The Secret Lives of People Obsessed with Going Deep Underground
There's urban exploring, and then there's the primordial obsession with going way below the Earth's surface.
Will Hunt in an ochre mine in Australia. All photos courtesy Will Hunt
This article originally appeared on VICE US
Will Hunt has completed an impressive number of trips below the Earth’s surface. He’s done some of the more obvious, urban-explorer stuff, like visiting sewers and subway tunnels in New York City, or trekking from one end of Paris to another in a below-ground excursion where, as he put it, “every step... of course, would be illegal.” But he’s also walked through labyrinthine tunnel-towns in Turkey, explored an ochre mine in Australia believed to be sacred by local aboriginal descendants, and taken an elevator a mile down into an abandoned gold mine in South Dakota, where NASA-affiliated microbiologists are studying intraterrestrial life. At one point, he spent 24 hours in a cave in West Virginia for an unofficial experiment in the psychological effects of being immersed in what he described as “heavy, ancient... Book-of-Genesis dark.” (After just a couple of hours, he saw “small glowing orbs of light...moving in a soft, pulsing dance” and felt an “uncanny weightlessness.”)
As Hunt’s journey—research for his new book Underground: a Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet—progresses, you get the sense these forays are about more than just an adrenaline rush. What Hunt is really chasing, through the muck and darkness and stench and clammy cold, is a story of shared humanity. “Virtually every accessible cave on the planet contains the footprints of our ancestors,” he writes, adding, “The dark zone journey may well be humankind’s oldest continuous cultural practice, with archaeological evidence going back hundreds of thousands of years, before our species even existed.”
He finds similar threads of universality in practices of mining, burrowing, and religion. In one chapter, he explains how creation stories about life beginning underground are found in “cultures in every part of the world,” from France to Mexico to Australia to India to Eastern Europe to Native American tribes such as the Zuñi and Hopi. In another, he argues it’s “impossible to overstate” just how frequently we find stories of seers and prophets descending into caves to achieve new wisdom and altered states of consciousness, from shamans of the Shoshone and Lakote, to oracles in ancient Greece and Rome, to mystics in the Wolof culture of Senegal, to characters in both the Old and New Testament, to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. “Our connection to caves may well be our most universal, most deeply inscribed, perhaps our original religious tradition,” he suggests.
In other words, to step below ground, whether through a manhole or the mouth of a cave, is to be reminded of who we are as a species and what we share.
I recently spoke to Hunt, a freelance writer and visiting scholar at New York University’s Institute for Public Knowledge, about his trips into a “parallel reality,” and the place he calls “our ghost landscape, unfolding everywhere beneath our feet, always out of view.”
VICE: What do you like so much about going underground?
Will Hunt: I first fell in love with the underground in Providence, Rhode Island, when I was a teenager. I discovered the [abandoned train] tunnel running under the East Side, which I found to run almost directly beneath my house. It was a tremendous revelation for me, because... here’s this patch of Providence where my family has been living for a long time, and I thought I knew every corner of it, and it was revealed to me that there was this enormous, mysterious, echoing space directly beneath that. And while I didn’t have the self-awareness or the language to articulate this at the time, that’s been a theme in my falling in love with the underground, which is that you can be walking through any landscape on the surface and think you know it, and beneath your feet there is magic. There’s these giant, ancient caverns. There are tombs. There are cemeteries. There’s all kinds of strange infrastructure that are just out of view, but they’re there, and they are affecting our lives, and they embody our history.
So that’s one level. [Then] when I was in New York—where I fell deeper in love with the underground after exploring under Providence—I started going underground in a way where I was really enjoying the thrill. It throws you for a sensory loop. It switches you outside of your everyday reality. So there’s something extraordinary about dropping into a sewer with a couple urban explorer friends, and within the space of a few feet, you’re only ten feet beneath the surface, but you’re inside of this hole, you’re in total darkness, you’re hearing echoes that you don’t hear on the surface. You’re smelling things. You access this wrinkle in reality that you didn’t even know existed.
Later in this process, as I travel a lot and [have] been to all of these underground spaces, what I really enjoy now is it’s this lens into humanity. We’ve had this really deep relationship with underground spaces forever. And it kind of brings out what’s most interesting [and] what’s most exciting about humans. We tend to become obsessed. We dream about subterranean spaces. We slip into altered states of consciousness. We’re irrational or messy or disorderly. And I feel like that nature in us is embodied in the decision to not stay on the surface and to go into darkness. If we were rational creatures living for the economics of everyday life, we would stay on the surface. There’s no reason to go into the dark, but we do.
