The spirit of subterranean darkness

I was standing halfway up the stairs when the lights went out. The ranger, at the top of the stairs, cautioned against taking flash photos in total darkness and even right after the lights came back on. He turned off the lights, and we were as sightless as the blind crayfish that inhabit the cave.
You haven’t seen total darkness until you’ve been in a cave with the lights out. Your eyes strain for a piece of light, any light, the way they cast about upon entering a room that at first looks completely dark but eventually is surprisingly light after your rods, the retina’s faint-light receptors, kick in.
But that day no faint light came to the eye, and the rods had nothing to sense. It was total darkness. And of course the stragglers entering immediately after the lights came on had missed the ranger’s admonition against flash photography, and the entire line of tourists on the stairs yelled “Nooooo!” when the stragglers held their cameras to their faces, but those slowpokes flashed away anyway.
We were on the Grand Avenue tour of Mammoth Cave, a 4.5-hour underground walk that included lunch in the Snowball Room. It felt odd to traipse through dry subterranean passages, former underground streams that curved left and right through gray limestone, the horizontal indentations in the rock walls indicating millennia-old water movement, and come to a wide bright room with tables, chairs and gleaming metal lunch counters.
Grand Avenue was our second tour of Mammoth Cave. We took the Historic Tour the day before, a two-hour journey through the first part of the cave explored by white men. Not being the skinny person I had been in high school, I was concerned when the ranger, in his introductory talk at the cave’s entrance, said a narrow passage called Fat Man’s Misery was no wider than his long metal flashlight. The ranger didn’t point at me and say, “You can’t go, though,” and Fat Man’s Misery, it turned out, was narrow only at the knees. My knees are still skinny, so I was fine, and I enjoyed winding through the shallow rock walkways.
The ranger during the Historic Tour showed us 18th-century writing on the walls, the names typical of the 1800s. Considered historical graffiti, the ranger said now it would be called a felony. He also explained that stalactites that join stalagmites are called columns, not pillars, the latter being what people in Kentucky sleep on. (I hear they’ve used that joke for years.)
Mammoth Cave, at 350 miles and counting, is by far the longest cave in the world, the second-longest being 119 miles. It is 379 feet deep and has at least five levels of passageways that were formed by water working its subterranean way to the Green River, where a patch of mist emanates from a small opening near river level and a nearby creek, the cave outlet, flows into the river. The Green River still on occasion floods the cave’s lowest levels. The cave is home to white cave crickets, blind fish and blind crayfish, and mummified Indian bodies have been found.
That evening, by the fire in the Mammoth Cave campground, I played on my mountain dulcimer a somewhat melancholy chord progression, inspired by the effect on my psyche of the passageways beneath my feet. Later I walked barefoot with no flashlight to the campground entrance to read the information on the signboard, where I saw a warning that rattlesnakes like to soak up the warmth of the blacktop campground roads after dark. On the way back to our site, every leaf was a rattler waiting to be stepped on.
When we finished the Grand Avenue tour the next day I was reluctant to leave, and that evening I again played those mournful arpeggios. Four-plus hours had hooked me, making me long for more, for a week’s worth of tours. Mammoth Cave was a geological soulmate, a place that focused and poured into my spirit the positive energy of Earth’s creation, making me long to stay, trying to pull me back as we drove north toward Ohio.
After reaching Ohio, we stopped at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, housed in the old Union Terminal, which looks like a gargantuan 1930s radio. The museum has a manmade cave, so realistic I was again moved by Earth’s subterranean spirit, and I toured the Cincinnati cave three times, going backward after the final trip. At home that week, in my flat back yard, where the only subterranean passage is the septic system, I played that music on my mountain dulcimer, and I recalled the spirit of Mammoth Cave. One day I’ll return, and when I do, I’ll wear shoes at the campground.

This entry was posted in Science and Nature. Bookmark the permalink.