The earth is full of secrets—complete cities that have sunk into soil then been brought back to light by archeologists or unsuspecting construction workers. Whole marble sculptures and mosaics, gold coins, ornate swords, clay warriors, alabaster figurines, jeweled goblets, carved urns, and stray cannonballs. There is no end to the secrets either, because the earth is still moving, slowly covering up more—things that will be found in a thousand years, astounding future generations. Lost barns and VW cars, crashed jets, throw-away computers, CDs, and cellphones. Perhaps even an abandoned skyscraper.
For a period when I was 12 or 13, I became a digger and treasure hunter, having stumbled upon an overgrown dump in the Kansas town where I lived. With my brother and a friend, I pedaled my bike to a culvert where we had spotted some old cork-topped bottles. We dug with hand spades, opening craters around these glass artifacts, which emerged smelling of the 1800’s. Medicine bottles that promised cures for cholera and colic. Ink bottles that school children dipped into. Brown flasks that offered Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters. Cobalt blue bottles with Warner’s Bromo Soda.
Sometimes we tunneled our bodies right into an embankment, half in and half out, digging with our fingers so as not to scratch the bottles, gently dislodging them from the musky soil, from the flakes of rust and fragments of decomposed wood. Then we lay there breathing softly, part of the ground itself, delighted by our newest find: Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Remedy or Tone’s Flavoring Extract. For a moment, we held the aqua and amber containers in quiet awe, marveling that they had been handled by other people who were long gone, just as “poured-out” as these bottles’ contents. People who had lived whole lives without hearing of television or Atomic bombs or 8-Track cassettes.
From dust you were made and to dust you shall return. That’s a hard one to ignore—if you are right down there in the soil, more conscious than ever of your own mineral make-up. From dust you were made. True for us all. And to dust you shall return. Also true, but restful in a way. Like lying in your own bed.
As a child at boarding school, I remember doing a bit of early reflecting in a cave some older boys had dug. At the end of the soccer pitch, where the flat ground broke away, a round hole opened into the hillside like the mouth of a hundred-gallon barrel.
I visited it with my friend Danny, the two of us prostrating ourselves on hands and knees and crawling into the entrance like cubs to their den. More of a tunnel than a cave, it ran back ten or fifteen feet, then bent around a column of earth and came back like a hairpin.
When we hid in there from friends, Danny and I would whisper and giggle, but we did not truly encounter the place. Once, though, I forced myself to go alone. After I had scrambled down the slope, the voices of the playing children faded. It was quiet enough that I could hear the stream burbling in the ravine below.
After bowing and peering into the hole, half-expecting a troll to lunge out, I cautiously crawled in. Cool air met me like the air from a fridge. I paused and waited for my eyes to adjust. Now I could not hear the soccer players at all, or the stream. The spadework on the walls looked like a series of broken dinner plates, each fragmented plane a bit darker as it receded into the blackness. I reached out to the hard clay, which left a silky residue on my fingers. Here and there, the tendrils of roots, thin and kinky like pubic hair, dangled yellow. I smelled their mealy mushroom scent.
After I crawled deeper, to where the tunnel broke two directions, I could feel the weight of the whole hill on top of me, all that thick clay pulled toward the core of the earth. I was afraid of its imponderable inertia, but I slid a few feet further, until I was behind the column of earth and couldn’t see the light at the entrance, just a faint glimmer on the spade-chopped walls. There I held my breath and heard my own blood pumping. And for the first time in months, I felt completely, utterly alone. It was terrifying, but it was exciting too. The sense of my own existence. The sense of my small but real life. The sense of me actually thinking.
Hermits live in caves. Loners and crazies. But also prophets—like Elijah, who hid away, afraid to prophesy until God surprised him as a whirlwind then an earthquake then a mighty fire, calling him to the mouth of the cave with a final gentle whisper: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
The Hopi go looking for visions in the earth, descending into a closed pit. They gather around a cylindrical hole which symbolizes the gateway from the underworld, where their ancestors used to live like lizards, into the upper world, where they emerged as people. For centuries and centuries, they have gone down into these “kivas” to know themselves, reflecting on their place in the world. To learn what needs learning.
And what about Alice in her underground “Wonderland”?
When she fell down that rabbit hole, she saw everything anew. She fell for hours, it would seem, doing it slow enough to lift a jar of marmalade off a shelf then put it into a cupboard below. And after she landed, she drank from a bottle that made her shrink to 10 inches, passing through a door that could have been designed for mice. Only a child, she encountered all manner of paradoxes. Revelations galore.
To dive into the earth is to see a secret, mysterious realm. Under the powdery dirt and damp loam dangle the bushy roots and their creepy crawlies: fly larvae, root aphids, mites, nematodes, millipedes, beetles, earthworms, ants, slugs, snails, not to mention snakes, lizards, salamanders, mice, and moles. And when you come back to the earth’s threshold, half in and half out, you are different. You are smaller somehow, and everything else is large. Even the grass, which towers up like trees, screening your sight.
To come up out of the earth is to be humbled, like the mole or the mouse. For we are not much larger really, nor important. But what a marvel to be aware. To know this truth, if only for a fleeting moment!