The Story of Emily’s Underworld Journey

by Emily Prentice

I grew up with an inclination to go barefoot. I poked at wet soil with sticks, wrecked my clothes playing potato-bug in the grass. My first communions with the underworld were mud pies and fairy houses tucked into the roots of trees, though it’d be a couple decades before I thought of them that way. 

In Appalachia, the underground is written into our class curriculums and history lessons. We learned about coal before we learned about energy. We took school trips to the underworld on long industrial elevators; the children knew how to get under a mountain and the parents knew how to blow one up. Where kids in other places might have built a model volcano, I remember carefully crafting a cross-section of the world below, complete with a mine shaft and coal seam. I’m not sure if I labeled the top-soil, though now it preoccupies a large chunk of my eco-anxiety. 

Worms and mushrooms and micro-organisms in the soil only think in terms of ecosystems. In terms of millenia. They break down materials at a speed perfectly timed with the land around them: roughly one inch of generative, nourishing topsoil for every hundred years. When you remove the top of a mountain to take the coal out, you can haphazardly put the rocks back in a mound. You can spray on new grass. You can plant new trees, and if you’re especially conscientious, you could plant more than one kind. You can never get that topsoil back, though. It flies through the air and slides into streams. We’re confronted daily with the avarice* of taking something from the underworld without asking, and our home has suffered for it. 

We were taught early and often that the most valuable things lie beneath. 

As with all things, though, my home is not a monolith. Rocks are cracked open. Lines of ants swarm a dropped sno-cone. Topsoil is lost. A beekeeper speaks to their psychopomps. Dozens of mushrooms appear in my parents’ yard overnight. A slurry is built above an elementary school. A whole community knows where the ramps are and no one takes them all.

When I think about home, I see threads spread out like mycelium. They connect the food in my kitchen to the soil (sometimes 10, sometimes 1000) miles away. They burrow and wriggle like the internet cables buried and carried through pipelines and up telephone poles. They root down into the land my home sits on, land that does not ancestrally belong to me, land that I “bought” 3 months ago

and my home is me and my home is that bundle of connection, an ecosystem, a network,  a sigil 

and my home is the Underworld

and I am, too. 

*Let me be clear: As with most structures within capitalism, the greed in mining comes from a relatively small list of folks in positions of (too much) power. In West Virginia, mining jobs are some of the few financially supportive careers available in our area. While I’m deeply critical of mining practices, I absolutely support WV miners, who have been fighting and literally dying for unionization and fair labor practices for 100 years. [link to mine wars museum: https://wvminewars.org]

In honor of our new workshop Underworld Overviews: Hearth + Home, Lex & I have been writing a lot about the world below. You can find more blogs in this series by clicking the links below:

–What is an Underworld Journey?

How to Tell if You’re on an Underworld Journey

Lex’s Underworld Journey

What’s your relationship to the Underworld? Let’s talk about it! We’re excited to announce our FIRST workshop in a new series: Underworld Overviews: Hearth + Home. We’ll be meeting on February 19th to make connections, make magic, and make art together in a space dedicated solely to examining how the Underworld intersects with home and with each of us. Find out more here. 

1 thought on “The Story of Emily’s Underworld Journey”

Leave a Comment