Then we descend

[Image: Descending into Mammoth Cave, from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

By way of JF Ptak Science Books, I found myself reading through an old book called Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams this weekend, a travelogue from 1876 exploring subterranean landscapes around the world, including what is now Mammoth Cave National Park.

“Then we descend,” Adams writes upon his arrival at the cave, “by a small pathway excavated among the rocks, until we discover, in the sides of the mountain, and at the bottom of a funnel-shaped cavity, overgrown with verdure, an opening so low and narrow that two people can with difficulty enter at once.”

Slipping through, they pass into “a labyrinth of caves” consisting of seemingly endless sloping rooms, shafts, and corridors.

As my own phrasing there indicates, these spaces are described by way of architectural analogy: as naves and vestibules, chambers and rotundas. In fact, their perceived architectural characteristics are highlighted even on the acoustic level. One cave, for example, is a place “where the voice resounds and, lingering, reverberates, like the strain of an organ through dim cathedral aisles.”

[Image: A room in Mammoth Cave known as “The Maelstrom,” from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

Continuing on their downward trek, Adams & Co. soon wander into “a chamber nearly 320 feet in circuit, whose roof rises like the stand of an immense nave. Its form, its grandeur, its magnitude (it could accommodate five thousand persons), and the strange architectural-like stalactites which embellish it, have procured it the name of the Gothic Church.”

Indeed, standing amidst this ersatz cathedral, and “thanks to the power of imagination, and the varying influence of the light, we here distinguish all the details of a medieval nave, pillars, and columns, and corbels and ogives.”

Among many things, what interests me here is how the interior of the earth is seen as if through the haze of a projection, with architectural forms emerging where, in fact, only inhuman geological processes at work—but also, in the opposite direction, the implied observation here that, in an age of masonry construction, architecture and geology were, in effect, natural cousins, lending themselves to mutual comparison far more easily than in today’s time of glass and steel construction.

[Image: A vast underground room filled with “a silent, terrible solitude,” from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

To put this another way, many streets in Manhattan are often quite appropriately described as “canyons,” not only due to their perceived depth—that is, given the towering buildings on either side, as if pedestrians merely wander at the bottom of artificial slot canyons—but also due to the geological materials those buildings were made from.

However, following widespread transformations in global building construction, our buildings today are now more likely to be reflective—even dangerously so—or partially transparent, whether this is due to the use of glass curtain walls or shadow-annihilating polished titanium, with the effect that our urban environment is no longer particularly well-served by geological analogy.

In any case, the book’s flirtation with an architectural vocabulary is gradually abandoned as Adams and his colleagues venture deeper into the planet. They eventually find themselves standing somewhat uncomfortably surrounded by a “phantasmagoria” of black gypsum walls, all “covered with sparkling crystallizations,” in a vast room whose belittling proportions inspire feelings not of grandeur and religiosity but a kind of exhausted desolation.

Here, Adams writes, “you think yourself on one of those dead and naked planets, where mineral nature reigns in the bosom of a silent, terrible solitude; on some earth never warmed by the sun, and which is animated by no kind of life.”

[Image: An unfortunately rather low-res image from Beneath the surface; or, the wonders of the underground world by W.H. Davenport Adams].

The rest of the book—including the image seen immediately above this sentence—ventures elsewhere, into silver mines and glacial caves, even briefly passing by way of underground “artificial ice caves” for the premodern production and storage of ice.

I’m just a sucker for subterranea. Check it out if any of this sounds up your alley, and click through the archives of JF Ptak Science Books while you’re at it.

7 thoughts on “Then we descend”

  1. Thanks for the recommendation – managed to find a copy!

    i can recommend (though not sure if it will relate to architecture in the same way) a book i've read since i was a child – "10 years under the earth" (1938) by norbert casteret – it covers early and frankly terrifying cave exploration, and amazing prehistoric discoveries

  2. That Casteret book is a favorite of mine as well. Also, Geoff, I don't know if I mentioned this, but back in 2006 a friend and I crashed the 50th anniversary celebration of the Cave Research Foundation (the organization responsible for mapping most of the Mammoth system). After with some wild caving nearby (and a futile, almost comic, attempt to find the cave mouth that corresponds to the beginning of Will Crowther's classic computer IF, Colossal Cave Adventure – Crowther's then-wife Pat is the person who connected the Mammoth and Flint Ridge systems into the world's largest by slipping through a gap henceforth known as "The Tight Spot"), I joined the CRF for a day-long exploration of depths that tourists aren't permitted to access. Vast, gypsum-covered chambers. Twisty little passages. An abandoned sanitarium, deep in a tunnel, that formerly housed TB patients looking for an experimental cure. Centuries-old ladders, coprolites, and other evidence of early Native American explorations. Periodically, we'd stop and some world-renowned expert or other would deliver a lightning talk in the dark. If you can ever get down there with that crew, I'd highly recommend it.

  3. Also check out Underground or Life Below the Surface by Thomas W. Knox (Google scans of the 1874 edition and 1876 edition) which has not only caves and mines, but also buried treasures, dungeons, illegal goings on, underground railroads both figurative and pneumatic, and pretty much everything associated with the concept of underground.

  4. You mention the caves' cathedral acoustics…
    Here's a link to a 1978 article about Mammoth Cave in The Village Voice by Anna Mayo:
    'On a morning in early October I watched the great free jazzman Don Cherry as he scaled a ledge high on the sheer wall of the Longest Cave in the World and played the rocks like a xylophone…'

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