There’s a moment in the book that takes place in a cave in France, when you’re led through various chambers to the room where there are these ancient clay sculptures of bison. And at that moment, you start to cry. Why was that moment so emotional for you?
One of the things that’s so extraordinary about subterranean spaces and the subterranean landscape [is that] everything is magnified underground. It’s like your entire nervous system is like blooming. So everything you encounter in a subterranean space, in pitch darkness, when you’re surrounded by these strange echoes, is inherently magnified. It just feels so dramatic. It’s really like being inside of a separate reality.
So that was one level of just the dramatic tension of crawling through this cave for several hours and you’re kind of totally detached from the surface world and you emerge into this really small chamber, in complete darkness, and everything is exactly as it has been for 14,000 years. You can see the fingerprints of the people who made those sculptures. You can see their footprints in the mud. [And] beyond the sensory level it’s... this confrontation with the roots of humanity. You’re looking at something that is, history-wise, time-wise, so removed from you, and yet it feels so familiar.
Whatever drove the people who made those sculptures to go that deep into the cave to create these artworks was powerful, was something urgent. Otherwise there was no reason for them to go to such lengths. And even though we can’t really say what that thing was, as humans, when you’re in that space, you can feel it. You can feel the electricity of whatever it was that moved them, that compelled them to make those bison where they did.
Before reading this book, I didn’t necessarily think a lot about life underground, from microscopic creatures to larger animals. I suspect I'm not alone. But you spend a fair amount of time talking about exactly that. Just how much life is there we don't really see?
This is one of my favorite things to talk about. Because when I was writing the chapter about microbes and bacteria, [I was] thinking, “Oh God, no one is going to give a shit about this.” Because who cares about microbes, right?
But the thing is, in the underground there is a such a wild abundance of life. It’s just teeming. And it’s this extraordinary thing because, just a couple decades ago, most people assumed that that it was a desert inside of our planet. And it turns out that there[are] billion of tons of life beneath the surface of the earth. It’s more, by weight, than all of [current] human life combined. [So] on one hand, yes, there are these little wriggling single-cell organisms, and who cares? At the same time, that’s fucking crazy. It’s like on the scale of a Copernican revolution for me, to realize that surface life on the planet is perhaps the minority. That’s amazing.
Were you surprised by how many different kinds of people—and how many people, period—you met underground in your research?
When I started spending time in New York, [I] discovered that there basically was just a whole tribe of people in New York who were tunnel enthusiasts, and then learned that it was not only in New York, but like every city in the world had a similar tribe of urban explorers, some of whom are extremely intense.
And then beyond that, I was going into the world and almost testing this thesis a little bit, trying to find the bottom of that fascination with the underground. I wanted to know how deep and broad this relationship was. And what I saw was that it’s bottomless. It’s everywhere. We have had this very visceral relationship with subterranean spaces with as long as we’ve been human and much longer. And that was what was so exciting, as far as putting a book together, which was that this is something that is inside of all of us. Even if it’s latent and vestigial, we all have this. We’re all descended from people who had this relationship with underground spaces. There are certain people who are afflicted with this fascination more than others, and I am one of them. But everywhere I went, I just found people who way moreso than me had dedicated their entire lives to going underground, from these compulsive burrowers to cave explorers to graffiti artists.
In the book you briefly mention billionaires who have been building underground living spaces. And I’m wondering if you think, as the surface of the earth becomes less and less habitable due to climate change and other reasons, that in the future we’re going to see more people living underground.
Absolutely. I think it’s kind of a dark, depressing truth, [because] as much as I love the underground, I don’t think it’s a place to live. [But] I think that, especially in large cities, where we have just a shortage of space everywhere we look, it’s making more and more sense to build down. In a lot of the east Asian megacities, you find crazy underground infrastructure.
And [for] one of the amazing comments on this, there’s a writer, Rosalind Williams, who talks about how the underground environment as a living space is the culmination of our technological existence, meaning it’s a habitat which is completely unnatural, where every aspect of a given space is manufactured. We’re pumping in air. All the light is artificial. We’re creating sunrises and sunsets. We’re creating smells. Everything is manufactured.
And it’s a reality we’re already living in. Part of me thinks about that and is spooked because it’s sounds like a science-fiction narrative. But when I think about how so many people spend their lives, and how it easy to go long periods of time without going out of your apartment or home, we might as well be living underground.
*Correction 1/29/2019: A previous version of this article featured a photo caption that incorrectly described an ochre mine as a cave. We regret the error.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Hunt's book here.
Follow Philip Eil on Twitter.