Tunnel talk

I gave a talk on tunnels at MOUTHY, a storytelling night in Kingston. Here is the text I was working from, although given my propensity to blather don't take this as the gospel that was shared that night.

Apologies for the lack of links to sources, but that seems like too much work. Just assume it's wikipedia and go from there.



Oh hey guys, I speak in public for a living because I’m a tour guide. I’m telling you this not because I want you to expect something great here, but because I’m terrified of giving this talk. I haven’t written and delivered a speech since grade 6 when I told my class about the Bermuda Triangle and when I delivered that beauty I at least had a new tracksuit on, so I was literally draped in confidence.

At my school we gave speeches in grades 4, 5 and 6, and if you were good enough you were chosen to speak to the whole school from the stage in the gym. Nerve-wracking stuff. But because I made it to the gym three straight years (pause for applause) I figured an elementary school speech would be a good format to follow. If anything I say unnerves you, remember I’m 10 years old up here (rub hand through thick lustrous beard)

Soooo... Let’s start with a riddle.

What is a way to enter the world and a way to leave it, a route to wealth and a route to monsters? Something that can restrict your vision and your freedom of movement but can also alter perceptions and realities of space and time and power?

The answer of course is tunnels. TUNNELS (pump fist in air)

Amongst other definitions the Oxford English Dictionary defines a tunnel as “A subterranean passage; a road-way excavated under ground, especially under a hill or mountain, or beneath the bed of a river: now most commonly on a railway; also in earliest use on a canal, in a mine, etc.” Apparently it can also be defined as “A net for catching partridges or water-fowl, having a pipe-like passage with a wide opening, and narrowing towards the end.”

The online OED is a pretty impressive thing and after skipping three other entries I found: “Applied figuratively to a prolonged period of difficulty, suffering, etc. Frequently in phrases [such as] light at the end of the tunnel: a long-awaited sign that a period of hardship and adversity is nearing an end.”

And the figurative is the spot to start, because it has some wiggle room. Tunnels are more than tubes in the ground, even more than a partridge trap. They are spaces that hold their transitory nature within their structure. Longer than they are wide, tunnels drag you on to see what’s ahead, around the corner, in the dark.

Some tunnels, like Toronto’s PATH system, connect and are full of similar commercial sights. They seem to carry you nowhere despite a lot of walking. Others plonk you on the other side of a mountain or across the sea when you emerge. And even entering and leaving a tunnel by the same door, separated only by a few hours can put you in a world previously unimaginable. Think of the people coming out of London’s tube stations during the blitz. Hidden deep underground with only a dull notion of what was happening above them and then emerging to find burnt rubble in place of their city.

It’s the unknown that lies at the other end of a tunnel that makes it exciting. The magic is in the possibility for change and transformation - of a new world, wealth, salvation or just mystery for mystery’s sake.

I like to think my fascination with tunnels began when I was born. As my parents tell the story I was a slow baby from that start. Not that I caused my mum a long labour, but that I caused her to go into labour, then stopped, then started again a couple more times before I was actually born. My dad, having driven like a mad man to reach the hospital, was forced to wait until I decided it was time. Control freak from the earliest days.

Now, with absolutely zero medical training or a clear understanding of what specifically triggers labour, or why some last a long time and others are over with quickly, I’m going to assert that I took so long because I wasn’t too sure about the tunnel I was being asked to enter.

If you can’t see the far end of a tunnel you don’t know where it might take you. You don’t know how long the tunnel is and you have no clue at what point you’ve gone too far. Where’s the middle? Where’s the point of no return? Can you go back if you change your mind?

And even if you can see the other end there is usually a long dark space between here and there that holds its own foreboding. There is undeniable mystery and possibility, but you have overcome fear and choose to push on.

As for me and my birth, I just wasn’t ready to leave the world I was in. All I knew about the outside world I had learned through the disembodied muffles I could hear. Those sounds could have been my parents, or they could be dragons, and I didn’t have a sword, a shield or know what a dragon was. But then, curiosity…

And down the tunnel I went, from darkness into the light.

