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Going Deep

Life Below the Surface

ISSUE:  Spring 2021

The underground lake was 150 acres, though you couldn’t see all of it, not all at once. Most of the lake disappeared into the dense darkness of the mine. My host and tour guide, Gary McPartlin, the facilities operations manager, mentioned the lake in passing. Its waters, he said, were pumped throughout the mine, maintaining its constant chill, a temperature ideal for preserving not just paper, but spools of magnetic audio tape, reels of old film stock, file cabinets filled with many of the world’s rarest and most valuable photo negatives and prints. I’d just visited the cavern with the photos and seen several of its most iconic, including Einstein with his stuck-out hair, stuck-out tongue, and that one with workmen eating their lunches on a beam high above Manhattan, on break while building a skyscraper. I’d already filed away enough notes on my interviews with the subterranean photo archivists for the story that had brought me down here, to this former limestone mine owned by the Iron Mountain corporation and called, simply, “The Underground.” The lake wasn’t on the agenda. It was off topic, unplanned. But it was too intriguing. I asked if I could see it. McPartlin seemed a little surprised. But then he wheeled his golf cart around, and off we went. 

On the way, we passed a door to a cavern storing files for the US Patent Office, including the trademark material for the Statue of Liberty and the Furby; another door that led to a whole wing for processing and storing the Social Security applications filed by every single resident of the United States; another, behind which were stored the master recordings of Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, and Elvis Presley. We passed a cavern with rows and rows of towering racks of hard drives: backup storage for banks and hospitals throughout the country, updated frequently, in the event of a catastrophe. Finally, nearing a particularly dark and distant corner, McPartlin took his foot off the accelerator, and we crawled to a stop. “This is where I don’t often take people,” he said. We had arrived at the lake. “I mean, it’s just water,” he added. There was nothing to see—or, nothing I could see. 

McPartlin peered out into the dark. Then he jumped off the cart and fumbled around beside a rough wall for a moment, searching for something. I stepped off, too, and out toward where I supposed the lake should be—an area that felt like a space opening up, where the temperature dipped. “Oh, here’s a light switch,” McPartlin said, then flicked it on. I gasped. The water was so clear that at first it didn’t register as water. I was practically standing in it already, and I bent down to the lake’s edge, then gazed out across its surface. It looked like—and here I still find myself struggling to describe what it looked like, the memory of it is like a hallucination—a vague disturbance in the distance, a koan. What do you see in an expanse of clear water, way underground? Nothing? Everything?

“I mean, it’s just water,” McPartlin said again, only now he was staring out at the lake as well. I’d like to think the underground lake impressed him, and that he could tell I was impressed too. That we both knew what he was saying—about it being just water—was not entirely true. The clarity of this pellucid water felt strange and vaguely holy down in that sunless cavern. Of course, plenty of water is underground, and an underground lake isn’t such a rare thing. There was no reason it should have felt so unexpected and special other than the fact that I was there to see it.


The earth below us is a strange place, full of strange creatures. Recently, I was digging in my yard—something I do as often as I can these days—when I encountered a Jerusalem cricket, which is not exactly a cricket and certainly not from Jerusalem. It’s an unnerving insect, with a head like a skull and fleshy-looking legs that creepy-crawl. These insects look uncannily most like tiny alien children, and always seem to be frozen in a fetal position when uncovered, as if hibernating or dead. But when I flipped over this Jerusalem cricket it did what they usually do: flailed for a moment before righting itself and quickly digging, trying to escape the air back into the dirt. Jerusalem crickets are common in Southern California, and when the Spanish arrived they called them niños de la tierra—children of the earth. I read that the Jerusalem in their name comes by way of Franciscan priests, who were working with the Navajo on a translated dictionary for California and much of the West. Various Navajo names can be translated as skull insect, or skull bug, or red skull. The Franciscans, being Franciscan, connected this to Calvary, the hill in Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified, a hill that is shaped like a skull. Growing up, we called Jerusalem crickets potato bugs, which I never understood: They look nothing like a potato (the name comes from the fact that they will feast on potatoes, or any tuber). Skull bugs, or children of the earth, are better names. Not only do they capture the look of the thing, but our experience of its existence: How they first appear dead and then spring to life, quickly digging back under to resume their childlike pose in a still and deathlike state.

