Underland, and the power of descent

From the Great Above she opened her ear to the Great Below

– The Descent of Inanna

As I’ve mentioned, a (comparatively) delightful lockdown by-product for me has been ample time for reading. I’ve ended up in three interesting book clubs (one of which I started myself, at work). And one of which a dear friend from middle school/high school created, as programming for the amazing non-profit she runs in downtown west Austin, the Flower Hill Foundation.

Flower Hill is an ‘urban homestead museum’, a lovely late 19th-century home and beautiful grounds left in trust by the Smoot family, early and important civil servants in the city. Several years ago, some of my co-workers and I were fortunate enough to get an early tour, wandering through the rooms, hearing fascinating histories and mild ghost stories, engaging in conversation with the house itself… “Hello, old house!” I believe currently you can only take tours by appointment due to the pandemic, but I certainly encourage a visit, now or later (or take a vintage virtual tour!).

Flower Hill Wild Onions 2020, Photo by Mica McCook
Image from Flower Hill Foundation virtual gallery

The associated book club is equally delightful. It is a Curated experience (sadly already sold out this year, but hopefully with many more seasons to come!), with reading selections thoughtfully chosen, along with various other forms of cultural content that complement the book itself, such as music, virtual museum exhibits, interviews, recipes, history, related art or plays (even opera). I have been impressed with the presentation of content, and excited to find out what goodies await me each month when a new book begins – and am so very proud of my friend little Robin(!), for her creativity and artistry.

This past month, August, we read Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane. I was new to Macfarlane, who is a Fellow and Reader in Literature and the Environmental Humanities at Cambridge, as well as an accomplished author of several popular books. And quite dashing as well, I must admit! (Environmental humanities, huh…who knew? As if I needed another career path to pine after…)

The theme of the book is exposition and exploration of the concept of the underworld, framed in the immensity of geologic time. Macfarlane adventures through Norwegian sea caves, the Parisian underground, deep-earth nuclear waste storage facilities…and weaves in descriptions of mycelial networks, mythology, primitive cave art. It is a thought-provoking work, and did well for book club discussion – everyone enjoyed it. We also learned quite a lot of new vocabulary words (warning: if you don’t read digitally such as on Kindle, where you can look things up, keep a dictionary at hand).

A curious thing happened to me during our monthly book club Zoom meeting, though. I didn’t really speak much. Which is quite unusual – I recently had a co-worker remark that he’d be highly surprised to ever find that I didn’t always have some commentary, on pretty much everything. I do, indeed, have a lot of thoughts and opinions. But it felt like a quiet night, and I was listening…and thinking.

One thing I noticed in the conversation from the rest of the group was that the ideas from Underland were novel to them, new ways of looking at the world, new ‘things to think about’. And that made me deeply reflect on how much the opposite was true for me. In fact, I came to realize that the underworld is (while hopefully not dominant) a significant theme in my life, at least now and in the recent past. A few examples…

I have always been fascinated with cave and karst systems. My top choice ‘alternate life’ version of myself would be as a cave diver; for the work book club, I chose Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth, full of stories of underwater cave diving, from Florida to central America to Antarctica. I fantasize over such adventures! (Though the work book club feedback was mostly wariness over the amount of death in the book, accurately reflective of cave diving itself, one of the world’s most dangerous professions.) Numero uno on my personal bucket list is diving a cenote in the Yucatan.

The window to the underworld. Photo by Jill Heinerth.

Here in central Texas, many of us receive our water from underground aquifers, and anyone educated in San Antonio schools learned quite a bit about the importance of the Edwards Aquifer system and how it functions. We have wonderful public caves that can be explored. I also focused my education on, and now work in, water resources. During my time in West Virginia, I assisted on cave mapping projects (more the mapping side, ha) and now I work on mapping water & wastewater utility infrastructure assets, which are underground networks. Groundwater and surface water interaction is a mysterious science that has much left to explore; indeed, it has been called ‘occult’ (a word that speaks right to my heart). In the face of booming population, Texas is looking to alternative means of water supply, and one approach is aquifer storage and recovery (ASR), where treated surface or reclaimed water, or excess stormwater, is injected or allowed to infiltrate into an aquifer, to be stored and extracted later for use as future water supply. My work engages this realm as well.

