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Book Review: Greg Brick’s Subterranean Twin Cities December 8, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.
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I have (rather infrequently) posted book reviews, although I don’t recall any since I switched to WordPress. A little while back, I was approached by my friend Greg Brick with a request to write a review on his book, “Subterranean Twin Cities.”

I suppose I should start with a disclaimer: Greg is a friend and I got a free copy of the book to do the review. I know Greg because we are both graduate students at UMN and shared an office. On the downside (at least for me), there is no offer of compensation of any sort to do the review. The gist of this is that I am doing the best I can to write an objective review of the book (because I only get warm fuzzies, and a free book, for doing it).

I have to begin by admitting that I would never have considered reading this book had I not been asked. (I was even wondering why on Earth Greg asked me of all people.) The book discusses underground passages below Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. I am not a caver and have no desire to explore the bowels of the Earth. My closest experiences to caving were a guided tour of Jewel Cave in the South Dakota Black Hills and the obligatory venture through the steam tunnels at Caltech. I also took a brief foray into a lava tube at Craters of the Moon National Park. I was enamored with the bats flying in and out of the tube, but I couldn’t go past ten feet into the entrance of the tube because I was totally creeped out by the darkness.

I was therefore very pleasantly surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The book doesn’t just discuss caves. It talks about all sorts of subterranean openings, both naturally-formed and man-made. The stories in the book are divided into logical groups, clustering similar types of caves and tunnels together. I was incredibly surprised at the diversity of structures and their prevalence in the area.

The book first introduces the unique geological features of the Twin Cities which make some of the subterranean environments possible. The background is detailed but doesn’t overwhelm with technical jargon. Despite having taught some of this material myself in geology labs, I learned a couple things.

Beyond that, the caves and tunnels underneath the Twin Cities have an integral relationship with the Cities’ history and economic background. After Greg talks about how the caves are formed, he then explains the anthropological and/or economic significance of the cave. The histories are rather fascinating, some of them dating back to very early explorers in the region. In many places, there are black and white pictures or drawings showing people visiting the caves, particularly the ones that were tourist attractions. There was obviously a lot of effort put into creating a sufficiently detailed picture of the role of the caves and tunnels as time progressed, leading up to their current existence.

In most accounts, Greg was able to give a firsthand description of how the caves looked and felt when he explored them. This was actually one of my favorite aspects of the book: as an agoraphile, it gave me the opportunity to explore places that I would almost certainly not have visited on my own. The descriptions were very vivid (once or twice, maybe too much so), and I got a sense of how these places felt and were unique. Sadly, I must say that if the intent was to get me interested in spelunking, it actually enabled me to avoid the process because I could do so vicariously.

One thing that concerned me was the section on “utilities.” One of the utilities was, as you may have guessed, sewers. More than once, before getting to this section, I got knots in my stomach reading some rather unpalatable description of a tunnel. (The thought of crawling through anyplace that has any amount of sewage at all is enough to make me nauseated.) However, Greg’s thoughts on exploring the sewers under St. Paul were some of the most amusing parts of the book. He had to explore them alone, for obvious reasons, and the loneliness of his journeys led to a great many humorous insights.

Despite this, I do have one complaint about the book. Greg mentions at the beginning of the book not wanting to give the locations of many of these places away both for safety concerns and because many of them have been vandalized. There is also concern over how to protect to local bat population, mentioned frequently in the book. However, it would have been helpful, with my limited knowledge of the geography of the area, to have a very general map showing me approximate areas in the metropolitan area where these sites are located. Perhaps it’s a nitpicky thing, but I kept wondering if I was thinking of the right areas when I was concocting my mental images. (I do realize this is the age of Google and I could have looked them up myself. However, when I’m reading a book, I’m trying to stay away from the computer.)

After telling you all this, it’s probably no surprise that I now think this book has a much wider potential audience than I originally imagined. Anyone who has lived or lives in the Cities would probably enjoy the book quite a bit as it gives a new perspective on their old stomping grounds. I would assume cavers would also like it, particularly those from outside the area. Finally, anyone who has an interest in the history and/or geology of the area (or even in general) would most likely find it an enjoyable read.

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