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“[A] winningly obsessive history of our relationship with underground places” (The Guardian), from sacred caves and derelict subway stations to nuclear bunkers and ancient underground cities—an exploration of the history, science, architecture, and mythology of the worlds beneath our feet
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR
When Will Hunt was sixteen years old, he discovered an abandoned tunnel that ran beneath his house in Providence, Rhode Island. His first tunnel trips inspired a lifelong fascination with exploring underground worlds, from the derelict subway stations and sewers of New York City to sacred caves, catacombs, tombs, bunkers, and ancient underground cities in more than twenty countries around the world. Underground is both a personal exploration of Hunt’s obsession and a panoramic study of how we are all connected to the underground, how caves and other dark hollows have frightened and enchanted us through the ages.
In a narrative spanning continents and epochs, Hunt follows a cast of subterraneaphiles who have dedicated themselves to investigating underground worlds. He tracks the origins of life with a team of NASA microbiologists a mile beneath the Black Hills, camps out for three days with urban explorers in the catacombs and sewers of Paris, descends with an Aboriginal family into a 35,000-year-old mine in the Australian outback, and glimpses a sacred sculpture molded by Paleolithic artists in the depths of a cave in the Pyrenees.
Each adventure is woven with findings in mythology and anthropology, natural history and neuroscience, literature and philosophy. In elegant and graceful prose, Hunt cures us of our “surface chauvinism,” opening our eyes to the planet’s hidden dimension. He reveals how the subterranean landscape gave shape to our most basic beliefs and guided how we think about ourselves as humans. At bottom, Underground is a meditation on the allure of darkness, the power of mystery, and our eternal desire to connect with what we cannot see.
Praise for Underground
“A mesmerizingly fascinating tale . . . I could not stop reading this beautifully written book.”—Michael Finkel, author of The Stranger in the Woods
“Few books have blown my mind so totally, and so often. In Will Hunt’s nimble hands, excursion becomes inversion, and the darkness turns luminous. There are echoes of Sebald, Calvino, and Herzog in his elegant and enigmatic voice, but also real warmth and humor. . . . An intrepid—but far from fearless—journey, both theoretically and terrestrially.”—Robert Moor, New York Times bestselling author of On Trails
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Underground
There is another world, but it is in this one.
Find signs of it everywhere you go. Step out your front door and feel beneath your feet the thrum of subway tunnels and electric cables, mossy aqueducts and pneumatic tubes, all interweaving and overlapping like threads in a great loom. At the end of a quiet street, find vapor streaming out of a ventilation grate, which may rise from a hidden tunnel where outcasts dwell in jerry-rigged shanties, or from a clandestine bunker with dense concrete walls, where the elite will flee to escape the end of days. On a long stroll through quiet pastureland, run your hands over a grassy mound that may conceal the tomb of an ancient tribal queen, or the buried fossil of a prehistoric beast with a long snaking spine. Hike down a shaded forest trail, where you cup your ear to the earth and hear the scuttle of ants excavating a buried metropolis, spoked with tiny whorled passageways. Trekking up in the foothills, you smell an earthy aroma emanating from a slender crack, the sign of a giant hidden cave, where the stony walls are graced with ancient charcoal paintings. And everywhere you go, beneath every step, you feel a quiver coming up from deep, deep below, where titanic bodies of stone shift and grind against one another, causing the planet to tremble and shudder.
If the surface of the earth were transparent, we’d spend days on our bellies, peering down into this marvelous layered terrain. But for us surface dwellers, going about our lives in the sun-lit world, the underground has always been invisible. Our word for the underworld, Hell, is rooted in the Proto-Indo-European kel-, for “conceal”; in ancient Greek, Hades translates to “the unseen one.” Today, we have newfangled devices—ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers—to help us visualize the underground, but even our sharpest images come out distant and foggy, leaving us like Dante, squinting into the depths: “so dark and deep and nebulous it was, / try as I might to force my sight below / I could not see the shape of anything.” In its obscurity, the underground is our planet’s most abstract landscape, always more metaphor than space. When we describe something as “underground”—an illicit economy, a secret rave, an undiscovered artist—we are typically describing not a place but a feeling: something forbidden, unspoken, or otherwise beyond the known and ordinary.
As visual creatures—our eyes, wrote Diane Ackerman, are the “great monopolists of our senses”—we forget about the underground. We are surface chauvinists. Our most celebrated explorers venture out and up: we have skipped across the moon, guided rovers into Martian volcanoes, and charted electromagnetic storms in distant outer space. Inner space has never been so accessible. Geologists believe that more than half of the world’s caves are undiscovered, buried deep in impenetrable crust. The journey from where we now sit to the center of the earth is equal to a trip from New York to Paris, and yet the planet’s core is a black box, a place whose existence we accept on faith. The deepest we’ve burrowed underground is the Kola borehole in the Russian Arctic, which reaches 7.6 miles deep—less than one half of one percent of the way to the center of the earth. The underground is our ghost landscape, unfolding everywhere beneath our feet, always out of view.
