original state either.
Their period as a domesticated species, as well as the changing nature of the world around them means that the cattle have taken on something new even as they cycle back to something old.
And so, in Islands of Abandonment, what is one organism’s apocalyptic landscape is another organism’s Eden.
The question that remains is what is the landscape to us?
Chapter 3: The Human of it All
In Islands of Abandonment, Flyn examines the way we sometimes describe humans as a disease on the planet or an invasive species.
Flyn writes, “The appeal of disanthropic thinking, I feel, lies in the notion that a crash in the number of humans might present an opportunity akin to presenting a reset button. The fantasy is this: you and I survive, and together we start again.”
But there is an obvious problem with this thinking, as Flyn points out. The problem is its cruelty and inhumanity. And moreover, this is a book filled with illustrations of the ways that nature’s complexity constantly surprises us.
If we understand nature as immense and complex, why we would embrace an idea that is both so cruel and simplistic as removing humans from the equation?
That attempt at humility and self-denigration becomes itself a form of arrogance, a hyper-focus on nature as simply us and our effects on the world.
This does not mean we shouldn’t acknowledge our role in the damage we’ve created. Nor should we succumb to some kind of fatalism built on the fact that we can’t possibly know everything.
Flyn compares this to an old debate in medicine, of the debate between overtreating ailments versus a sort of nihilism where we assume that we just simply cannot know enough to treat disease at all.
The fact that this debate has existed before in other contexts emphasizes our own challenges with thinking through these extremes.
And the goal of Islands of Abandonment is not to suggest that a middle ground has been found.
But what the book does is provide a sketch of what that middle ground may look like, a point within our own contradictory nature that allows us to better understand the cycles within us and surrounding us.
And in Underland, this question of where to place ourselves comes up in the context of the anthropocene, a word that defines the current era as one driven by human behavior.
The anthropocene, as Macfarlane describes it, is a collapsing of time and space.
At one point, he writes, “The anthropocene requires us to undertake a retrospective reading of the current moment,” and another point, “In the anthropocene we cannot easily keep nature at a distance, holding at arm’s length for adoration or inspection.”
In this way, the anthropocene becomes a bit like the underland itself, a span of time instead of space that in the consequences of our actions, has sheltered, yielded, and disposed.
And similar to the relationships between human and nature explored in Islands of Abandonment, the anthropocene also comes to embody a contradiction of our placement in this world, where we are both so ignorant of so many aspects of nature, and yet seem to wield so much power—or at least destructive capability—over it.
At one point, while looking at glaciers, Macfarlane writes: “The ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.”
Of course, ignorance and destruction are often intertwined.
But the question becomes to what extent should we consider ourselves central to the changes we’ve wrought. Where do we put ourselves in the story? And how do you approach a crisis of ego with humility?
The answer is in the uncertainty, perhaps, in the space left in both books for mystery and exploration. In knowing that one of the gifts of our experience is being able to ask questions at all, even if the answers might always elude us.
Both Underland and Islands of Abandonment were disorienting, but in the best of ways. They are, in part, both travel books, though not necessarily to destinations that I had thought of before. But in the past year, with travel so limited, these are destinations that have increasing resonance.
The distant locations in the books are really not so distant after all. Time has been disorienting, like the underland. And people and nature alike have been abandoned.
The underland exists everywhere. Abandoned space exist everywhere. So these books felt like more than just guides to specific locations elsewhere.
They felt like guides to understanding what is near, to seeing the pockets of our world we may not have identified or contemplated before, and to see the reflections of own contradictions staring back at us.
Thank you for joining me this week on Science Book Talk. Next week, join me for a look at the different ways we fall in love with nature and share it.