Nature in All Its Glory

Go Deep: Why We Explore the World Underground

by David Farley
Exploring Photo by Lê Tân/Unsplash.

Why is it humans have been drawn to caves and the spaces underground as long as we can remember? David Farley, author of Underground Worlds: A Guide to Spectacular Subterranean Places, has his theories.

CALCATA, Italy, — At midnight on December 21 a few years ago, I was sitting on the floor of a cave in central Italy, 60 feet deep into the volcanic stump that's crowned by a bewitching medieval hill town called Calcata.

The village is honeycombed with caves, carved out by our medieval predecessors for the purpose of stocking wine and/or storing foreigners deemed untrustworthy. As for this American, I was here to write a book about this wacky village filled with of hippies and artists. And I was hoping to escape without being locked up. On this night, though, I was taking part in a winter solstice ceremony with Athon, a ginger-haired sexagenarian who lives in an adjacent cave with a dozen crows. She was leading me and five others through several rituals that included blowing horns and beating drums.

I asked Athon why we weren't doing this in the village piazza or even my living room. 

"Energy!" she said. "You can really feel the energy of the earth when you're underground. Don't you feel it?"

I let my eyes explore subterranean space, our shadows dancing on the walls from the half dozen candles burning, and tried to will myself to feel it. And then I caught Athon's eyes. She was giving me that "Well…?” look.

I gave her a solemn nod and tried to go back to meditating, hoping she wouldn't press me on it.

As Athon led us out of the cave so we could stand on the cliff side and howl at the moon, I spent the next few moments marveling at the fact that I somehow — an unconscious desire? — often find myself in below-the-surface situations. During a trip to Krakow, when I heard about the nearby Wieliczka Salt Mines, I was soon on a bus pointed in that direction. I marveled at baroque monuments carved out of the saline walls by off-duty yet pious minors.

Or when I'd learned it was possible to take a tour of the necropolis, or scavi, as it's called in the local parlance, beneath the Vatican, I immediately knew I had to descend. So what if I had to wait for a month and I couldn't pick when I'd be going? When the Vatican tells you the time and day they're giving you special access to the underground space below St. Peter's Basilica, you go. Likewise, I always gravitate to underground cave bars and restaurants: I've spent hours in Grotta dei Germogli in Calcata and Cave Bar More in Dubrovnik.

Somewhere deep down, we ache to get in touch with a way of life we've long abandoned. Could it be the more we become connected to our smart phones, the less we feel connected to the earth?

Perhaps it's no surprise that I ended up writing a book about travel and underground places. The aptly named Underground Worlds: A Guide to Spectacular Subterranean Places features more than 50 sub-terrestrial spots around the globe. And my previous experiences traversing the underworld, coupled with writing the book, got me thinking: Why are we so lured (and fascinated) with the nether regions of our planet?

Calcata, Italy
Calcata, a most peculiar Italian village. Photo by David Farley.

So now when I'm frequenting a bar or restaurant in a cave, whilst sipping a glass of wine or grazing on a fire-roasted steak, I wonder if it sparks something in our collective unconscious, an atavistic feeling of getting in touch with our primal roots.

No, we don't start grunting and lighting fires, nor we do we suddenly feel the need to draw a large mammal on the wall. But somewhere deep down, we ache to get in touch with a way of life we've long abandoned. Could it be that the more we become connected to our smart phones, the less we feel connected to the earth? It may not be a coincidence that our recent craze for uber-local gastronomy and our desire for knowing exactly where our food comes from — or even more apt, our recent proclivity for the "caveman" or paleo diet — has coincided with our dependence on technology. We lose our phone or internet connection for a few hours and we experience a desperation, a profound sense of being lost. Admit it, you've been there.

It's not only about channeling our primal selves. The earth, mother earth, Gaia, whatever you call this rock we're living on, has long been perceived as a spiritual force to humans. Even now. The New Age-y group in Piedmont, north of Turin in the self-proclaimed micronation of federation of Damanhur, were sitting around one warm August night in 1978 when they took the sight of a shooting star as a sign that it was time to put shovel to earth. And that they did. A decade later, they created a multi-chamber subterranean electric Kool-Aid acid test of a temple on a spot they claim is a main vein of the earth's energy lines.

Kind of like what I was doing in Calcata. Standing on the cliffs of the medieval hill town overlooking a moonlit valley below, it was my turn to let out a primal howl. My roar, though, was more of a whimper.

Athon patted me on the back and said, "It's okay. Let's go back into the cave."

My inner hippie may have failed, but I was happy. We were going underground again.

Keep Exploring Unexpected Places

A Lair Fit for a Queen: An Excerpt from Underground Worlds
5 American Landscapes That Might Just Change Your Life
Hiking Nicaragua's Pleistocene Giant
Right About Now, We Could All Use a Life-Changing Wonder