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Underground A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet

Popular Science
By: Will Hunt(Author)
277 pages, b/w photos
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Underground is a mesmerizing book that probes the question of why the subterranean dark calls out to us.
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Average customer review
  • Underground ISBN: 9781471139574 Hardback Jan 2019 Usually dispatched within 1 week
Price: £16.99
About this book Customer reviews Biography Related titles Recommended titles

About this book

A panoramic investigation of the subterranean landscape, 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

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A mesmerizing book
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 20 May 2019 Written for Hardback

    Underground spaces exert a strong pull on the imagination of most people, although for some this morphs into a fascination bordering on the obsessive. American author Will Hunt is one such person, part of a worldwide community of urban explorers who infiltrate into “the city’s obscure layers”. Though this encompasses more than underground spaces, they are a big part of it, and this book is Hunt’s story of how he fell in love with them. It is one of two big books published only five months apart on the subterranean realm, and I previously reviewed Robert Macfarlane’s Underland: A Deep Time Journey. Here I will turn my attention to Underground.

    It starts off innocently enough, with Hunt discovering an abandoned train tunnel running beneath his home in Providence, Rhode Island. This left in an indelible impression that would be reawakened when he moved to New York City and became part of the city’s urban explorer crowd. From here, Underground follows Hunt on trips around the world, exploring the Parisian catacombs, a sacred Aboriginal ochre mine in outback Australia, the underground cities of Turkey, and the Mexican tunnel systems that became such an intimate part of late Mayan culture.

    Hunt weaves history throughout his tales. From the prevalence of the underworld in the gods and places of Greek mythology to the Magdalenian culture, “the Rennaissance Florentines of the Paleolithic Age”, who littered European caves with carved statues and wall paintings between 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. He introduces an extraordinary cast of historical characters, from the 19th-century Parisian cataphile Nadar, who was a very early tinkerer in subterranean photography, to the first attempts at underground mapping by Edouard-Alfred Martel, whose cartographic conventions we still use.

    Another very prominent aspect of Hunt’s story is the religious and spiritual pull these places have always had (see also Sacred Darkness: A Global Perspective on the Ritual Use of Caves). Examples he gives include the worshipping of the underground deity El Tío by Bolivian miners, the ritualized Aboriginal pilgrimages to dig up ochre, or the many shamans and philosophers who retreated underground for vision quests and extended retreats. The modern West may be a secular society now, but go underground, Hunt observes, and “we perform an unwitting shadow-performance of the old rituals, sometimes following the ancient choreography down to the last gesture” as we have to twist and contort our bodies in the same way to descend into these spaces.

    As Hunt points out, subterranean creation myths are prevalent in cultures around the world. One could even argue that scientists have their own version of this. He joins a team of microbiologists working for the NASA Astrobiologist Institute Life Underground who hunt for so-called “intraterrestrials”, the microbes living deep underground, possibly even throughout Earth’s crust in microscopic passageways (see Deep Life for much more on this). And he shortly considers the deep evolutionary history of burrowing animals, writing of ants in particular (see my review of The Evolution Underground for more on that). Hunt also considers the neurobiological basis to the powerful experience of being underground, illustrating it with his own tales of the disorientation when getting lost in catacombs, or the hallucinations that accompany the sensory deprivation when he camps underground in the dark for twenty-four hours.

    Part of what makes Underground such a fascinating book to read is the exclusive access it gives the reader. Over the years, Hunt has become increasingly well-connected in the world of urban explorers, anthropologists, and archaeologists. He meets one of New York’s most elusive and secretive graffiti artists, considered a phantom by the photographer who followed his work for over two decades but never met him. And he gets up close to an exceptional palaeolithic sculpture in the privately owned and zealously guarded Le Tuc cave in the Pyrenees, which archaeologists consider the most inaccessible major decorated cave in Europe.

    Hunt has placed his narrative front and centre in this book, forgoing footnotes or an index (though major works are referenced in the text), but adding many fascinating though uncaptioned archival photos throughout. I became so engrossed in the book that I managed to blitz through its 260 pages in between the gaps of a single working day. This is an absolutely mesmerizing book.

    So, how does Hunt’s Underground compare to Macfarlane’s Underland? It feels Macfarlane casts his mind outwards more, pondering deep time and the Anthropocene, while Hunt turns his gaze inwards, probing the more human side: religion, spirituality, and neurobiology. Macfarlane, as a nature writer, is more poetic in his writing, though Hunt, using a different tone, is an equally masterful storyteller. Underland is carefully annotated and referenced, but barely illustrated – Underground is the reverse. And even though both writers end up exploring under Paris and both touch on topics of biology and archaeology, it is striking how little they overlap. Clearly, the world under our feet is so vast there is space for more than one book. So why pick one? I heartily recommend them both!
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Will Hunt's writing, photography and audio storytelling have appeared in The Economist, The Paris Review, Discover, Audible Originals, 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 Writer's Conference, and The Macdowell Colony, he is currently a visiting scholar at the NYU Institute for Public Knowledge. Underground is his first book.

Popular Science
By: Will Hunt(Author)
277 pages, b/w photos
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Underground is a mesmerizing book that probes the question of why the subterranean dark calls out to us.
Media reviews

"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

"A unique history of a culturally and scientifically important netherworld most people barely know exists."

"An unusual and intriguing travel book [...] A vivid illumination of the dark and an effective evocation of its profound mystery."
Kirkus (starred review)

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