Tunnels are essential to life itself. It’s a conceit not so crazy when you realize that most of the early tunnels people built were for obtaining and moving water. If you’re going to invest the time and effort to hack a tunnel through a hill or mountain with limited tools and light, at great risk to your well-being, you’re only going to do it for something that you absolutely need.

Some of the oldest examples of water related tunnelling are qanats, dating back 3000 years to Iran.

If anyone here is looking to move some water in an arid environment where a canal based irrigation system would result in too much evaporation loss and a vertical well would need to be prohibitively deep, pay attention.

The smartest thing you can do is probably hire a team of Muqqanis to dig the thing for you, Muqqanis being the hereditary class of qanat diggers in Iran.

If you’re a do it yourself kind of person though, the first part of making a qanat is to dig a series of holes in a straight line. You then dig at the bottoms of the holes, connecting them, to make the tunnel, long and straight with a slight slope so gravity can do all the work. The tunnel generally starts under a hill because water tables tend to rise along with the land above them. Again, this helps with the whole gravity thing. As you probably guessed the water exits where you plan to grow your food, usually a flat area with decent soil.

The set-up is such that you can only take as much water as the spring or aquifer can provide and only as quickly as gravity is willing to carry it.

Think for a moment of your sink like an aquifer, your tap like the rain, and that little hole that allows for overflow water to drain off when you leave the tap on and the plug in and get distracted by what’s on the stove as the qanat. Right? The point I’m trying to make is the overflow only functions when there is an excess of water.

I learned about qanats last week so if my metaphor is not apt and you’re a hydrologist please speak now.

In Iran today there are 22 000 Qanats, 170 000 miles of underground channels, and until recently they provided 75% of the country’s water.
One of the difficulties of digging underground long ago was making sure you consistently dug in the direction you wanted. By having multiple access points qanat tunnels were made from a series of shorter tunnels that were easier to keep in line. When people dug in stone though, or didn’t want a bunch of surface holes showing where your tunnel was, things were different.

Imagine your name is Hezekiah and you’re the king of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. Everyone there? You are worried the Assyrians are going to attack and your city’s main water source is outside your walls, what do you do?

For those of you who answered dig a tunnel from two ends simultaneously for the first time in recorded human history, you are correct. Also you’re digging through solid rock instead of dirt, but in this case that turned out to be a positive development. To keep the tunnels on target people on the surface could pound on the rock. The diggers could hear those sounds and follow accordingly.

Okay, this time your name is Eupalinos and you’re a Greek engineer on the island of Samos, just off the modern Turkish coast. Your job, as instructed by the local tyrant, is to get water from a spring into the city walls for an anticipated Persian attack. Same problem, right, EXCEPT there’s a mountain in the way, and you can’t bang on a mountain.

This is one of those “weren’t those ancient Greeks terribly clever at mathematics stories,” and with that in mind, Eupalinos probably only got the job because the aforementioned tyrant had chased away Pythagoras a few years before. Yes that Pythagoras, the one with the triangles.

So, Eupalinos goes to work, does all the calculations and sets his diggers digging from two sides of the mountains. Now he wasn’t a cocky man so even after doing all the calculations, and presumably checking them at least twice, he still hedged his bets. Just before where he figured the tunnels were meant to meet he had the diggers dig up and dig wider.

Up because two parallel lines will never cross and just in case his two tunnels weren’t aligned, on an angle they should meet somewhere. And he dug wider in the vertical plane because, well it makes sense.

If anyone else is thinking of writing a screenplay about an imagined rivalry between Eupalinos and Pythagoras, I’m right there with you. Not enough algebra based ancient Greek rivalries in movies I say. 

So water is a pretty good reason to get your hands dirty. It’s important, and so is food, but if you ever find yourself in a situation without food or water you still have a few options. You can get some gold together and pop on over to your local food and water store to buy some, or you can get some weapons together and pop on over to your local food and water store to take some. Either way you’re going to need some sort of metal and to get that, at some point, you’re going to have to go underground.