Life underground, for many of the things that have adapted to it, is like this: The lines between alive and not alive, dead and not, get blurred. Examining these lives raises uncomfortable questions about the very thing we think of as life, and what it means to be living, or at least what it is supposed to look like. Karen Lloyd, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee, studies microbes that have absurdly long lifespans. Many of these live—if you can call it that—in the deep biome, an only recently discovered collection of ecosystems far below Earth’s surface, sometimes miles underground. Lloyd collects samples from the coring sediments of drill ships. In these layers upon layers of marine sediments, she finds plenty of things that were buried dead, but also things—bacteria, mostly—that were buried alive and did not die. Instead, they entered a sort of stasis: a long-, long-, long-term hibernation. Some of these things, these cells just waiting for the right circumstances to reemerge so that they might divide—or come alive, once again—are astonishingly old. “They sit there and sit there and basically nothing happens to them for a million years,” Lloyd told me. I asked her if they could be considered alive, and Lloyd said, “Well, they aren’t dead.” Once the environment around them changes in a way that’s beneficial, they get back to doing what cells do: dividing, multiplying, metabolizing. Doing the stuff that we like to think of as the building blocks of life. And, certainly, the building blocks of us.

Lloyd admits that wrapping one’s mind around life that can press pause for a million years is difficult. “This is a different way of looking at biology,” she said. “Every single tool we use to study life on Earth, all of standard microbiology, involves fast living.” She described this shift to me as a kind of forced expansion of our sense of time, out to a place where stretches of time become so vast as to be nearly incomprehensible. There are, however, real benefits to living in this very slow lane. Take, for example, one of our most persistent foes—cancer—which has everything to do with the speed at which our cells divide. In life where eons are but a moment, cancer becomes practically irrelevant.

When we spoke, Lloyd was preparing for a field trip to Svalbard, an archipelago above the Arctic Circle, between Norway and the North Pole. Svalbard is most famous for its Global Seed Vault, which can hold up to 4.5 million crop varieties in subzero temperatures for centuries. Svalbard also boasts one of the world’s largest populations of polar bears. “We have to carry guns all the time,” Lloyd said. What drew Lloyd to Svalbard was not, like the Vault (and like most of her work), below the surface. She and her colleagues have been more and more interested in the permafrost. As the Earth warms due to the effects of climate change, layer after layer of permafrost melts, uncovering communities of the eternal-lifespan microbes that had previously been locked away. Instead of having to dig to reach the underground, in parts of the world that were melting for the first time in human history, the underground was coming up to them. “It’s a little depressing,” Lloyd said.

There was another study, similar to the one in Svalbard, but in Siberia, that was taking 3.5-million-year-old samples from some of the oldest permafrost in the world. The microbes unleashed by the melt here have been having newsworthy, science-fiction-like consequences for the past decade or more. In one case from August 2016, a twelve-year-old boy died and some twenty others were hospitalized after being infected by anthrax. The infection was traced to a nearby herd of reindeer, which had themselves been infected after a long-dead and frozen—then thawed—reindeer carcass rereleased the bacterium into the environment. Similarly, there are concerns that, among the millions of dead frozen bodies buried throughout the tundra, many are carrying the smallpox virus, or the bacterium that causes bubonic plague, or countless other microscopic threats to humanity that we assume are safely confined to history but are merely in stasis, waiting for the right opportunity to reemerge.

The sheer volume and variety of life beneath us that we hadn’t even known was living is staggering. A 2019 report issued by the Deep Carbon Observatory was the first attempt to map the whole of Earth’s deep biosphere, a place the report called a “subterranean Galapagos.” The team of geobiologists collaborating on the report estimated that some five hundred thousand trillion trillion cells live hidden underground, and carry a collective weight three hundred times greater than all humans currently alive. Lloyd described the report’s findings as akin to living in an apartment “and suddenly you discover that you’ve got a roommate, and they’ve been living with you this whole time.”


