The View from Here


Tales from the Underworld
April 21, 2009, 11:31 am
Filed under: Adventures, Caves

I’ve been a caver for 37 years. Maybe longer if you count my childhood tendencies to crawl into dark places. For those not put off by the darkness or bats, caves have that something that excites the instinct to explore. Explore we have, mapping many miles of dark tunnels and crawlways under the green hills of Kentucky. For me, it wasn’t just about the thrill of discovery. Caves are an aesthetic experience, like underground sculpture galleries. The limestone is scalloped and fluted, and corroded into a swiss-cheese maze, sometimes decorated by fantastic crystalline ornaments.

Wells cave, an 11 mile system in southern KY

Wells Cave, an 11 mile system in southern KY

There is also the time-capsule factor. Because caves have no weather (if they are above flood stage levels), whatever changes made by visiting animals or humans last for tens of thousands of years. I’ve seen 4,500 year old footprints left by prehistoric Indian explorers and 10,000 year old tracks left by an ancient Jaguar in a Tennessee cave.  I’ve seen 1,000 year old Mayan storage jars in Belizean caves that still contained corn cobs a couple of inches long, the ancestors of todays foot-long ears.

1,000 year old Myan storage pots in a cave in Belize

1,000 year old Mayan storage pots in a cave in Belize

I was once shown a pit in a cornfield in Yucatan by a Mayan friend. I rappelled into the 50ft pit, feeling pretty high-tech with my modern climbing and caving gear (sandals and candles are standard Mayan caving gear). On bottom, I found myself standing on a pile of debris in the middle of a flooded passage. I couldn’t proceed without swimming, so I looked down to see if I could spot any potshards. It was then that I realized I was standing on a pile of human bones! These were likely the victims of a battle that occurred here (the late Post-Classic city of Mayapan) several hundred years ago. I climbed back up the rope, using my mechanical ascenders that grip the rope and allow you to climb without risk of losing your grip and falling. I got to the top and found that a crowd of Mayan spectators had gathered. I sat on the lip of the pit while I derigged myself, and then clumsily dropped one of my ascenders into the pit. I cursed myself and prepared to do the climb all over again to retrieve the ascender, when a Mayan stepped forward, said “No ay problema,” and slid down the rope bare handed. He clenched the ascender in his teeth, and shinnied back up the rope in seconds. I feebly thanked him as he handed me the ascender. So much for feeling superior for possessing hi-tech gear.actun-xpukil-entrance
Nowadays I don’t do much of the hard-core exploration, crawling for miles, climbing hundred-foot pits, or spending 20 hours underground. That stuff is better suited for 20-somethings. I suppose I could lose some weight and whip myself into shape so that I could once again suffer for exploration, but my interests lie more in finding imagery. A casual stroll with a camera and tripod are more to my liking. Of course, there is rarely such a thing as a casual stroll in a wild cave. Cameras have to be packed in waterproof boxes and handled carefully to prevent their destruction by dust infiltration. To find caves free of trash and graffiti means going to places that have “nerd filters” as they are called in the caving parlance. These filters are usually deep pits, or tight, long and difficult crawlways. Things to discourage the casual caver, which I would like to be most days. I guess we do have to suffer for our art. See http://www.johnnagnew.com for examples of my cave art.

A burial cave in Sarawk, Malaysia (Borneo)

A burial cave in Sarawk, Malaysia (Borneo)

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