How to Use Your Underworld Senses
sensory adventures with creatures of the underground
I’m a little embarrassed to admit to you that I didn’t know fish could smell. I know a fishy odor when I smell one, obviously. What I didn’t realize is that fish themselves can experience aromas, underwater. The reason, if I’m being honest, is that I just never considered—not even once—that it would be possible for anyone or anything to smell, underwater. I was completely biased by my own body, its sense experience, and its limitations.
But I’ve been reading Ed Yong’s An Immense World, and thinking more about the sense experience of other creatures. The senses, Yong writes, are not only responsible for revealing the world to those of us who inhabit an animal body. They open us up, and connect us. But that’s not all that they do. The senses can also “constrain an animal’s life, restricting what it can detect and do.” I was limited by my own ability to understand the sense experience of a fish, for instance, by the fact that I would never sniff anything underwater, at risk of drowning. But I do have an active imagination, and while this might not allow me to enjoy the aroma of underwater flora, I can still try to become what Yong calls a “sensory traveler” by imaginatively exploring the radically different contours of a fish’s sense experience.
I obviously never spent enough time watching fish to contemplate what they do with their nostrils, or nares. These little portals allow water to pass in, so that their bodies can direct the water over a sensory apparatus—something like a pad—that is sensitive to odor, and allows them to pick up sensory information from the water. Incidentally, it looks like the rising CO2 levels in the planet’s oceans is dulling their sense of smell. There are ethical dimensions to this sort of sensory travel. Climate change, and the many things that come with it, are not only threatening the lives and lifeworlds of our fellow earthlings. It’s also dulling their senses, and their basic experience of the world.
For Yong the primary purpose of sensory travel is largely ethical. When we can better understand the way that other animals inhabit and experience the world, we can better understand what they need from it, and how their experiences are being limited by human development. I agree that this is important, of course. But I will also admit that I have imaginative interests in sensory travel, as well.
I’m interested in thinking about the sensory experiences of other earthlings in order to shift my own limited sense of what the planet is like, and can be like. As my friend Krista Dragomer—whose art is oriented around sensation and perception—is always reminding me, we are ecological beings whose senses are part of how we filter and experience our various entanglements. It’s imaginative work, to examine these entanglements at close range.
So, as I’ve been working on my new book project, on underworlds, I’ve also been contemplating how other animals experience the worlds underground; those places that draw me in, but where I never really chance to travel myself. I’ve been wondering what I might learn from these other earthlings about life underground. I suppose you could think about this is as a form of biomimicry. I’m not trying to figure out how to build a new technology, in imitation of nature. Rather, I want to think about nature as a kind of mentor—as a set of models to study, think with, and imitate. I want to try and imagine the sensory experience of the underworld, even if I can’t live there. I want to imagine what I might learn (or remember) about being alive, from life underground.
There are obviously many creatures who inhabit the underworlds of soil—moles and earthworms, for instance. And the ocean is, in its own right, a complex underworld. The figure of an underworld is broad, vague, and generic. It’s not especially easy to locate. Or, better said, underworlds could be almost anywhere that we find something below us. I want to focus on cave ecologies for the time being, mostly just because caves are a liminal space where we can see the upper world retreating into the underworld. It’s also been, perhaps, the single most important environment for contemplating and studying underworlds in the modern era. Caves are—more than any other underworld space—where archaeologists have gone digging for clues about the past. Our imaginative dependence upon caves runs much deeper than we tend to realize.
Caves are, of course, dark spaces. Because they are spaces where the sun doesn’t reach, there’s no photosynthesis in a cave. This also means that there are some pretty strict limits on the amount of available food in these underworlds, and this dimension of cave ecologies actively shapes the sense experiences of the creatures who live there. We live to eat, of course, and our bodies (and their senses) are shaped over the long course of time by our daily quests for the food we need to survive.
While it may be the case that periodic floods can bring the debris of plant matter into a cave, most of the food in a cave tends to be carried in from the outside by animals. Those who spend their entire lives inside of caves and never leave (Troglobytes) are dependent upon those who spend most of their time in the cave but are adapted to live outside of them (Troglophiles) as well as those who are mostly just visitors in the cave spaces (Trogloxenes). Bats, for instance, are considered Trogloxenes. Their guano is a source of food for creatures like cockroaches, which are eaten by larger cave predators like pseudoscorpions and cave boas.
We are, in some ways, more ready for life underground than we think we are. This is especially true if we think about our sense experiences beyond the stereotypical five senses. Our proprioception—our own sense of where our body is, in space—is a key sense that we can use in dark spaces like caves. This sense can tell us where we are, and what’s around us, in a way that doesn’t depend upon our vision.
When my daughter was about four she started falling out of bed at night. We would be awakened at two or three in the morning by an incredibly loud thud. The first time that it happened, I woke up with my heart beating in my throat, totally disoriented. A loud cry, from her bedroom, told me everything I needed to know. We got her back to bed, where she stayed for the rest of the night. But this kept happening every few nights, for weeks in a row. What ended up solving the problem was a sensory adventure that someone on the Internet had dubbed a “bed safari”. During the day I had her close her eyes and roll around on her bed in all directions, feeling along the edges of the mattress with her hands, feet, legs, arms, and back. She was developing her proprioceptive sense of the relationship between her body and the bed. She never fell out of her bed at night again.