This new roommate—does it wish us harm? It can harm us, certainly. And we now know that, when presented with a microscopic, half-alive threat that emerges from below, many of us feel a desperate, vaguely primal need to head underground too. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak—a virus that most likely jumped to humans from cave-dwelling horseshoe bats, the hosts of the last major coronavirus—the urge to live out the plague from a bunker has been fierce. Many have been selling such spaces. There are plenty of buyers.

Outside the single-stoplight town of Ector, Texas, for instance, there was a $300 million planned community featuring a polo field, a solid-marble fountain that developers claimed was among the largest water features in the world, and, for living quarters, four hundred underground condominiums. “You live in a five-star resort, waiting for that doomsday,” Richie Witt, a spokesman, told the local NBC affiliate. The project fell apart, however, after drug-trafficking allegations against its CEO emerged and the FBI began investigating. Outside of Wichita, Kansas, there’s Survival Condo (a rebrand of its original name, Raven’s Ridge)—a luxury-condo complex constructed out of a former ballistic-missile silo fifteen stories underground. The units go for between $1 and $5 million, feature virtual windows (flat-screen TVs), require all-cash payment, and are nearly sold out. Just south of the Black Hills of South Dakota, in the town of Hot Springs, a company called Vivos has cleaned out and repurposed 575 concrete-and-steel-fortified World War II bunkers on a former army base for what the company’s literature has dubbed the “xPoint: The point in time when only the prepared will survive.” Vivos boasts that its bunker town is centrally located, within a day’s drive of “anywhere in North America”; that it is “away from hotspots, targets and submersion zones.” Its website includes a terrifying map of “where you don’t want to be, stuck and a victim of the marauders during the aftermatch [sic] following a large scale cataclysm or catastrophic event.” One of the buyers, a contractor from Illinois named Michael Gembala, bought and began converting his bunker into a home four years ago, then moved his wife and two kids, a thousand pounds of rice and five hundred pounds of beans, into the bunker in March 2020. “It doesn’t take a genius to realize that our economy could collapse at any time and that led us to realize that we have to look after ourselves,” Gembala told a reporter.  Sales in early 2020 at Vivos were up 500 percent over the previous year, and the company is planning several additional bunker towns throughout the US and overseas.

I was not far from Hot Springs and its bunker village in February 2020. I was there to visit another former mine, this one repurposed into a series of physics laboratories nearly a mile underground. The mine itself, the Homestake, is legendary: It was owned by George Hearst, and is in the town of Lead, just up the road from Deadwood. While in operation, the Homestake pulled more than 2.5 million pounds of gold out from the ground—more than enough to keep itself going for well over a century. Back in the 1960s, a chemist named Ray Davis began an experiment in one inactive portion of the mine and ended up changing the course of physics. He filled a 100,000-gallon tank with dry-cleaning fluid and waited, in the hope that a theoretical subatomic particle known as a neutrino would interact with some of the atoms in the fluid’s chlorine. A reaction would prove the neutrino’s existence, and also give clues as to just how many of them are in the universe. The challenge with proving the existence of something very small yet practically ubiquitous is that it moves through everything. But Davis had set a large trap—that 100,000-gallon tank—and placed it in a very quiet place, some 4,850 feet underground. Not only did he prove neutrinos were out there, but also that they weren’t as numerous as theorized (complicating the picture is the fact that there are at least three different types of neutrino). In 2002, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work.

