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March 1, 2021
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Creating Under Lockdown

Someday, we’ll all talk about what we did during the pandemic. Most of us will just be grateful to have survived it. Some have focused on children, pets and changing work. There’s been much said about not worrying if we are not "productive," and I’ve been thinking that one way of being productive is how our minds and bodies are adapting and changing to this moment. Maybe we’re creating things we don’t even know about yet.

During this past unusual year, environmental writer and Cambridge University professor Robert Macfarlane, who Steve talked to for this weekend’s repeat of "Going Underground," has said he’s focusing on homeschooling his three kids. Macfarlane’s book "Underland: A Deep Time Journey," was a literal and poetic look at the world beneath our feet, from catacombs to neural tree networks.

Sensing people needed a way to connect without meeting in person, Macfarlane started a lockdown book club on Twitter, reading "The Living Mountain" by Nan Shepherd, virtually gathering readers from 40 countries who collectively spent time with the book. "The Living Mountain" happens to be the book he chose to talk about for our “Bookmarks” series, and if you haven’t heard it, it's a lovely and literary five minutes.

Macfarlane has also worked on lyrics for an album, The Epic of Gilgamesh, with British actor and singer Johnny Flynn.

And, Macfarlane has published two new books in 2020. "The Lost Spells,”"(with Jackie Morris) is a pocket-sized book of "spell-poems" about the wonder of nature, and "Ghostways: Two Journeys in Unquiet Places" with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards, is a strikingly illustrated look into corners of England.

I’ll admit, I’m a little jealous of Macfarlane’s creative productivity. But it’s some beautiful work emerging from the depths of this difficult time, and it encourages me to keep creating in my own way too.


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Why We Descend Into Darkness


For author Robert Macfarlane, one of England’s most celebrated nature writers, the underworld has its own deadly allure. In his new book, "Underland," he explores the world of caves, mines, catacombs and glacial shafts beneath the earth's surface. It’s a forbidding home for nuclear waste sites and burial chambers, both a dumping ground and the portal into otherworldly realms. Passing through darkness becomes a precondition for gaining insight.

"Underland" ranges over vast terrain, both scientific and literary. Macfarlane is a vivid writer, and in conversation veers easily between urgent environmental issues and his own personal exploration.

Here's an excerpt of our conversation, which ran in Nautilus:

Steve Paulson: Are the places below Earth’s surface also places of beauty and awe?

Robert MacFarlane: They’re certainly places of awe. They’re also places of imprisonment, incarceration, concealment, disposal. An historical place like the Cloaca Maxima, at the heart of central Rome, was the great sewer sump into which classical Rome disposed of all its unwanted filth. They’re places we’ve put the things we fear most and disgust us most. In that sense, they’re not like mountains, although we’ve made a Cloaca Maxima out of Mt. Everest.

SP: Underground places always seem forbidden.

RM: Exactly. Forbidden and forbidding. What’s striking to me is we’ve been drawn into the darkness for longer than we’ve been drawn to mountains. The hand stencils on cave walls in Western Spain have been dated to about 65,000 years ago. That’s 20,000 years or so before Homo sapiens is thought to have reached that region. So these are Neanderthal handprints. The idea of us being drawn into the darkness is an ancient longing. There’s also some of the most amazing, eerily present findings from European caves from the last Ice Age. A bone flute made from the wing bone of a griffon vulture was found deep in a limestone cave. The thought of that flute being played in that cave with ice filling the landscape around it, I don’t know about you, but it sets my spine shivering.

You can read our full conversation on Nautilus.

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Why Werner Herzog Is Awe-Struck

cave paintings

Renowned filmmaker Werner Herzog was awe-struck when he saw the Chauvet cave paintings dating back 32,000 years. "You can see clearly that this is the beginning of modern man," he says. "They are cultural memories passed on to us and there's a sense of time that is staggering."

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Finding Our Ancestors in Ancient Cave Art

Covalanas panel in the Bernifal Cave.

There's no better way to get a feel for deep time - and the origins of the human mind - than to go and see ancient cave art. Anthropologist Christine Desdemaines-Hugon took Steve and Anne to two French caves with paintings and drawings dating back more than 10,000 years.

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