When the earth exhales

“In times of plague, common wisdom said, the bowels of the earth released their ‘feces’ as venemous exhalations from refuse and other corrupt effluvia in the soil and water. The warm rays of the midday sun turned the putrefied matter into miasmas, which the gentle spring breezes carried off to unknown destinations”

A. Lloyd Moote & Dorothy C. Moote (2004) The Great Plague. London: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 57

I was invited recently to contribute a ‘provocative’ definition of “Underground” to a multidisciplinary lexicon meditating on waste. Perhaps inevitably what I’ve come up with (below) is haunted by all of my recent researching into how previous pandemics were reacted to and come-to-terms-with. In particular, my suggested contribution channels telluric interpretations that saw emanations from the ground itself (earthly bad breath, geo-burps if you like) as a source of disease outbreaks. When searching for environmental causes for the first Cholera pandemic (which hit the UK in 1832) some doctors fell back upon “signs and wonders” type-pre-modern thinking, looking for cause in a recent volcanic eruption, or in heightened atmospheric phenomena: such as aurora borealis or meteors. For instance, on 17 August 1832 Dr Adam Neale observed a thunderstorm as it passed across the UK, and saw in it:

“a body of vapour of extraordinary magnitude, arising apparently out of the earth, accompanied by a very loud rumbling noise. It resembled the smoke of a conflagration and had a fiery appearance. It continued ascending for the space of about three minutes, all of the time accompanied by the noise above mentioned” (quoted in Morris, 1977: p.172).

In time this proto-environmental pollution theory, would lose its more outlandish apocalyptic element and come to settle (in the mid Victorian era) into the influential miasma theory. In this formulation of ‘environmental’ thinking atmospheric infection would come to be attributed to a more man-made (and less natural/divine) agency. And in this more secular and pragmatic formulation, atmospheric infection became something that could be acted against, thereby prompting a ‘Public Health’ war against bad air and the noxious and standing-in-plain-sight urban waste matter (dung heaps, offal mounds, cess-pits and such-like) to which it was now attributed. This campaign saw such waste taken underground, and whether in sewers or in landfill burial…

U is for Underground

Letting go of most unwanted things will – by action of gravity alone – see them fall to the ground. Here they will lie, either decaying into the ground or helping – through their stubborn refusal to break down – to form part of a new sedimented layer, by which the ground slowly rises beneath our feet turning successive layers of former surface into underground. This seeming ability of the ground to swallow waste matter into itself, and to carry it down into an out-of-sight and out-of-mind underground has long been exploited for waste disposal. Following the industrial revolution, and the burgeoning volumes and varieties of intractable wastes to be got rid of, first via the rise of coal power (ashes) and then petrochemicals (plastics), the ‘pushing’ of waste into the underground became the dominant form of waste disposal. This accelerated, intentional, human-authored deposition and undergrounding of our discarded useless matter is the hallmark of the Anthropocene. In the United Kingdom, an abundance of worked-out mining and quarry voids provided ample (and cheap) opportunity for an accelerated undergrounding of layers of municipal and industrial wastes, and until prohibited by the EU’s Landfill Directive, enacted in 1999, the UK’s landfills were designed on the principle of ‘dilute and disperse’. These were not to be secure containment cells, but rather they were accelerated insertions into the ground: matter emplaced there with the explicit aim that it would quickly meld with its surroundings, and continue that onward, gravity assisted, journey away from human sight and attention into the underground. But just as (for ‘depth’ psychologists like Freud or Jung) the burial of unwanted feelings or experiences runs the risk of a sudden, and unexpected, traumatic reverberation, so the undergrounding of wastes can see painful, unwanted revenant effects. Thus methane gas and leachate emanating from waste’s decay can break out from their underground confinement, visiting their poisonous effects upon the surface. Meanwhile seeming stable ‘made ground’ can over-time slump or fissure, as their underlying, and now-infilled, former extractive voids settle, in turn unsettling both the ground above and our convenient imaginings of the underground as an accepting, passive, sponge-like receptacle. This troublesome quality is also to be found in our other appropriation of the underground, as a promise of shelter for our precious possessions (think of underground vaults, tombs and buried treasure) and even for shelter of our vulnerable living, fleshy bodies in times of crisis (think improvised underground air raid shelters, fortified subterranean bunkers). But this sheltering is contingent because the underground is ultimately not a safe place for either our possessions or our bodies. Just as the underground can push-back against waste injected into it, so the atmospheric conditions of the underground corrode, compress and entrap, and the distinction between a shelter and a tomb lies only in the question of a viable route of escape back to the surface. Whether through the lens of revenant waste, or in glimpsing the smothering, life-stifling peril of underground dwelling, we come to see that the underground is never fully under our control.


Morris, R.J. (1977) Cholera 1832. New York: Holmes & Meier.

Image credit

Zdzisław Beksiński, Polish (1929-2005), Untitled, 1977 via  https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/581668108100749674/