The cavern where Davis performed his neutrino experiments now contains another sort of trap: a five-foot-tall tank filled with about one quarter of the world’s annual supply of liquid xenon. The hope is that another theoretical particle, called a WIMP, will interact with the xenon in such a way as to answer one of the greatest ongoing mysteries in all of physics: the existence (or nonexistence) of dark matter. I was in town to see the experiment up close, especially the xenon tank, which would soon be sealed inside another, much larger tank, which would also—eventually—be filled with water. In Deadwood, in my hotel, the night before I was scheduled to visit the Homestake, I encountered a video that I couldn’t shake from my mind the whole next day. It was a Nightline segment from years ago, about a population of folks, mostly children, who had begun inhabiting the tunnels beneath Bucharest. One tunnel had electricity, a microwave, a fan, a Christmas tree. “Everything we have, we have collected from the garbage,” said one of the tunnel’s residents. There was a leader, a kind of Pied Piper of the tunnel-dwelling children, who called himself Bruce Lee. He had a large pack of dogs with him, and he’d spray-painted his hair an eerie, thick, metallic silver using Autolac. “I like people to think I am crazy, so then they will leave me alone,” he told the correspondent. When he was asked why he lived down there, he grew indignant. “Why is it that people live in the tunnels? Because they have no other choices.”

After my visit to the xenon tank, I traveled on an electric mine cart to another section of the mine, to see a different set of lab spaces. The trip was slow and rattly, and terribly dark. I realized, after some time had passed, that I had no idea how far we’d traveled, nor did I have much of a sense of how long we’d been traveling. All the usual reference points of existence—light, a horizon line, sky—were gone. Beneath the earth, away from the sun, time as I knew it had ceased. Maybe this was the draw. Maybe this was the repulsion. Underground, we escape time and are also locked into a space outside of time. Bucharest Bruce Lee knew this. Did the buyers of all those underground bugout bunkers know it too?

The mine-cart ride eventually ended, and I got to peek into a few other, smaller labs that held similarly mind-bending experiments, including a fifty-foot-long particle accelerator that mimicked the nuclear fusion inside stars, and a series of germanium crystals suspended and surrounded by a layer cake of electroformed copper. On the return mine-cart trip, I timed the journey: about eight minutes. Was that longer or shorter than I had initially imagined? I didn’t know. When I returned to the surface, the sky was darkening, the sun hidden behind thick clouds. A blizzard was due around nightfall. Still, I squinted at the sky itself.

Time spent away from sunlight alters one’s sense of time. In the 1950s, a German biologist named Jürgen Aschoff built an underground bunker for the purpose of studying sleep. He made sure that his bunker was cut off from all light and sound, so he would have no way of telling the time of day or night. Then he went in. He found he still naturally kept close to a twenty-four-hour schedule, but the more people he brought into his bunker for a similar test, the greater the range of sleep cycles he found—some could sleep for sixteen hours at a stretch, then stay up for nearly forty-eight hours. He tracked his subjects’ body temperatures in his sensory-deprivation bunker and found that we lose body heat in twenty-four-hour patterns. It was a crucial breakthrough in chronobiology, the study of biological rhythms—moving the science from the realm of flora and fauna to begin focusing on our own internal cadences. 

In 1962, a speleologist named Michel Siffre took chronobiology to new extremes when he spent two months living in a subterranean cave in the Scarasson abyss, in the French Alps. Siffre went without clock, calendar, human contact, sun. His goal, he said, was to discover how the natural rhythms of life would be affected by living “beyond time.” He slept when he was tired. He ate when he was hungry. His sense of time shifted and stretched. When his team contacted him after two months, Siffre had convinced himself that there was still a month left to go. Decades later, he said he believed “that when you are surrounded by night—the cave was completely dark, with just a light bulb—your memory does not capture the time. You forget. After one or two days, you don’t remember what you have done a day or two before. The only things that change are when you wake up and when you go to bed. Besides that, it’s entirely black. It’s like one long day.”

Two years later, Siffre repeated his experiment with two cave explorers, Josie Laures and Antoine Senni, in two separate caves in the French Alps, near Nice. Laures stayed in her cave for eighty-eight days, and Senni went 126 days before emerging. When Laures came out, on March 12, 1965, she thought it was February 25—time had collapsed by weeks in the darkness. Senni was off by more than two months. He would nod off for thirty-hour stretches, waking, as he recalled, as if he had simply taken a short nap. Laures said that at the start of her cave stay, she read, but soon lost the desire. She lost the desire for most things. She told the Associated Press that she was “so happy to have lasted it out, that I have forgotten everything,” adding that, “I knitted, and knitted some more, and looked forward to the time when I would finally see the sun.”


