Life

How to see the world beneath you | Yuval Zommer

Going underground

Navigating our way through a busy street, we prefer not to look down. After all, what is there under our feet but the cracks in the pavement, some old chewing gum and cigarette butts? Even what is on our eye level barely gets a look in. Traffic lights, shop windows, billboards and our smartphones’ screens all compete for our short attention and precious time. Our journey through the street has become merely a means to an end as we hurry from A to B.

But right under our feet is a vast world. It’s beyond the reaches of our eyes and ears but not our imagination. Let’s stop for a moment and look down… Just below are electric cables, water pipes, storm drains and underground tunnels, all pulsating with different kinds of energy. What goes on beneath the pavement allows our towns and cities to run smoothly, every bit as much as the
infrastructure above. It is a living world, too – tree roots are pumping minerals and water to the life above ground whilst micro-organisms are constantly at work decomposing matter and creating new life.

As we go deeper, there is evidence that we aren’t the only ones to have trodden these paths. The remains and treasures of our ancestors lie silent and still. Will they someday be dug up to make way for a skyscraper’s foundations, allowing us to rediscover some aspect of our history? Or will they remain there, under the earth, forgotten? Deeper yet, embedded in the rock, fossils chart our extraord-inary evolutionary journeys, while underground rivers are forever flowing. Deeper still, vast plates of rock, formed at the bottom of oceans and lakes, are gradually shifting and reshaping our Earth’s crust. Yes, just like the street above, the street below is also very much a ‘work in progress’.

As humans, we are programmed to see and hear only a tiny slither of our world. We try to compartmentalise the hidden world below us in the only ways we think we’ll comprehend it: historically, archaeologically and geologically. But to really appreciate all that’s below us we need to let go of the scientific in favour of the sheer wonder of it all. Our subterranean street carries on in the way it has done for millions of years. Here, very different time-scales, rhythms and forces apply.

Underground, there is no nine-to-five, no morning rush-hour or sleepy Sundays. We may not be able to see and sense all the richness, movement and life that is directly underneath us – but luckily for us we can at least imagine it. So the next time you step, walk, skip or jog down your street, take a moment to remind yourself of the countless, unfinished, never-ending stories that are happening right under your feet.

The Street Beneath My Feet, a foldout picture book by Yuval Zommer and Charlotte Gullian, is out now (Words and Pictures, £14.99)

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