There are a couple ways to get rich in a tunnel, one is to follow a tunnel to its end where you find a dragon sitting on a vast treasure – and probably one or two skeletons – and slay it. The other, much more tedious method is to dig the tunnel yourself, following a vein of whatever ore you’re after into the ground, straight to the mother lode.

When people first moved out of the stone age mining and metallurgy were less about science and BIG DUMP TRUCKS and more about mysticism and reverence for those who controlled the underworld. Miners were rightly a little nervous about going underground and taking some of the mountain king’s gold and diamonds.

They didn’t double check their radio and hard hat before going into a tunnel, they prayed and fasted, cleansed the body and spirit through ablutions, fasting and abstinence. The Iranian Muqqanis did some of this, but also got to decide what days they worked. Feeling unlucky today? Best to stay on the surface. Did you just sneeze? That’s an automatic sick day. Fair play I say. You don’t want to wake anyone who is sleeping in the dirt.

Even the smiths who worked the ores on the surface were granted shamanic status in some communities. Their tools held special properties, and their ability to fuse and mold rocks, creating tools and jewellery was right up there with magic.

Because of the dangers involved, supply and demand has always led what got mined. Not much call for iron ore during the Bronze Age for example, but when knights started galloping around wearing 100 pounds of armour iron mines became very popular indeed.

Sometimes though, no matter what people were willing to pay, miners couldn’t help. For instance, the silver crisis of 1465, as with most silver crises, came about because people wanted silver and there wasn’t enough silver. Tunnels had been dug as deep as was possible and although people were willing to go deeper they had hit the water table and didn’t yet have the technology to pump the mine dry.

This dynamic remains at play today. Tunnels of gold mines abandoned 100 years ago are being re-explored because the price of gold has increased alongside our ability to dig deeper and move water.

But before we get into modern mines I want to make it clear we haven’t left pre-industrial tunnelling behind us entirely. The Cerro Rico mines near the city of Potosi in Bolivia are dug into a pile of rock affectionately referred to as “the mountain that eats men.” Started in 1545 the mine fuelled the Spanish Empire’s silver needs until the late 18th century.

To give you an idea about how much silver it produced, people used to say it was enough silver to build a bridge from the mountain to Madrid. And why not? There is also a theory that the mine stamp for Potosi, the letters P-T-S-I superimposed on one another, is how we get the dollar sign today. And if that isn’t impressive enough there’s a saying in Spanish, used by Don Quixote amongst others, valer un potosi, which means worth a potosi. It means worth A LOT OF MONEY.

At its height in the 17th century Potosi was one of the largest cities in South America and reputedly the richest in the world. Its Catholic churches were decorated with riches to rival anything in the rest of Christendom, and according to something I read on the internet church doors in Potosi faced south toward the mountain rather than east towards…Jesus? Apparently that eastern orientation used to be a thing, less so now.

But, as the silver lode dried up Potosi succumbed to its reality as an arid city located at over 4000 metres elevation. Today the mine remains active, but it’s run by mining cooperatives. Miners get paid for a day’s work but are also allowed to carry out whatever they can and the dream of a big ol’ silver nugget remains strong. Because there aren’t safety measure and very little in the way of ventilation, between falls, cave-ins and silicosis from all the dust in the air a 40-year-old miner is an old miner.

And like the miners of centuries past those who work Potosi like to hedge their bets. On the surface they’re devout Catholics, but the light of eternal salvation doesn’t reach underground. Instead they look to El Tio, a diabolic denizen of the underworld, for protection. There is a statue near the mine’s entrance where miners leave gifts, usually the same things they use to ward off the hunger and fear of a 10 hour shift inside the mountain, namely coco leaves and 192 proof booze.

It’s as if to enter the mine’s tunnels and survive necessitates the men becoming different beasts, something that isn’t the humans they are on the surface. They worship a new god and alter their brain chemistry to survive the netherworld.

If anyone is interested, the mine has also become a backpacker destination. You can pay a few dollars and a former miner will take you, first to the market to buy gifts for the miners - cigarettes, coco leaves, dynamite, booze – then into the belly of the mountain. But you’d better go soon, because apparently the mountain is so full of tunnels some people are predicting it will collapse in on itself in the next 50 years.