A few years ago, I encountered a thick report, put out by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, on Underground Engineering for Sustainable Urban Development. “For thousands of years,” the report begins, “the underground has provided refuge, resources, foundations for surface structures, and a place for spiritual or artistic expression. More recently, important infrastructure has been placed underground.” The report’s primary concern is  those services, and how we haven’t given them the proper long-term consideration and planning they deserve. But I was interested in the habitability aspect. In the future, would more and more of us turn to underground dwellings? I called one of the report’s authors, Sammantha Magsino, director of the Committee on Geological and Geotechnical Engineering at the National Academies. Magsino was quick to explain that, while the report was less about building habitats underground and more about thinking of the underground “as part of a large system,” that system might, in the future, include habitation. One of the trickiest aspects of planning anything underground, particularly in a city, Magsino said, is that humans have always buried stuff and forgotten about it. And forgetting could cause huge headaches once we went under again. Among of her favorite recent examples of this was right there on the report’s cover: a hulking piece of state-of-the-art technology named Bertha, the 57.5-foot-tall boring machine specially built for Seattle’s viaduct-replacement tunnel. Months into the dig, Bertha got stuck. She’d chewed into an old, long-buried and forgotten stainless-steel pipe. Now Bertha couldn’t go forward. And—incredibly—Bertha hadn’t been designed to back up. Workers had to tunnel in from the other side and extract the pipe just so Bertha could keep tunneling. The stainless-steel pipe had delayed the project by two years and millions of dollars, all because, well, it had been buried and forgotten. 

Part of our forgetting about what’s under us has to do, Magsino suspected, with fear. “People don’t like going underground. If you tell someone ‘Oh I have a basement office,’ it’s like you’re a mole person.” Clever engineers and architects had designed spaces that were technically underground, but threw natural light into the environment in such a way as to obscure that fact—Magsino pointed to many of the malls in Singapore as an example. Then there were places with environments that were so extreme that living underground made a kind of sense, like the opal-mining outpost of Coober Pedy in South Australia. Many of its residents live in caves bored into the hillsides, which remain cool in the searing summer heat. But generally, and especially in cities, the underground is where the sewers and subways go, where all of the stuff you don’t want to see on the surface disappears. Only, she added, we are running out of space, and certain cities are turning to ad hoc underground living. “How do you do that without creating a classed society?” she asked. “It’s not just a matter of digging a hole in the ground and creating a space to live in.” 

Only, we’re already living in the future  that Magsino feared: Societies are classed, and poor people reside in subterranean dwellings the world over. In Beijing, some one million residents rent basement units, most of which are converted Cold War-era bomb shelters, dug out as part of a massive, citywide undertaking at the behest of Mao. The apartments sit beside utility closets, in floors beneath the city’s high-rises. Many of these renters are new to Beijing, and young. These dwellers are known as the shuzu, the “rat tribe.”  Wei Kuan, an insurance salesman, told a reporter that he took this form of cheap lodging in order to afford other items that would elevate him above his station, like a recently purchased wool suit. “I am doing well because I’m scared of being poor,” he said. Annette M. Kim, an associate professor and director of the University of Southern California’s Spatial Analysis Lab, spent a year among Beijing’s basement tribe. When she first heard about the huge population living underground, she was “amazed and shocked.” Only once she was there, interviewing and following the shuzu throughout the day, did the bargain they had made begin to seem almost normal. Kim described a video she took, for her research, of a young cafeteria worker beginning her day belowground in what had from a distance seemed like particularly squalid quarters but which up close just looked like any windowless apartment. As she emerged from the stream of commuters in the city, she disappeared among the throng, blending right in.  


