“Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jökull of Snæfell, which the shadow of Scartaris touches (lit: tastes) before the Kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth. I did it. Arne Saknussemm”
~ From Jules Verne’s Journey To The Center of the Earth
One of my favorite movies as a kid was Walt Disney’s Journey To The Center of the Earth, and I still find it interesting. Afraid of the dark and a whole slew of other things, I was apparently drawn to the darkest place on earth. It’s an adventure movie, loosely based on Jules Verne’s story, that introduced me to all the wonder and mystery of unknown, hidden places.
As a teen, I visited Carlsbad Caverns where, after the tour was collected in one of the big caverns, they shut off the lights to let you experience total darkness. It was exhilarating and terrifying. Since then, I have visited other commercial caverns and done some caving with local spelunkers, and could recreate the same feelings.
Of course, I had to read Verne’s version — then Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series that took place in Pellucidar, the hollow world at the center of the earth. Other authors have explored the concept of the hollow earth, a theory about which Edmond Halley wrote in the 17th century. Much folklore describes the origin of peoples as an emergence from a hole in the ground, as well as an inner world inhabited by supreme or sinister beings.
We’ve been captivated by the idea of space below ground. The concept of that mysterious unseen place drives our imagination to flights of fancy (well, maybe tunnels of fancy). Caves and caverns lure us into the darkness.
Man has always seen the subsurface as a place of refuge. We kept our fires burning at the mouths of caves to ward off predators; we hide from catastrophic weather in cellars; and we shelter from aerial bombing and nuclear weapons in subway stations and bomb shelters. Catacombs beneath ancient cathedrals offer a glimpse of Dante’s circles of hell lined with human skulls as a final resting place.
We have found ways to use the space below ground for other purposes — to make it into features of our own design. Over time, these places may lose their function and become abandoned or shifted to other purpose in both fiction and reality. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live in an abandoned subway station beneath the city. Albino alligators and mutants haunt the New York sewers, and civilization’s remnants survive in communities created out of Cold War shelters and missile silos.
Years ago, in Minneapolis, I dined at an underground restaurant, situated in a cave in the bluff alongside the Mississippi River. It had previously been a speakeasy and a mushroom farm. The cool, damp, dark interior was perfect for these activities — as well as for a restaurant.
It is expected that the growth of cities will continue, if not accelerate in the future. Immigration, “climate refugees” and younger generations will, of preference or necessity, converge on metropolitan areas already troubled by crowding and homelessness. Recently, concerns about climate change, the loss of close-in agricultural lands and costs associated with transportation have spurred concerns about food supplies and ideas for urban farming. Shipping containers, old factories and under-used high rises have each been adapted to indoor vertical farming to address the problems with traditional agriculture.
Another idea has surfaced (or subsurfaced) lately, as reported by Adrienne Kennedy: “In 2015, (Richard) Ballard, alongside business partner Steven Dring, founded Growing Underground — the self-described first subterranean urban farm in the world — in an old Second World War bomb shelter below London’s Northern line … Growing Underground uses the natural insulation of underground tunnels, 100-percent renewable energy to power its LED grow lights and a recycling hydroponic system.”
Kennedy notes, “In an overcrowded city like London, with its housing shortages and box-flat living, urban farmers are facing an ever-increasing challenge of where to grow their produce; how to withstand the weather and the city’s pollution, and in ways that utilize any and all available space.“
She quotes architect Carolyn Steel, “The relationship between food and cities is endlessly complex, but at one level it is utterly simple. Without farmers and farming, cities would not exist.”
It may be that our dystopian fiction of underground cities is not too far from a workable future.
Unless, of course, they are overrun by mutants and albino alligators.
Adrienne Katz Kennedy, London’s Urban Farms Move Underground, November 4, 2019, Modern Farmer
Steve Tarlton, Afraid of the Dark, January 21, 2016, Writes of Nature