Today’s industrial corporate mines are generally much different. As they would probably say on a Discovery Channel show: Modern mines push the limits of human ingenuity and engineering. (music music flash flash). Modern mines have LIGHTS! And VENTILATION! And SAFE ROOMS stocked with water, food and air supply for easy listening (wait for laughter to die down).

The deepest mine in the world today is TauTona Mine in South Africa, probing 3.9 kilometres below the surface in search of gold. The largest is Kiirunavaara in Sweden with 450 km of underground roads.

Not tunnel related, but mind blowing just the same, is the Bingham Canyon Mine in Utah. It’s an open pit mine, but the pit is over 1200 metres deep and really wide. Amazing what us humans can do when we put our mind and heavy machinery to it.

To recap tunnels get us water, and in turn help us grow food. Tunnels also provide the resources we need for the society and culture we live with today. Without those rare earth minerals we all know so much about our phones wouldn’t exist, and without stuff like potash to go into fertilizer food production would be significantly different. But we don’t just extract nature through tunnels we also move it and ourselves around. Without tunnels much of modern urban life would be impossible.

Let’s get wet! Again.

As of this moment the 6 longest tunnels in the world are all transporting water. The longest is the Thirlmere Aqueduct in England that carries water into the city of Manchester from 154km away. These aren’t sexy tunnels (although these days with the internet, who knows). They’re working tunnels that carry water along a route known by those who care to know, and unless one springs a leak they’ll never make the news.

There was a time when people were in awe of the tunnels their society had built, amazed at their own ingenuity. And why not? City on fire: there is water to put it out. Need to boil carrots: water comes out your wall and into the pot. Don’t like cholera: this sewer is going to carry away your shit.

You could actually take a raft tour through the newly completed sewers in Haussmann era Paris. These tunnels contained not just poo, but also the promise of a limitless future where no matter what was thrown at us human ingenuity could overcome.

And of course our attempts to control the world through tunnels continues.

Underground pedestrian tunnels in numerous Canadian cities allow us to get around town, from condo tower to office tower to grocery store, while flipping the bird at winter. That is if you can find a window that winter is looking in.

Subways, just trains in a tunnel pal. But by putting them there you keep them off the street and increase the third dimensional space a city has to play with. Not just down, but up as well, because a city with a subway system can be a denser place with taller towers and more people.

And if we really want to go over the top, and we do – and assuming we all agree that the fourth dimension is time – tunnels allow us to warp the fourth dimension.

The ancient Greeks knew the fastest way between two points was in a straight line and so did the people who built the Chunnel or the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The Chunnel is the tunnel that runs beneath the English Channel, and probably one of the better-named tunnels on the planet. While the Gotthard Base Tunnel, due to open in 2016 when it will become the longest rail tunnel in the world at 57km, will join the Gotthard Road Tunnel as two great ways to get from Italy to Switzerland without having to climb over a mountain.

Suggesting that tunnels bend time, and no I won’t be discussing the particle accelerator tunnel at CERN or wormholes tonight, is premised on the notion that time is relative. Sure we try to measure time in an absolute sense but we experience it relative to other factors: if you’re bored time moves more slowly kind of idea. But also, by choosing one mode of transport or one route over another you lock up time to get from point A to point B, or free it up to do other things.

If you’re walking a set amount of time you will cover a certain of distance, a horse gets you further, a train further still, a bullet train? Look out! But no matter how fast your train is moving, if you drive it into a mountain or an ocean time stops. Less dramatically, even if you just have to put your car on a ferry, or take a winding switchback filled road over a mountain, you’re using time to get to a place that if you’d used a tunnel the time might be used to read a book, make a hat or stare at a wall.

I’m not saying we should necessarily make our lives more efficient with tunnels, forgoing every opportunity to drive through the mountains, just that once a tunnel is there our experience of moving from one side of the mountain to the other changes.