“I didn’t really know how to think about these places before I was living in Beijing,” Kim admitted. What had sounded so lurid from afar looked more and more familiar. It was striking to her just how much the rest of the population of Beijing wanted to sequester and otherize this particular tribe, the rat tribe, when in fact they looked just like anyone else. That seemed the threat and an uncomfortable truth—a society filled with basement-dwelling strivers was a society where anyone in the upper floors might fall down into the basement as well. Unless the basement dwellers were not just a class apart, but a whole separate type of person. Kim started to realize she had set out thinking that what was happening in Beijing was extraordinary, when it was a tale as old as time. The story of Wei Kuan, the wool-suit-wearing insurance salesman, seemed Dickensian, or like something out of Horatio Alger: Wei had worked his way up from petty criminal to delivery boy, funeral singer, foot masseur, bathhouse worker; he lived in a 300-square-foot room he shared with up to nine other men; “Many of my colleagues live aboveground, but I think it’s too comfortable; this place forces me to work harder,” he said. 

After her year in Beijing among the rat tribe, Kim explained how she had “started to look at all cities differently,” especially the city where we both live—Los Angeles—which is known for its sprawl but is in fact incredibly dense, and only more so as rents soar and generations triple up in households, and lower-income workers carve out living situations from whatever is available—increasingly, under freeway overpasses, or in their cars, or a tent on the street. We were doing to the unhoused what the Beijingers had done to the rat tribe, making them out to be some kind of people apart when they are uncomfortably like the rest of us, with families and jobs and bills to pay. The only difference was that they were poorer, close enough to the edge of bad luck to have fallen off. Close enough for us to try to bury and forget them. To tell stories that made them categorically different. 

During the Great Depression—the last era when sprawling shantytowns appeared throughout the Los Angeles basin—the city was briefly captivated by the story of the Lizard People, an advanced race of humans who, it was claimed, created an underground city here some five thousand years ago. George Warren Shufelt, a mining engineer, said he had discovered a series of tunnels throughout L.A. with the aid of his invention, a radio x-ray machine. The tunnels were arranged in the shape of a lizard, naturally, and had been carved out using advanced chemicals by a race related to the Mayans. They’d traveled to Southern California fleeing a meteor shower. That Shufelt was a flimflam man of the highest order made little difference. This was a good story told during bad times, and the press covered Shufelt’s quest for the Lizard People’s lost catacombs and golden treasures near daily throughout 1933. Shufelt even received permission from the County Board of Supervisors to begin an excavation downtown, by Sunset and North Broadway. Of course he found nothing. But what a tale! What a mythic soap opera. Much better this than the reality of all those Hoovervilles.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Shufelt and his Lizard People, the Beijing rat tribe and the stuff we bury and forget. The local air-quality management recently suspended its limits on crematoria, as there’s a backlog of bodies. Someone in L.A. County is dying every eight minutes these days. This summer, when the air was thick with smoke and too heavy to go outside safely, the house started to feel like its own kind of bunker, when the darkness was everywhere and spreading, like we all were living underground.

I’ve been digging in my yard lately, looking for something long forgotten. An entrance, an escape. Maybe nothing. Maybe just a myth. One of our neighbors lives in an old carriage house, surely one of the oldest structures in the neighborhood. We live at the base of a hill, in the hilly eastern part of L.A. The carriage house sits up the hill, directly above us. One day, my neighbor was out front doing yard work, and I was out back, up the hill, close enough to holler a hello. We got to talking about his house, its history. He said that there is, or was, a wine cellar beneath it. The cellar is inaccessible now, because the entrance was buried, but it is probably somewhere on the hill below his house. “Hey,” he said, eyes widening at the thought, “It’s probably in your yard.” And then he laughed and shook his head like, what a thing. This is, I tell myself, why I’ve been digging. Sure, it’s also for the plants I’m planting, for the soil, for the future. But there’s that thought of finding something. A portal to another place, perhaps. I dig and dig and keep on digging up Jerusalem crickets. Their little childlike skull heads and their stillness make me shudder and turn my thoughts back toward death. 


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