But as a boy, I knew that the underworld was not always invisible—to certain people, it could be revealed. In my parents’ old edition of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, I read of Odysseus, Hercules, Orpheus, and other heroes who ventured down through craggy portals in the earth, crossed the river Styx on Charon’s ferry, gave the slip to three-headed Cerberus, and entered Hades, the land of shades. The one who most captivated me was Hermes, the messenger god, he of the winged helmet and sandals. Hermes was the god of boundaries and thresholds, and the guide of the souls of the dead into Hades. (He bore the marvelous title of psychopomp, which means “soul conductor.”) While other gods and mortals obeyed the cosmic boundaries, he swooped openly between light and dark, above and below. Hermes—who would become the patron saint of my own underground excursions—was the one true subterranean explorer, who cut through darkness with clarity and grace, who saw the underworld, and knew how to retrieve its buried wisdom.
The summer I turned sixteen, when my world felt as small and known as the tip of my finger, I discovered an abandoned train tunnel running beneath my neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d heard about it first from a science teacher at school: a small, whiskery man named Otter, who knew every secret groove in every landscape in New England. The tunnel had once served a small cargo line, he’d told me, but that was years ago. Now it was a ruin: full of mud and garbage and stale air and who knew what else.
One afternoon, I found the entrance, which was concealed under a thicket of bushes behind a dentist’s office. It was wreathed in vines and had the date of its construction—1908—engraved in the concrete above its mouth. The city had sealed the entrance with a metal gate, but someone had sliced open a small passageway: along with a few friends, I climbed underground, our flashlight beams crisscrossing in the dark. The mud sucked at our shoes and the air was boggy. On the ceiling were clusters of pearly, nipplelike stalactites that dripped water down on our heads. Halfway through, we dared one another to switch off our lights. As the tunnel fell to perfect darkness, my friends whooped, testing the echo, but I held my breath and stood dead still, as though, if I moved, I might float right off the ground. That night at home, I pulled up an old map of Providence. I started with my finger where we’d entered the tunnel and moved to where it opened at the other end. I blinked: the tunnel passed almost directly beneath my house.
That summer, on days when no one else was around, I’d put on boots and go walking in the tunnel. I couldn’t have explained what drew me down, and I certainly never went with any particular mission. I’d look at the graffiti or kick around old bottles of malt liquor. Sometimes I’d turn off my light, just to see how long I could last in the dark before my nerves started to bristle. To the extent that I was aware of myself at all, as a sixteen-year-old I sensed that these walks were outside of my character: I was an uncertain teenager, scrawny, gap-toothed, with librarian-ish glasses. When my friends were starting to make out with girls, I still had a terrarium of pet tree frogs in my bedroom. I read about other peoples adventures in books without ever, never thinking to embark on my own. But something about the tunnel got under my skin: I’d lie in bed nights just imagining it running under the street.
At the end of that summer, following a heavy rainstorm, I had just climbed beyond the threshold of the tunnel when I heard an unexpected rumble coming from the darkness ahead. Alarmed, I started to turn back, but decided to keep walking, even as the sound grew. Deep in the tunnel, I found the source: a crack in the ceiling—a burst pipe, maybe, or a leak—from which water was pouring down in cascades. Directly beneath the falling water, I saw an overturned plastic beach pail. Then a paint bucket. Then, all at once, an enormous assembly of overturned containers—oil drums, beer cans, Tupperware, gas canisters, coffee tins—all in a giant cluster, arranged under mysterious circumstances by a person I’d never meet. The water drummed down on the vessels, sending up an echoing song, as I stood in the dark, nailed to the floor.
Years passed, and I forgot about those underground walks. I left Providence, went to college, moved on. But my old connection to the tunnel never quite disappeared. Just as a seed silently takes root and ripens and matures down in the hidden earth, before sprouting on the surface, my memories of the tunnel germinated for years at the bottom of my mind. It was not until much later, following a series of unexpected encounters with the underground of New York City, that my old memories of the tunnel, and of the mysterious altar of buckets, reemerged. When they did, they seized me with a ferocity that turned my entire imagination inside out, fundamentally altering the way I thought about myself, and my place in the architecture of the world.
I came to love the underground for its silence and for its echoes. I loved that even the briefest trip into a tunnel or a cave felt like an escape into a parallel reality, the way characters in children’s books vanish through portals into secret worlds. I loved that the underground offered romping Tom Sawyer–ish adventure, just as it opened confrontation with humankind’s most eternal and elemental fears. I loved telling stories about the underground—about relics discovered beneath city streets, or rituals conducted in the depths of caves—and the wonder they engendered in the eyes of my friends. Most of all, I was captivated by the dreamers, visionaries, and eccentrics that the underground attracted: people who’d heard a kind of siren song and given themselves to exploring, making art, or praying in the underground world. People who had surrendered to obsession in a way I thought I understood, or at least wanted to understand. Down in the dark, I thought I might find a perverse kind of enlightenment.