If a tunnel can overcome a mountain, so to speak, it must be a powerful thing. Or, since I’m not quite ready to ascribe sentience to tunnels, there is a power within a tunnel that the person who knows how to use it can access. In the case of the Chunnel or the Gotthard tunnels that power goes to the holidaymaker or shipping company that cuts hours off their travel time.

But everyone knows about those tunnels and to take advantage of them just requires you own a car or can buy a ticket. When a tunnel is secret though, or system of tunnels is extremely complex and difficult for an outsider to understand, there are different power dynamics at play.

Just think for a moment about the term secret passageway and everything the term brings to mind. You’re welcome…

The two ancient water tunnels I mentioned earlier were built to keep all the inhabitants of their cities alive. If they lose their secret nature they lose the ability to sustain life.

There are underground cities in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey that were started 2800 years ago. Again, their strength lay in the fact they were underground and concealed. But because the cities were a series of interconnected tunnels, even if invaders learned of their presence the tunnel system’s complexity provided another layer of power to the inhabitants.

How many stories have been told and movies made about prisoners of war, having had their weapons and most of their belongings taken away. Left only with their ingenuity and pithy attitude the prisoners find strength and purpose through the tunnel they are slowly scraping out of the earth. Again though, secrecy is key, because the guards know a tunnel’s power and are watching for any sign. So the tunnel’s negative space must be spread across vegetable gardens and volleyball courts, hiding dirt in attics and under stairs.

The Cu Chi tunnels, part of a much larger pan-Vietnamese tunnel network, allowed the North Vietnamese forces to operate immediately adjacent to the south’s capital of Saigon during the Vietnam War. They weren’t just secret routes, but also supply depots, sleeping quarters, hospitals and kitchens. Because the tunnels were hidden, and the spaces inside them tight and confusing, America’s obvious advantages in firepower could never be brought to bear. Even their efforts with Agent Orange, designed to remove the North’s ability to hide in the jungle did nothing to reveal the systems hidden underground.

And in the end all they could do was send Willem Dafoe in with a knife between his teeth and a pistol in his hand and hope for the best.

The tunnels under Paris – catacombs, quarries, utility, transit and the rest of them - have provided a hiding place for all sorts of miscreants, rebels and resisters over the centuries. More recently they’ve also been the staging ground and infiltration route for UX, short for Urban eXperiment, a group of artists who use the their in-depth knowledge of the tunnels to access spaces for film festivals and art shows, or just to build a workshop with electricity, internet access, arm chairs and the like, then over the course of a year restore a 19th century clock that hasn’t chimed since the 1960s.

And think of what tunnels you hear about in the news today. Drug tunnels connecting Mexico or Canada to the US, providing a route, usually basement to basement, that allows drug movement out of sight. And whenever one is discovered there’s always comment about how a bunch of drug dealers were able to build such a well-engineered structure, complete with lights and a trolley system. People forget how long we’ve been building tunnels without engineering degrees.

And probably my favourite tunnels in operation today are those that provide most of the cross border trade into and out of the Gaza Strip. Because of Israeli blockades the tunnels often provide the only route to get needed building supplies into the territory. The tunnels also provide a route to get cars through. Formerly taken apart, carried through in pieces and reassembled on the other side, a quick search on Youtube now show cars being driven through larger tunnels before being hoisted back to the surface whole.

People go through the tunnels for medical treatment or just to get out of Gaza to party for a bit. Those with a lot of money can take one of the VIP tunnels, air-conditioned, well lit and with cell phone reception. There is even one story of a lion being brought in for the Gaza zoo. Unfortunately it wasn’t sedated properly, woke up half way through and mauled one of the workers.

Israel has recognized the danger these tunnels represent and have destroyed hundreds of homes near the border and then built a reverse steel wall down into the dirt. The Palestinian tunnellers simply went deeper.

Operators invest a fortune to build the tunnels, and charge dearly for everything that is brought through. The Hamas government generates a lot of its revenue by taxing the tunnel trade, but also bans the importation of weapons and ammunition. Of course, most people assume Hamas has its own tunnels for weapons.

