Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Year of the Cave

Inevitably, the year's end is a time of reflection. When I worked with my parents and brother on our old-fashioned family Christmas letter, I came to realize what an epochal year this has been, for all of us. Whether documenting and reporting rare bryophytes in the New River Gorge of West Virginia, teaching political science at a prestigious university in Scotland, or representing clients at bail hearings in Alaska—the Studlars have been busy. (Sue, Don, and Ross pictured above, Carl pictured below.)

My portion of the letter reads as follows:
“Ross has declared 2013 'the year of the cave,' although that moniker does not fully summarize the diverse events. His year began in West Virginia, and the highlights of the first few months were environmental activist events. He attended the Forward On Climate Rally in Washington, D.C., then gained unique new education at Mountain Justice Spring Break, a camp which drew student and professional activists from around the country to rural West Virginia, to study and protest mountaintop removal and fracking, in cooperation with local concerned citizens. It featured classroom trainings, tours of desecrated landscapes, and a march on the state capital. In the midst of the camp, Ross received a job offer on his cell phone—from Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Ross made the westward trek in his Subaru Outback, first to the Grand Canyon for a backpacking trip with a friend, then to Carlsbad, New Mexico. He served as a seasonal Park Ranger from May through October. He guided tours of the developed caverns, and led or acted as “caboose” for off-trail adventure caving tours. He navigated the winding maze of Spider Cave and the vertical climbs and tight squeezes of The Hall of the White Giant, and was relieved to discover that he is not particularly claustrophobic. He narrated evening bat flight programs, sharing science and mythology about bats, before the swirling cloud of winged mammals emerged from the cave's natural entrance. Ross made sure to visit nearby Roswell to rekindle childhood fascinations with UFOs. A few days before his expected layoff from Carlsbad Caverns, Ross managed to secure a winter Volunteer Ranger position at Wind Cave National Park, which is located in the black hills of South Dakota. On his road trips, Ross met the archeological marvels of the southwest, including multiple petroglyph sites, and the Great Houses of Chaco Culture National Historical Park; he also visited natural wonders like Delicate Arch and Cataract Canyon. Although Wind Cave's complex maze of underground passageways has its intrigue, Ross has been most enamored with the rolling prairies and pondersa pine forests found at the surface, and their wildlife—including bison, elk, pronghorns, coyotes, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets. Ross also made two trips to the Pacific Northwest, to attend the wedding of a friend from The Homestead, and to exhibit comics work at the Portland Zine Symposium.”

My activist endeavors, and the stinging interruption in work from the government shutdown, should serve as a reminder that there is much to be done to make the world better. This interview with Noam Chomsky gives us a good reminder of the uphill battle ahead, and that each of us CAN make a difference. In the face of environmental, economic, and humanitarian crises, we should remember the heroic life of Nelson Mandela, and strive to achieve a tiny percentage of similar courage.

But on a lighter front, I wish to reflect on my explorations of dark worlds, in the Year of the Cave. At Wind Cave, I will remember the winding tunnels and boxwork, which resembles ethereal spiderwebs. At Carlsbad Caverns, I will remember the spacious Guadalupe Room, with its pincushion ceiling of soda straws (thin stalactites.) To arrive there, we had to face the four challenges of Hall of the White Giant, then go beyond, down subterranean muddy slopes and boulder fields. I won't easily forget Slaughter Canyon Cave, where, upon emergence from the blackout, I led a crew of boy scouts to create a light show, by blinking our headlamps onto the Christmas Tree, a formation that looked and sparkled like its namesake. I keep a map of Spider Cave on my wall, the wondrous maze, with its calcite formations that seem to be made of marshmallows, and the dark red and gray pattern of crusts that grow on its walls, the excrement of strange bacteria. Caves are truly alien worlds, with life forms so strange that they—alongside deep ocean extremophiles—have forced science to revisit and expand its definition of life. And there are creatures quite related to us—the bats—who perceive the world so differently, via echolocation, that we cannot fully imagine what the world is like through their eyes. In 1974, philosophy professor Thomas Nagel asked “What is it like to be a bat?,” and his essay had an influence on the study of consciousness. I borrowed some of his ideas, and tried to blow minds on my tours of the King's Palace at Carlsbad Caverns.

As surface dwellers, our bodies don't know how to react to subterranea—we quickly lose orientation and sense of time; and, with extended stays, our circadian rythms go out of alignment. Long term cave explorers may keep awake and active for 24 hours or more, then take a long sleep.

Over time, people have found many symbolic meanings in caves, from the dragon's lair to the womb of Mother Earth. Carlsbad Caverns early explorer Jim White named the first several features he encountered after the devil. Later explorers named features after characters from Greek mythology, or the Lord of the Rings series. The Mescalero Apache tell a story about two disabled men who were lost in a cave, then visited by the mountain spirits who led them to light, and granted them new powers and new gifts. The Lakota tell a story of how the ancestors of their people , and the bison, were created underground, and born into the world via Wind Cave, the “breath of life hole.” As I journeyed through caves, I came to know that strange combination of security and fear, awe and apprehension, which cave explorers have known since ancient times.

And caves are truly a new frontier. Almost every square inch of earth's surface has been mapped, but many thousands of miles of cave still lie in darkness and await discovery. New and unimagined worlds await.

 Top two photos by ©Susan Moyle Studlar

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