Let me first express my pleasure at being here today to congratulate all of you for successfully completing your diploma requirements. My own time spent here in the Stagger building was one of the most satisfying and magical periods in my life.
As you’re all aware, I am one of the pioneers of this program. In its heyday, Hollow Earth Studies was Victoria College. Students came here from all over the world and, and in a single generation, there were sister departments in 37 educational institutions, globally.
Those were different times. In the last ten years no new textbooks have been issued on the topic. Our last journal of repute, The Open, quietly folded in 2047. The current minister of Natural Resources, Mia Treppanier, has reduced research funding down to the barest of trickles – only just enough to keep the LED banks at Pelly Bay powered and maintained. The area of interest you and I have in common is in danger of being strangled out of existence.
But why? It’s true that there’s been no proven economic incentive for exploring the vast opening beneath our feet. Hopes for floating layers of valuable gasses or other energy stores were dashed completely when the last of the Exxon Sanctity probes finished its scan. Empty. Ever since, H.E.S. has largely become an academic discipline; our funds come from those dollars meant to service the public good.
All of you at one time or another, I’m sure, have envisioned careers post‑graduation as vacuunauts slung across earth’s inner arc to explore and sample and illuminate that long mysterious underside. Easily harvested resources aside, the inner earth – what the late philosopher Thomas Asch termed “the ceiling world” – remains a space with virtually unlimited exploration potential. You young graduates wish to know the function of the bioluminescence of the bacterial colonies that glow in giant quartzite stalactites below Lake Superior, or the nature of the condensation that forms in the olivine fields of the Shetland plate. You dream of that instance in which you first pivot downwards on your harnesses, remove your protective masks, face for a moment that awesome stretch of darkness, and hear the unmediated humming of the entire deep against your eardrums. In short, I have no doubt that you were driven here by curiosity.
What’s happened to the world’s curiosity?
As we move forwards we are also always moving backwards, longing for the way things were before great change swept us into this unknown world. We regressives often prefer to fish in stagnant but familiar waters and reel in the giant dead fish of the past, paint them in pastel colours and display them for sale on the dock as though they were fresh and not rotten. Things are as they’ve always been, we say, not like this. We are so afraid of change that we are capable of ignoring it even as it occurs right before our eyes.
I’ve got something stuck on the wall just in front of my desk at home. It’s a framing of the simple image of a stick figure with horns and a little forked tail, a sort of devil. It’s a rubbing taken from the first descending platform at Pelly Bay, a tiny doodle etched into the metal, possibly by one of the men or women who welded it all together. In that first foray, three of us were lowered on this platform, lashed together on a circular bench. The descent took over four hours. The smooth and featureless walls of the borehole were barely a centimetre from the lip of the platform and after a time our excitement turned to claustrophobia. We stopped talking and there was only one dead sound, which was the fibre‑line as it hissed through the pulley. As we proceeded, the narrowness of the borehole – this tiny carved out space – made all the weight and force of the earth’s crust stark and fearsome in its massiveness.
I discovered the etching as I was nervously running my fingers back and forth across the metal of the bench. The design was embossed into it there: circles and sharp lines. It was invisible from where I sat, but I teased at its texture over and over again, like a monk rubbing his prayer beads. Of course, when the platform finally emerged out of the tunnel my attention was entirely consumed by the void.
For almost an hour we simply hung there, now infinitesimally small against a space so massive – yet bounded. Hot, dank, black. The proportion of that emptiness, which sucks at your dangling boots, does strange things to the unprepared mind. There are ancient forces at work within this vast sphere of space, winds whose heat hint at the infernal temperatures of the middle, a low, consuming hum whose timbre you will no doubt recognize in some forgotten organ of your body.
We do not like or trust emptiness. We do not warrant it in the world of our imagination. When you are not in it, you fear it, seek the anchoring firmness of solidity. But when you are in it, the emptiness subsumes you. Sea divers who’ve dropped down in weighted suits into the darkness of the deep sea speak of a similar calmness. In unbounded space, size is meaningless and our minds expand and inhabit it all at once.
In a way, it is the devil down there. It is things as we do not wish them to be. It is the veil pulled back on a monstrous fact: that we sail through space not on solid rock but on a fragile‑seeming bubble. Holy, the firm and wicked, the empty. Those are the instincts, radical and primitive, which assail us gathered here in this hall. It is the will of the world that the genie be shoved back and the bottle, stoppered and forgotten.
I will share with you now a thing you will never have heard before. I descended into the borehole within the first year of its opening and provided consultation to the engineers who designed and operated the Sanctity probes. We were operating under the assumption that the shape of the hollowness was more or less symmetrical. That is, the earth’s crust was roughly 25‑35 kilometres thick at any given location and the shape of the void was spherical. Which turned out to be true. We were also operating under the even deeper assumption that we were the first humans to have made this discovery. But there we were wrong. There had never been a borehole drilled through the earth’s crust before but there have been plenty of human visitors.
Thirty kilometres is a fair distance but not so far that natural openings – typically of volcanic origin – have appeared on their own from time to time. These are fragile passages, with relatively brief life spans, that have permitted ancient transit. And as proof, the ceiling world holds relics of these earlier times. In recent decades, human bodies have transited relatively little of the openings beyond any of the historic eight great boreholes, but the Sanctity probes searched far and wide. Below the thermal plumes of Polynesia they found what certainly appeared to be intricate carvings – no more than seven hundred years old – all along a lip of kimberlite whose vent may once have led all the way to the surface. Underneath a graduated fault, where the Nazca plate subducts under the Pacific, there is a narrow shelf some eight kilometres long which comes to a singular point roughly 15 metres wide, a tiny isthmus, like a precariously floating dais. Seated there, in a tight row, are nearly 70 figures whose flesh was long ago blasted to dust. What circumstances left them there it’s impossible to know. But I believe that these are the skeletons of those ancients who refused the call to return and instead preferred, for all time, to bravely bear witness on the reality of the opening beneath them. The earth closed above their heads and history allowed no mention of them.
We must face the possibility that this may happen again. That this is happening again. That knowledge is selective to the point of being predatory. It kills what threatens it. There were once eight boreholes, now there is only one. The world is making a choice to disbelieve and only the narrowest of channels, quite literally, prevents this from becoming a reality. It will begin in the highest of places with a signature on a document and filter downwards in effect. Funding will disappear altogether. Institutions will close those last doors and turn elsewhere. The facility around the borehole will run to disrepair until finally, in some small satellite office a switch will be pushed on the generator that powers the forces that keep the channel intact. And on that day, 30 kilometres of shifting rock and silicate will close down on our understanding once more and we will forget all that we’ve discovered to be true.
Today, graduates, I commend your boldness and your resolve. I am proud to salute you. You stand against this dim vision. You see it just as well as I, and you proceed nonetheless.