Over the years, I convinced a research foundation, then various magazines, then a book publisher to give me funding to investigate these things, and I spent that money, and then some, exploring subterranean spaces in different parts of the world. For more than a decade, I climbed down into stony catacombs and derelict subway stations, sacred caves, and nuclear bunkers. It began as a quest to understand my own preoccupation; but with each descent, as I became attuned to the resonances of the subterranean landscape, a more universal story emerged. I saw that we—all of us, the human species—have always felt a quiet pull from the underground, that we are as connected to this realm as we are to our own shadows. From when our ancestors first told stories about the landscapes they inhabited, caves and other spaces beneath our feet have frightened and enchanted us, forged our nightmares and fantasies. Underground worlds, I discovered, run through our history like a secret thread: in ways subtle and profound, they have guided how we think about ourselves and given shape to our humanity.
The underground opened slowly, in small, splintering cracks—then all at once, like a trapdoor beneath my feet. It began the first summer I lived in New York, when I was working at a magazine in Manhattan and living in Brooklyn with my aunt and uncle, and my two cousins, Russell and Gus. After years spent as a teenager envisioning myself as a future New Yorker who would take long, ecstatic night walks through Manhattan, absorbing every dot of light emanating from every apartment window, I had arrived to find the city impenetrable. I shrank in crowds, stammered to bodega keepers, and got off at the wrong subway stop, only to wander through Brooklyn, feeling like a hayseed, too embarrassed to ask for directions.
Late one night, when I was feeling particularly cowed by the city, I was waiting for the subway in lower Manhattan, on one of the deep-set platforms where on summer nights you can almost smell the city’s granite bedrock, when I saw something that baffled me. From the darkness of the tunnel materialized two young men: they wore headlamps and their faces and hands were black with soot, as though they’d been climbing for days through a deep cave. They fast-walked up the tracks, clambered onto the platform right in front of me, and vanished up the stairs. I rode the train home that night with my forehead pressed against the window, fogging the glass, imagining a whole secret honeycomb of spaces hidden beneath the streets.
The young men in headlamps were urban explorers, part of a loose confederacy of New Yorkers who’d made a pastime of infiltrating the off-limits and secreted-away spaces under the surface of the city. They were a kingdom of many tribes: some were historians who documented the grandeur of the city’s forgotten places; others, activists who trespassed to symbolically reclaim New York’s corporatized spaces; still others were artists, who assembled secret installations and staged performances in the city’s obscure layers. In those first weeks, as I puzzled my way through New York, I found myself staying up late at night, studying explorers’ photographs of hidden places—subway stations abandoned for decades; deep valve chambers in the water system; derelict bomb shelters coated in dust—all of which felt as exotic and mysterious as lost sea monsters gliding through the deep ocean.
One night, while sifting through an explorer’s archives, I was startled to find myself looking at a photograph of the tunnel I’d explored as a boy in Providence. I hadn’t thought about it in years: the single rail receding into the dark, the “1908” carved above the entrance. The intimacy of this chance encounter was almost disquieting, as though someone had reached down into my mind and opened a hatch, allowing a whole raft of buried memories to float to the surface. The photographer, I learned, was a man named Steve Duncan: a dashing and brilliant and possibly deranged individual who would become my first guide into the underground.
We met one afternoon on a scouting trip to the Bronx, where Steve was plotting an excursion through an old sewer pipe. He was six or seven years older than me, sandy-haired and blue-eyed, with the rangy build of a rock climber. He’d begun exploring during his freshman year at Columbia University, where he would go slinking through a network of steam tunnels under the campus. One night, he wriggled through a vent in a wall and emerged into a chamber cluttered with moldering scientific equipment. It was the storeroom for the earliest incarnation of what would eventually become the Manhattan Project. The bulbous green machine at the center of the room was the original particle accelerator: a strange jewel of history, hidden just out of view.
A fascination took hold, and Steve promptly switched his major from engineering to urban history. When he wasn’t studying, he began exploring train tunnels, then strapped on waders and sloshed through sewers, and before long began climbing to the tops of suspension bridges, where he took soaring, omniscient photographs of the city. Over the years, he styled himself as a guerrilla historian and photographer, with an alarmingly granular knowledge of the city’s infrastructure. (The Department of Environmental Protection, which monitored the city’s sewers, periodically tried to hire Steve, despite his illegal research methods.)
Will Hunt’s writing, photography, and audio storytelling have appeared in The Economist, The Paris Review Daily, Discover, The Atavist Magazine, and Outside, among other places. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the MacDowell Colony, he is currently a visiting scholar at the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge. Underground is his first book.