For fans of Macfarlane, The Lost Words will fill a gap while he completes Underland, a book that sounds from scattered interviews to be increasingly ambitious in scope. Whatever it covers, it is certain to delight in language and the physical challenges of exploring a landscape. In The Telegraph, two years ago, he described exploring the River Timavo which flows through the karst region of Slovenia and northern Italy. “I descended a 100ft doline, a sort of narrow, eroded vertical channel, with a 70-year-old Italian man called Sergio, who smoked a briarwood pipe all the way down. That was one of the most extreme places I have ever been: a great black river roaring out of a cave mouth on one side and disappearing down a rabbit hole on the other, and the sense of the earth’s surface above us.”
Alojzij Schaffenrath, Postojna: view of the Great Cave, c. 1821
'The right names, well used, can act as portals.' A doline is the name for a portal to the underland, and there are others too on the karstic plateau: foiba (a deep inverted funnel), abîme (a vertical shaft) uvala (a collection of sinkholes). My only experience of descending into this world was on a family holiday to Yugoslavia, when we visited the spectacular Postojna cave system in Slovenia. It felt as if I had suddenly entered the marvellous subterranean settings of my recent childhood reading: The Silver Chair, The Hobbit, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I can still recall the soundscape too - a a strange babel of amplified sound as competing tour groups listened to guides in the different languages of Europe.
As can be seen in the image above, tourism at Postojna stretches back to the early nineteenth century. When Crown Prince Ferdinand visited in 1819, soon after the main caves were opened, he was greeted with a band and singers. Perhaps the caves would have been too eerie, experienced in dripping silence. They have subsequently hosted orchestras, jazz bands and even the La Scala chorus. There is a long tradition of music making in caves and now, it seems, a new trend for concert halls themselves to be built underground. I have written about caves and music before, so here I will conclude by returning to the surface and highlighting some recent music made in the karst landscape of Slovenia.
For Memoryscapes, the experimental folk trio Širom returned to the regions of Slovenia they grew up in and improvised outdoors, curious to see how the environment would affect what they played. The film of the project (embedded below) begins with the construction of some bamboo balafons which they carry down into the hollow of the Bukovnik sinkhole. As they sit under the trees, the camera pans slowly round, catching motes of light and the slight movement of branches in the breeze. Watching this made me think that taking children into the woods to make and play instruments would be another way to reconnect them with nature.
On Mt Tolminski Migovec, the music is harsher and the surroundings cold and inhospitable. In a mountain hut they do some more percussion with pots and pans (it looks like this would get annoying pretty quickly, as I know from having heard my own sons try it). In the final segment, they sit surrounded by a sea of yellow flowers; if the music was as pretty as the visuals it would be too much to take. The film ends by a watermill, with an insistent rhythmic sound, like hundreds of squeaky gears and cog wheels. Eventually the music fades and breaks apart, leaving nothing but sunlight on the water.