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Underground Colonies

April 18, 2012 | by

We are pupils of the animals in the most important things: the spider for spinning and mending, the swallow for building, and the songsters, swan and nightingale, for singing, by way of imitation. —Democritus, Fragment 154

I decided to go to Cappadocia after seeing an old illustration of one of the underground cities. The drawing, just a rough sketch, showed tiny people moving through a honeycomb of underground caverns, passageways, and winding staircases. The honeycombed cities, I read, had been hollowed from the region’s soft volcanic soil during the early Bronze Age. Cappadocia had been cobwebbed by trade routes in those days and was constantly under attack; the underground cities served as fortification from invaders. There were hundreds of them, one beneath nearly every modern settlement in the region, and some were as deep as ten levels, with space for thousands of people. What made me curious was that the ancient inhabitants were believed to have lived underground for months at a time.

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Ghost River

January 23, 2012 | by

Not long ago, I read an article about archaeologists in Greenland who discovered that plants growing above an ancient Norse ruin possessed slightly different chemistry from plants growing nearby. I was taken with the idea that the energy of a forgotten structure, invisible and buried deep underground, may percolate upwards to leave subtle impressions on the surface. It was this that came to mind recently when I discovered Minetta Brook, a hidden stream that flows beneath the streets of Greenwich Village.

I had learned of the stream from an 1865 map of Manhattan, drawn by an engineer named Egbert Ludovicus Viele, which showed marshlands, rivers, and streams crisscrossing the island beneath an overlay of the city’s grid. The map, which is still used today by engineers, showed Minetta Brook beginning as two branches, one originating from a spring at Fifth Avenue and Twentieth Street, the other from a marsh near Sixth Avenue and Seventeenth Street. They met near Twelfth Street, then flowed south down Fifth Avenue, through Washington Square Park, before emptying into the Hudson River at Charlton Street. According to the historian John Fiske, the brook, in the seventeenth century, had been a favorite fishing spot for the Lenape and the Dutch: “a clear swift brook abounding in trout.” By the early nineteenth century, it had disappeared from maps, buried beneath the streets, forgotten. Or perhaps not. There were stories floating around about basements of older buildings in the Village with grates in the floor, through which you could see the stream flowing. I wanted to listen to the stream, smell the water, dip my fingers in, maybe even take a small sip. Wouldn’t that be something. And so I decided to retrace the path of Minetta Brook, going door-to-door, asking everyone I met about the stream that flowed beneath their building. Read More »