So what else have I learned, from contemplating the sensory life of the underworld, besides the fact that proprioception is essential (and often taken for granted)?
Vision isn’t everything. Obviously, the primary thing about underworld sense experience is the fact that vision matters very little, if at all. We might carry lights with us, when we go on underworld adventures. But any animal that’s adapted to spend portions of their life in a cave is going to be much less dependent on vision than we are. Many countless commentaries on human sense experience chide us for our deep dependence on the visual, and are critical of the way that cultures like ours (contemporary American culture) actively chain us to this sensory mode of experience. It’s a reduction of our experience of the world, and an impoverishment of our sense experience. Many Troglobytes—like numerous forms of cave fish, and pseudoscorpions—are not only blind, but are actually eyeless. Vision matters so little, in these environments, that the bodies of these cave animals have adapted so that they don’t waste energy on vision. It can be an incredible drain! Think about how much energy we waste, staring at these little light boxes that we call phones and computers. Perhaps the most dramatic lesson from a sensory adventure in the underworld is that vision matters much less than we assume it does.
Feel for the heat. One of the primary methods that cave boas use to to capture their prey involves their infrared senses. They hang from the ceiling of caves and detect the heat of the bodies that pass by them. When a warm body passes close enough, they’re captured and consumed. Temperature carries so much information. I tend to run cold. I’m one of those people who always complains about the air conditioning in public spaces. I don’t really like the thermostat in my house to drop below 78 in the summer (which the rest of my family protests, at night). I’m always drawn toward flames, because I know that while they might be a signal of danger they are also a signal for coziness. Our bodies are riddled with nerve cells that are constantly feeding us information about temperature. They’re telling us what we need to be comfortable, or even to survive. While temperatures underground tend to be pretty stable, it’s not a warm place. As Dante seemed to know, it’s unlikely that hell would be hot. It makes more sense to imagine that it would be icy and cold. The underworld reminds us of the many ways in which temperature shapes our engagement with the world around us.
Our hair is connected to our inner worlds. Hair is deeply psychological. So many of us are self-conscious and neurotic about our lack of it. Others are proud of their capacious manes. And most of us will spend thousands of dollars over the course of our life shaping and maintaining the hair on our head. It’s our crown. But there are other ways that our hair connects with our inner world. It’s plugged into our largest organ, and is deeply attuned to our nervous system. Eyeless Troglobytes like pseudoscorpions, or remipedes, rely on their hair as sensory organs. Their hair is more sensitive than ours, of course, with the capacity to detect chemical molecules that help them find their prey. But, nevertheless, when we expand our sense of sensibility in order to better explore the underworld, I’m struck by the fact that we often ignore the many ways in which something like our skin (and the hairs that are plugged into it) becomes a much more important site of contact between our inner and outer realities.
Our voice moves us. One of the most fascinating things about bats is their use of echolocation. While I fully recognize that my body is incapable of echolocating, and thus it’s a sense experience that I will never fully be able to enter into, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to comprehend this sense in some way. The best I have managed is to contemplate it as a unique integration of hearing and vocalization. In the Middle Ages, in Europe, it was apparently commonplace to think about speech as a sense. It’s odd for me to think about speech this way, as I’ve tended to think about it as a kind of action or performance. It’s interesting how we’re taught to believe that our sense experience is primarily a way of consuming the world in some way, isn’t it? Seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting: these are all modes of putting the external world inside of us. But speaking is an emission. Nevertheless, we use our voice to navigate the world in so many ways. We speak out loud to ourselves, when we feel dislocated in time or space, as a way to make ourselves feel real again. We test our boundaries with other people, and other things, by speaking with them in various ways. When we raise our voice, it changes how we inhabit our bodies in space. An underworld sense like echolocation is, I think, one of those productive dislocations that reminds us of how vast and complex our own sensual journey through the world is.
Sensation is a way of dancing together. Underworlds are spaces with very little food. And yet, through a complex supply chain, even those creatures who live deep within the earth are able to eat and thrive in ways that feel inventive to those of us who live up here. By sensing heat, by learning to echolocate rather than rely on vision, by sealing off the eyes and growing hypersensitive hairs, these creatures of the underworld sense, encounter, and pursue one another using methods that look unfamiliar. There’s something alien about life in the underworld. It’s no longer a mythical land of the dead, for most of us. Instead, it’s a place on earth where it’s difficult (and in the long term, impossible) for us to survive. And yet what the sense experience of these underworlds creatures can help us remember is that they’re just doing what we do, as earthlings. They are simply experiencing the world through the bodies they inhabit. They’re using their innate capacities to navigate. They dance with one another in strange ways, underground. But this dance is a way for them to engage one another in a collective act of sensation. We’re doing the same things, up here. In order to experience coziness, through our senses, we need a warm body to curl up against. This curling, and the resultant experience of coziness, is a kind of dance that we can’t do alone, but can only do together.
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