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Posts Tagged ‘Subterranean’

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Photo: Associated Press
Under the streets of Paris, you can get lost in a whole other world.

I have a friend whose dream is to go to Paris. It has been her goal for decades, and she was all signed up for a trip when she fell and landed in the hospital. But she hasn’t given up, and I expect by this time next year she will have met her goal.

Paris has an irresistible lure for people around the world. If you have already been there, consider discovering the underground version of that city next time you go.

Robert Macfarlane writes at the New Yorker, “The map runs to sixteen laminated foolscap pages, or about ten square feet, when I tile the pages together. I have been given it on the condition that I do not pass it on. It is not like any map I have ever seen, and I have seen some strange maps in my time. The plan of the above-ground city is traced carefully in pale silver-gray ink, such that, if you read only for the gray, you can discern the faint footprints of apartment blocks and embassies, parks and ornamental gardens, boulevards and streets, the churches, the railway lines and the train stations, all hovering there, intricate and immaterial.

“The map’s real content — the topography it inks in black and blue and orange and red — is the invisible city, the realm out of which, over centuries, the upper city has been hewn and drawn, block by block. This invisible city follows different laws of planning to its surface counterpart. …

“The map’s place names traverse a range of cultural registers, from the classical to the surreal to the military-industrial. … Affordance is specified on the map in handwritten cursive words: ‘Low,’ ‘Quite low,’ ‘Very low,’ ‘Tight,’ ‘Flooded,’ ‘Impracticable,’ ‘Impassable.’ More detail is occasionally given: ‘Humid and unstable region (sometimes flooded)’; ‘Beautiful gallery, vaulted and corbelled.’ …

“I have come to the catacombs with two friends — let us call them Lina and Jay. Jay is a caver keen to extend his explorations into city systems. He is droll, unflappable, and strong. Lina is the leader of our group, and she has been here many times. She is passionate about the catacombs, especially about preserving and documenting their swiftly changing features through photography and record-keeping. …

“ ‘We’ll plan to exit by a manhole, whenever we come out.’ She gestures back up the tunnel with a smile, then eases herself feet first into the ragged hole, raises her arms above her head, and disappears.

“All cities are additions to a landscape that require subtraction from elsewhere. Much of Paris was built from its own underland, hewn block by block from the bedrock and hauled up for dressing and placing. Underground stone quarrying began in the thirteenth century, and Lutetian limestone was used in the construction of such iconic buildings as Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, and Saint-Eustache Church.

“The result of more than six hundred years of quarrying is that beneath the southern portion of the upper city exists its negative image: a network of more than two hundred miles of galleries, rooms and chambers, extending beneath several arrondissements. …

“For centuries, quarrying was ill-regulated and largely unmapped. Then, in the mid-eighteenth century, the extensive undermining began to have consequences for the upper city, causing subsidence sinkholes, known as fontis, that were reputed to be of diabolic origin. The quarry voids had begun to migrate to the surface; the under city had begun to consume its twin. …

“Louis XVI responded, shortly after his accession, by creating an inspection unit for the ‘Quarries Below Paris and Surrounding Plains,’ headed by a general inspector named Charles-Axel Guillaumot, and tasked with regulating the quarries for the purposes of public safety.

“It was Guillaumot who initiated the first mapping of the void network, with a view to consolidating existing spaces and regulating further quarrying activities. A subterranean town-planning system was established whereby chambers and tunnels were named in relation to the streets above them, thus creating a mirror city, with the ground serving as the line of symmetry.”

There’s a long read at the New Yorker, here.

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Map: Athanasius Kircher, from Mundus Subterraneus (Amsterdam, 1665)
Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below is on exhibit through February 25 at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

You don’t have to be keen on fantasies like Alice’s Adventures Underground or Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to be fascinated by maps of the world below our feet.

That is why, as Allison Meier writes at Hyperallergic, the Boston Public Library (BPL) is sharing its amazing array of subterranean cartography — from mythology to science, from the God of Death in Pompeii to leaded water in Flint, Michigan.

“Only in recent centuries have cartographers visualized what’s underground,” she writes. “Early mapmakers employed mythology to explain the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that seemed to erupt from some dark force, and sometimes swallow whole communities, like Pompeii or Herculaneum. Even now, our ability to delve below the thin crust on which we’ve built our civilization is limited by the intense pressure and molten magma that churns within the planet. …

“The Leventhal Map Center is exhibiting ‘Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below,’ featuring 400 years of subterranean maps from their collections. These visualize volcanoes, catacombs, pipelines, mines, and seabeds, ranging from 19th-century geological surveys to 21st-century sensing technology. …

“ ‘We’re seeing that these maps were typically produced much later than the weather maps,’ [Stephanie Cyr, associate curator] explained. The exhibition is organized into different underground subjects, such as ‘Earth’s Crust,’ ‘Oceans,’ ‘Mining,’ ‘Archaeology,’ and ‘Beneath Boston.’ These are all further explored in an online component. …

“As soon as people found a way to map the Earth’s underground, they began to exploit it as a resource, drilling natural gas pipelines and digging coal mines.

“Yet as Cyr noted, ‘Before we could actually get down there and explore and survey it, people had to cope with things in the best way they could, and mythology helped people do that.’

“A 17th-century map on view, by Athanasius Kircher, has a tumultuous subsurface scene, with a ball of fire at the center of the Earth and all its bodies of water linked by underground waterways. …

“The maps in ‘Beneath Our Feet’ continue into the 21st century. … And (as the inclusion of maps of lead testing in Flint, Michigan, and the invasive technique of fracking remind viewers) this knowledge can have a significant impact on the lives of the people above.”

If you can’t get to the show, you can at least see some great underground maps here and explore the online features of the show.

Hat tip: Michelle Aldredge (@gwarlingo) on twitter.

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