Most of us are content to avoid the underground unless we’re riding the subway or driving around in circles in a parking garage. But 21st-century explorers love to explore the secret worlds below us.
For enthusiasts like journalist Will Hunt, the darkness also offers something else: a sense of spiritual transcendence.
Hunt chronicles his travels in one of the quirkiest and most captivating books of the year: Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet.
In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Hunt describes the underground as a place of immense contradictions. “While it’s terrifying, we have this very profound, intimate relationship with the subterranean world. It’s representative of death but also a place of rebirth. It’s where we put our trash but also where we dig for treasure,” he says. “And it’s a place of revelation.”
Q: What first inspired your interest?
I was a 16-year-old in Providence, R.I., and I discovered an abandoned train tunnel right under my house. It was a dark, forbidding place, full of 20 years of garbage. I ... spent hours exploring, sometimes with a friend and sometimes alone. Fast-forward about five years, and I started exploring tunnels and poking around sewers in New York City. I’d walk down the street and have to stop and look in subway grates. I started getting caught and arrested. [Editor’s note: While we do applaud curiosity, we do not condone violating laws or trespassing.]
Then I traveled beyond cities into older, wilder landscapes like ancient tombs, nuclear bunkers, and sacred caves. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 10 years.
Q: What did you find in subway tunnels and sewers?
I came across these urban explorers.... I fell in love with them. Some were artists and created art installations in secret, tucked-away chambers, and some were historians who took photos of these forgotten places.
They had this sensation of New York City that no one else had, and they experienced the city in an entirely different way.
Q: Why would someone create art where hardly anyone can see it?
It seems a paradox to make art that was hidden from the world, but there’s a tradition of prehistoric artists who’ve gone underground to create paintings and sculptures in the hardest-to-reach chambers of caves.
My own interpretation is that they’re part of a very ancient and abiding tradition in religious cultures all over the world in which sacredness and hiddenness are inextricably entwined. We have all these accounts of shamans, prophets, and seers enclosing themselves in a pitch-dark cave for extended periods.
Q: You write that the underground is providing new insight into the beginning of life on Earth. What are we learning?
I spent some time with microbiologists more than a mile underground in South Dakota at the bottom of an abandoned gold mine. They were taking samples of water ... where they’re finding single-celled organisms in abundance. It’s connected to this theory that life began underground, that the very earliest organisms first developed there and then emerged to the surface.
Q: What’s next for you underground?
There are a lot of caves that I’d love to check out, such as in Mexico, that are truly extraordinary, that are not accessible unless you know the right people and they welcome you into their cave.
I’m looking for more signs of transcendence in caves – older and more revealing artifacts. I’m also looking at looting and the international trade in antiquities.
Q: What advice do you have for people who might want to explore the underground themselves?
In almost any city in America, you can find tours of hidden infrastructure. There’s a universal, abiding interest in this stuff.