Castle of the White Giants, Natural Bridge Caverns
Glen Rose Aquifer, near New Braunfels, TX

Also in West Virginia, I was introduced to the pure magic and beauty of mushrooms in the forest (I need to find some of those photos!), and began to learn about the forest ecosystem and the untapped potential of fungi, through scholars like Paul Stamets (too much to say about all of that now, ha!). Relatively new but increasingly popular research has identified the existence of mycorrhizal networks, vast underground webs of interconnected organisms that allow entire forests of trees to ‘communicate’ with each other, and ‘live communally’ (these are human terms, obviously, but the idea is sharing of resources such as water and nutrients). It has been called the ‘wood wide web’. The largest known organism in the world is one of these networks, the possibly 2,400 year old (or more) Humongous Fungus, a honey fungus growing in forests of eastern Oregon.

Fungi are an amazing kingdom of life, with many beneficial (and some harmful) properties; if you don’t know much about them, I strongly encourage learning more! Mushrooms are the ‘fruit’ of the mycorrhizal network. Hiking in forests, you develop ‘mushroom eyes’ (actual magic mushrooms not required, ha), and it really does seem mystical – one moment there’s only trees and understory, and then suddenly your perception shifts and there are mushrooms everywhere. It is like entering a fairy world, a hidden dimension of space.

Indian Pipe, or Ghost/Corpse Plant. Not a true fungus, but lives off the mycelial network.
Photo by Peter Dziuk at Savanna Portage State Park, MN

But, in an even more substantial way, it is through myth and psychology that the underworld is a part of my consciousness. I am also currently reading (I know! I told you, there’s a lot of free time in lockdown) Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a magical realism novel set in 1920s Mexico that incorporates Mayan mythology and their underworld Xibalba into the fairy tale -adventure. (This has also created an itch to travel back to Mexico – not easy to scratch during a pandemic!) You can check out some gorgeous video of actual cave diving in the Yucatan.

And one of my “favorite” deities is the Sumerian goddess Inanna (also known as Ishtar/Astarte in other cultures), the Queen of Heaven. There is an ancient poem written about her descent into the underworld, to see her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Dead. It is a powerful allegory, as Inanna must remove all of her possessions in stages, and come to the dark depths stripped completely naked and bare. To return to the surface world, as in all such tales, a trade-off must be made, and Inanna chooses her unfaithful lover Dumuzi to return below in her place {smirk}, as instead of mourning her death he was indulging in the pleasures of wealth and abundance in her absence. I have several beautiful pieces of art around the house depicting Inanna/Ishtar. (Note: even in greater context, considering Inanna as a woman enraged by rejection from her love interest Gilgamesh, this is an interesting allegorical tale with many lessons.)

Beyond just the mythical story, however, the symbolism of Inanna has been carried over to depth psychology, particularly Jungian analysis. There is an idea of the “shadow” that each of us has, and how integration – individuation – “wholeness”, cannot be fully attained until we have ‘descended’ to our darkest depths and seen – acknowledged – embraced this shadow aspect of ourselves. These archetypal myths are often used to describe that journey, the quest that must be taken. (If interested to learn more, Jung Platform has an online course with a leading scholar on the topic. There is a wealth of resources on shadow work in general, however, from many perspectives – including the more esoteric – like Bell Wen’s Tarot and Shadow Work For Activating Dynamic Power self-study course.)

Ironically, I have reached a point in my own personal evolution where this step seems inevitable; it is where I am on my personal path. Indeed, I had dedicated the year 2020 to ‘my descent’, ‘my shadow work’. I remember writing in an email to my mentor, back in January, that 2020 would be a significant, ‘transformative’ year. I was thinking mostly of myself, but looking back…well…it certainly has been, hasn’t it? And, yes, I have been taking this challenging journey of my own, alongside what is happening in the world. Perhaps even because of it, in many ways (if you toss aside the idea of linear time, it’s hard to say what causes what).

It is not pleasant, nor fun. But it does seem essential, and powerful. Transformative.

We shall see, once I (and the world) resurface.

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