Skip to main content
Move the World.
Will Hunt Finds Humanity Underground

Lead image courtesy of Ksumano / Adobe Stock, Archivist / Adobe Stock, Anthony / Adobe Stock, Acrogame / Adobe Stock, Leon Lee / Unsplash.

What Will Hunt finds underground is more than just bat-eating centipedes and eyeless, deathly pale salamanders. In the dark, he finds an allure, a place that is both sacred and scientific. 

In his book Underground, the journalist and "urban explorer" details his expeditions through caves, mines, tunnels, catacombs, and sewer systems around the world. He has been probing beneath the surface since age 16, when he discovered an abandoned train tunnel in his neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. 

For Hunt, the experience was like something out of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe — crossing a threshold into a hidden world. 

While outer space and the deep ocean naturally fascinate us, with their intriguing inaccessibility and alienness, there is another world just as rich in mystery that is closer than most of us realize. 

"Wherever you go in the world, there's going to be something strange and beautiful beneath your feet," Hunt says. Below the surface, there are insights to be gained about both society and our natural world: archeological treasures, fantastic creatures of the forever-night, the infrastructure on which cities run.

The tunnels of New York now host a legion of abandoned subway station hunters, artists, and even colonies of people.

When Hunt moved from Rhode Island to New York, he found an entire culture of these urban explorers, people who had made a lifestyle out of plumbing the depths of the city. They explored underground spaces, documented them, threw parties in them, interacted with them in interesting ways. 

Walking with an urban explorer would change Hunt's view of the city around him; above ground, it was like seeing through x-ray goggles. 

"I absolutely fell in love with them," Hunt says. "I love that they had this completely unique relationship with the city." They knew New York with an intimacy impossible to foster without being willing to descend, earning the right to share in the city's secrets and spirit.

Will Hunt in Wilgie Mia, a red ochre mine in Western Australia considered to be the oldest mine in the world. There is evidence that Aboriginal miners have been gathering red ochre from Wilgie Mia for 30,000 years. Photo by Brendan Hamlett.

Will Hunt in Wilgie Mia, a red ochre mine in Western Australia considered to be the oldest mine in the world. There is evidence that Aboriginal miners have been gathering red ochre from Wilgie Mia for 30,000 years. Photo by Brendan Hamlett.

Cold, dark, and often undisturbed for long periods of time, the underground is like a time machine, Hunt says. Artifacts and artwork flesh out cultures long-gone, while yellowing newspapers, stuffed into crevices below Manhattan, are like tiny, crumpled time capsules. 

The knowledge waiting beneath our feet can span millennia, with implications that are immediate: climate scientists use samples from stalactites and stalagmites to learn about the ancient environment. Total blackness helps us study vision and perception, and the planet's thick walls keep physicists' detectors screened from cosmic rays and radiation. 

"The spaces beneath our feet are like this repository for our knowledge of how the Earth was before," he says. "It's intellectually important and spiritually important."

Astrobiologists study the bizarre and hardy microbial life underground — which may hold the secrets to how life first formed and serve as models for what we may find on other planets and moons. (Hunt considers this "the most exciting frontier in subterranean science.")

The spiritual element may be the most fascinating of all. For a species so deeply splintered, the catholic nature of human habitation in caves is striking. 

"The archaeological record reveals that it was universal throughout the history of humanity," Hunt says. "That is, the impulse to leave earthly reality and make contact with a spiritual otherworld." 

In their strange, unique beauty and singular ecosystems, caves are ripe for the uncanny experiences that humans, for whatever reason, seem to crave. This desire goes beyond the mystical, Hunt says: in a more secular world, to enter a cave is still akin to stepping into a holy place. 

“Wherever you go in the world, there’s going to be something strange and beautiful beneath your feet.”

Will HuntUrban Explorer

"People, when they step into a cave, they innately have the impulse to drop their voice to a whisper," Hunt says. Even tourists fall into a kind of hush.

For modern stygian wanderers, the netherworld's allure is, more than religious awe, a spirit of curiosity. Spelunkers, urban explorers, rock climbers, scuba divers: all are seeking discovery and an encounter with sublime beauty in inherently hostile environments. 

