A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet
By Will Hunt
A book can often have its greatest impact by rethinking familiar terrain, forcing readers to reconsider their entrenched preconceptions. Sometimes this comes from embracing an unexpected vantage point, as in Howard Zinn’s classic “A People’s History of the United States,” which chronicled American history from the bottom up rather than the top down. The sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh’s work examines the unseen economic and social forces operating all around us; his last book, “Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York,” has forever colored my interactions with the city’s hotel concierges, bartenders and bodega owners.
Will Hunt taps into our deep fascination with what lies beneath the surface of things by exploring, quite literally, what’s going on beneath the surface. His book, “Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet,” delves into the natural and manufactured caves, catacombs, mines and tunnels that dot the globe in both urban and rural settings. Using assorted scientists, tribesmen, urban adventurers and other locals as his guides, Hunt has spent years burrowing into the most storied holes in the grounds.
In following his journey — from New York’s subways to the Parisian catacombs and from Australian ochre mines to the prehistoric caves of the French Pyrenees — it soon becomes clear that Hunt is less interested in what he actually finds underground than in his own obsession with this dark world. Yes, we encounter plenty of graffiti, cave paintings, stalactites, subterranean creatures and remnants of religious rituals. But “Underground” is most concerned with understanding the fixation, shared by humans for millenniums, with these hidden realms.
The connections Hunt makes — for instance, between his own experience as a teenager exploring an abandoned train tunnel in Providence, R.I., and a young Mexican man who discovered the walled sanctuary within the ancient Mayan Balankanche cave — sometimes feel strained. Similarly, some of his sweeping conclusions (for instance, that “our connection to caves may well be our most universal, most deeply inscribed, perhaps our original religious tradition”) seem overblown. That said, if not taken too seriously, Hunt’s musings on our relationship to the underground world, drawing on literary, academic and mythological sources, are both provocative and satisfying.