I remember, many years ago, I was studying a Masters at the University of Kent. The subject was Ethnobotany, the relationship between people and plants. Earlier in my life, as a shy sensitive boy, I was lost in imagination. One time visiting my grandparents’ home - elaborate brass ornaments everywhere that my nana had dutifully polished: granddad’s cigarette holder, a jar of sweets that would bloom like a the jowls of some exotic plant, a large gun at rest above the mantelpiece, the continuous sound of cowboy-and-indian films, the volume as if the New World should hear. There, on the mahogany TV cabinet with folding doors, a cover of a videotape, The Emerald Forest, that pictured various Amazonian people in native dress who gazed directly into the camera lens. I was seen, and those feelings that would stay with me for the rest of my life. I didn’t know why they were significant, but my body did.
My favourite cartoon film to watch repeatedly with my sister, my soulmate, was Ferngully: the last rainforest. We wept every time when the baddies went to cut down the forest. We hoped it was just a cartoon. But as we grew older, we began to see and learn that we also belonged to a society who seemed separate from nature and rather cruel towards it. We’d love to watch The Jetsons, too, and it appeared to us that even the 3D people off-screen behaved as if they were just on some outer space unresponsive and desolate planet, rather than belonging to something intricately connected and majestic. The growing number of futuristic devices that were making our lives easier, we would learn, were silencing rivers, forests, unseen birds in places we might never see, or want to.
I wondered if studying Ethnobotany, rather than just plants, would help me understand more of our behaviour within a cultural context that seemed to strangle our ability to connect to a simpler more natural life, regardless of how willing we are. Many times we debated the term nature – highly controversial within anthropology – and yet, we all knew what nature is. Was. We all understood, beyond words, that the term we’d given nature had wordless roots within us that spanned countless decades, even if a dry essay might fumble towards a sketchy conclusion that was proof to the contrary. Our bodies always knew the score.
So, when did I start to live underground? When I couldn’t watch the destruction any more. People were bombarded with news of the devastation that enormous industries were creating, and yet, still bound to and enmeshed by them, life as they knew it carried on as normal, eroding. But it wasn’t normal to me, and my heart knew it. It has always been a soft heart, barely ready for that kind of world. I retreated a lot. So being underground seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.
At first it was suffocating, but no more so than above ground. We can come to bear hardship if there’s a pay-off and mine was rich: amongst so many companions, surrounded by so much love. And the density of our situation, its intensity, only added to the feeling of being connected to everything. Not in a booky intellectual way, but actually. We woke and slept beside each other, we listened when the other spoke, we saw what they saw, even at distance. We raised each other’s children. We were built to last. And that was probably over 25,000 years ago.
When did I last go above ground? Well, it isn’t as simple as that. We’re not encouraged to see because we’re not sure if we still have hearts, and seeing things we probably shouldn’t might confirm that we possess one because it would surely break into pieces. So we’re happy not knowing. Maybe that makes us as ignorant as those above ground except that we are aware of them; they couldn’t possibly imagine what’s happening 24 hours underneath their tarmac roads, their litter, their leather boots, their car tyres. If those things are still there. One member went up briefly, about 120 years ago, and they were asked so many frantic questions: people pleaded, what do we do? If they would be still and just listen, they’d know exactly what to do.