To give you an idea of how important this underground economy is, when it looked like Israel might loosen border controls a number of tunnel operators were rumoured to have paid young militants to fire rockets across the border because it wouldn’t be good for business to have the restrictions relaxed.

Given their normal location beneath tonnes of dirt it’s unsurprising that tunnels have enormous destructive power as well. What better way to bring down a castle wall than dig a tunnel beneath and when the time is right burn the wooden supports to bring it all down.

And when fires or explosions happen in tunnels inadvertently the results are of course disastrous. Even if an explosion doesn’t result in collapse the percussive forces are all concentrated and directed along the tunnels crushing people as they go. This scenario played out in the Courrieres Mine in France, leaving 1099 dead in 1906, and Benxihu Colliery in China in 1942, leaving 1549 dead

When I was a child, who knows how old, I watched a movie where two groups of kids were having a snowball fight around a fort someone had built. I don’t remember what led to the fight, only that it felt very violent and intense. Then the fighting stopped. An escape tunnel had been included in the fort’s construction and it had collapsed, killing a dog. I still remember the image of the leash coming out from under a pile of snow very clearly, the dangers of tunnel collapses implanted in my head forever.

That hasn’t stopped me from going into them though.

Just after Queen’s University bought the old women’s prison I was able to get over the wall one night and eventually found myself in the disused steam tunnel, walking farther and farther, accompanied but the tings, clicks and drips you might expect. It’s amazing what absolute darkness feels like when you turn off your headlamp. Just for a second. Then a funny thing started happening, I was feeling warmer, probably because the tunnel was heading due south, straight for the very much still in use Kingston Pen. I turned around.

If you don’t know where a tunnel leads, and aren’t sheltering from the elements or hiding from pursuers the only reason to go into a tunnel is curiosity. Even if you’re not expecting treasure, the tunnel itself is reason enough. But once you’re in you’re confined and directed

One holiday my girlfriend at the time and myself were walking around a closed golf course when we found a drainage tunnel that was coming out from under the Don Valley Parkway, following an old creek’s route no doubt. We were just killing time and a dark hole in the side of the highway seemed as helpful in that cause as anything.

It was probably about 130 centimetres in diameter, so you could move through it bent over but because of the tunnels curvature and the water running down the middle your legs were spread and your feet ended up at an angle. Less walking and more like a shuffling waddle.

On and on it went, and in the darkness we quickly lost a sense of distance and time. The light behind us disappeared and on and on we went. We would stop sometimes slowly move toward one another confirm we weren’t just two voices in the dark and we would wonder, should we go back? How far can this go? But the tunnel always pulled us on, because we couldn’t know what we’d find until we got there.

Eventually there was light, so faint that it might just have been a trick of the eye and brain, something to be blinked away. But it seemed real, and what choice did we have, so we waddled on.

After spying the light my guess is we walked at least 50 metres before we got to its source, and it’s source was the sun. Up a 10 metre shaft, with a rusty ladder bolted to its side, the outside was looking down at us through two one inch squares on a manhole cover. And so, up the ladder, shoulder to the cover and after some loud metal on metal scraping we were back in the world, in someone’s backyard.

Knowing there is so much more that could be said about tunnels, I’m going to close back on the figurative tunnel. Walking in the steel pipe under the DVP I learned that the light at the end of a tunnel need not be extremely bright to be visible. And when you see it, just knowing it’s there can help pull you on.

As I’ve been saying tunnels provide all sorts of possibilities for individuals and humanity more broadly. But sometimes, when you’re in one, whether tangible or metaphorical, a tunnel restricts your choices to three. You can go back, you can go forward, or you can collapse where you are and wait for the monsters to slink out of the inky blackness to devour you. If you ever find yourself there remember, going back doesn’t mean you’ll exit where you think you will and waiting for a monster to eat you is boring and their tentacles are gross. But going forward, there might be something fun there and the light, no matter how faint, is bound to appear sooner than you think.

Oh, and if the light at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a tunnel of light, make the choice on entering THAT tunnel on a case by case basis.

1 comment:

  1. What a great read! I hope you do more of these talks; I'd love to hear this out loud.