The well-heeled sewer tourists of Victorian Paris have given way to the amateur catacomb lovers who roam beneath the old city today. The tunnels of New York now host a legion of abandoned subway station hunters, artists, and even colonies of people. 

All see the world with a different perspective, a perspective that has beguiled Hunt since that train tunnel in Providence.

"It's much bigger than holes in the ground," Hunt says. "I'm not doing this to try to convince people to crawl down into holes. It's more a way of trying to show people that the world is bigger and stranger and more mysterious and more magical than you would ever expect."

Eventually, we too will become part of the chthonic canon, a layer which will be discovered, studied, and lived atop of.

"Our society will leave behind a stratum in the geological record," Hunt says. "It'll be a narrow band of plastic and squashed cars, and we will become part of the underground to the future inhabitants of this Earth."

Up Next

Accessibility
Nike Unveils Its First Hands-Free Sneaker: The GO FlyEase
hands-free sneaker
Accessibility
Nike Unveils Its First Hands-Free Sneaker: The GO FlyEase
The GO FlyEase is Nike’s first completely hands-free sneaker — and the design was inspired by a letter from a teenage boy with cerebral palsy.

The GO FlyEase is Nike’s first completely hands-free sneaker — and the design was inspired by a letter from a teenage boy with cerebral palsy.

Decade In Review
9 Ways the 2010s Decade Changed the World
how the 2010s Changed the World
Decade In Review
9 Ways the 2010s Decade Changed the World
From Tinder to CRISPR, these are the top moments, movements, and ideas through which the 2010s decade shaped the world as we know it.

From Tinder to CRISPR, these are the top moments, movements, and ideas through which the 2010s decade shaped the world as we know it.

Catalysts
Shedding the Stigma of Substance Use
Shedding the Stigma of Substance Use
Catalysts
Shedding the Stigma of Substance Use
By achieving fitness goals together, The Phoenix community is peeling off the shame, regret, and stigma often associated with addiction.
By Esther Landhuis

By achieving fitness goals together, The Phoenix community is peeling off the shame, regret, and stigma often associated with addiction.

Wildfires
A Community at the Frontlines of the War on Wildfire
A Community at the Frontlines of the War on Wildfire
Watch Now
Wildfires
A Community at the Frontlines of the War on Wildfire
When facing literal hellfire, this community effort may be the only way to protect homes and lives from devastating wildfires.
Watch Now

California is burning like never before, with wildfires damaging nearly one million acres in 2018 alone. Despite the State’s best efforts, preventing forest fires doesn’t seem possible from the top down. With climate change accelerating the frequency and scale of these wildfires at an alarming rate, experts are turning to private citizens to help with forest fire prevention and control. Or as we like to say, to help fight...

Crossing the Divide
Why Does Officer Tommy Norman Have a Million Instagram Followers?
Why Does Officer Tommy Norman Have a Million Instagram Followers?
Crossing the Divide
Why Does Officer Tommy Norman Have a Million Instagram Followers?
Officer Tommy Norman's work has drawn national attention recently, but his approach to policing is nothing new.
By Michael O'Shea

Officer Tommy Norman's work has drawn national attention recently, but his approach to policing is nothing new.

Female Leaders
Afghanistan’s First Female Tech CEO
Afghanistan’s First Female Tech CEO
Watch Now
Female Leaders
Afghanistan’s First Female Tech CEO
Despite getting death threats from the Taliban, Roya Mahboob realized her dream of a successful career in tech.
Watch Now

As a girl growing up in Afghanistan, Roya Mahboob was offered few opportunities for a life outside the home. Her conservative society had limited options for women and actively discouraged dreaming bigger. But Roya knew she wanted more. When she went to an internet cafe as a teenager and saw a world outside of her town, she realized technology could be her ticket to the life she dreamed of. Roya studied information and...

Culture
This Week in Ideas: A $1 Microscope, Healing Our Divisions, Planet Earth is Back
This Week in Ideas: A $1 Microscope, Healing Our Divisions, Planet Earth is Back
Culture
This Week in Ideas: A $1 Microscope, Healing Our Divisions, Planet Earth is Back
Democratizing microscopes, how we heal our political divisions, and BBC's Planet Earth returns. These are our...
By Mike Riggs

Democratizing microscopes, how we heal our political divisions, and BBC's Planet Earth returns. These are our favorite stories of the week.