Ancient earthwork fort and barrow
Discreetly hide their secret abodes
The most fearful hide deep inside
And venture not there upon Yuletide
For invasion of their hollow hills
That music hold and Oberon fill
Is surely recommended not
For fear of death, in fear of rot
— “Hollow Hills,” Bauhaus, 1981
There is no wind underneath the ground. There are no birds to sing.
Beneath dirt, worms and roots, water table, bones and rocks, no fields of flowers, no moonlight to lie under.
These things are understood in a topside sort of way, digging into the earth with a spade, able to get up and walk away.
But there is also descending as an option, through some dark opening formed in a jumble of rocks.
Immediately, the temperature drops. In an hour or in a hundred years, the pile of may shift and close the entrance. Or never. Rock time is inscrutable.
Sunlight grows feeble inside the entrance to the underground, and weaker still with each step deeper inside. The twilight dims and is finally gone, left in the overworld above. Karst, scarpland and speleothem, dark and dank.
We know the dead go down below.
“But when the earth shall bloom with the fragrant flowers of springtime, then from the realm of darkness and gloom you will come up once more from the misty reams of darkness, to the astonishment of gods and mortal men.”
So wrote Homer in a hymn which tells of Persephone, she who wandered too near a dark grove to gather narcissus flowers. Hades, lord of the underworld who receives many guests, was impatiently waiting with horse and chariot. He seized her and took her with him back below. The earth closed behind them, and only the narcissus remained.
Moving deeper into a cave is a monochromatic affair. There is no need for color if there is no light to reflect it. At first, waiting for vision to adjust, reaching out farther than the eyes, the ears overcompensate.
Imagination is not far behind. Bears hibernate in caves in the autumn.
A headlamp is now important, not just a game. And two more flashlights as well. Follow the rule of threes. One light could break, smashed against a rock. The battery could go dead in another. The third one will likely shine. Triple redundancy.
Skulls are nothing confronted with slippery rock piles and outcroppings. Wear a helmet, or your head may crack open like an egg.
Crawling is painful enough when the ceiling lowers. This is what kneepads are for, the kind with Velcro straps that roofers prefer. And gloves to keep the jagged sharp angles from injuring soft palms. For wallowing along in the mud, a boilersuit or mechanic’s jumper over layered underclothing will suffice. The same philosophy which guides dressing for winter in New York City.
From frozen outdoors to heated indoors, layers are the secret.
Twenty-five hundred years later, the harvest goddess Demeter, still distraught at having lost her daughter, stubbornly grieves. A third of each year, no plants will grow. When Persephone gets up above ground the rest of the year, her mother is consoled. Humanity can grow food and lie about in the sunlight in shorts and no shirt. We can call it hot.
It was a close call. Demeter could have wiped us out.
While clouds do not form underground, thunder can still be heard booming along the rock passageways.
“If you hear thunder, that’s your signal to proceed to your nearest exit,” says caver Marcus Showalter. “A sudden cloudburst, and the resulting downpour could mean a flash flood in the caves. Springtime snowmelt is also dicey. It would be bad to be trapped down here.”
A taciturn man given to long stretches of silence, Showalter seems content underground. He does the outfit of a potboiler one better, and wears a wetsuit.
“In the place where I grew up was a lot of tract-housing construction,” says Showalter. “I was ten or so, and there was this culvert built. This new concrete tunnel built into a hill where the storm drains emptied out after a rain — which is basically what this cave is, by the way. The opening was just about as tall as I was, and I was obsessed with getting inside. I would lie awake at night thinking about what was in there. I had a best friend, and between the both of us we packed sandwiches, snagged compasses and our parents’ flashlights.”
Remembering, he laughs. “Maybe we made it 20 feet. Didn’t count on the spiderwebs. And the rats.”
Showalter says he has made friends with his fear. He brags that he knows a dozen cave systems in the Hudson Valley, but refuses to share their locations. Showalter has a low opinion of journalists.
“You’re going to write about this, and then come the crowds tagging the walls with graffiti,” he says. “Drinking and drugs. They’ll be getting lost and injured in the caves and giving real cavers a bad name.”
So here, easily inspired cave enthusiasts, heed this excerpt from the NSS (National Speleological Society) guide to responsible caving titled: Tolerating Misery: “Be aware that caving tends to be cold and muddy, and exhausts muscles you didn’t know you had. Caves vary in difficulty, however: tight passages, cold water, challenging climbs, and long crawls are not uncommon. Dangers may include falling off ledges, being crushed by rocks, drowning, and developing a dangerously low body temperature.”
And here is a similar offering from the Northeastern Cave Conservatory, a nonprofit which owns and maintains caves in nine preserves in the Albany area: “Cave exploration and hiking on karst terrain may involve risk or injury, even death from various hazards, both obvious and obscure, including, but not limited to, slippery and uneven ground, open pits, injury by acts of other people, falling, being struck by falling objects, becoming lost, the presence or sudden appearance of water, and hypothermia.”
A portion of humanity lived in caves some 50,000 years ago, Showalter explains. There is evidence that humanoid creatures lived there even 100,000 years ago. Superstitious over comets, frightened by lightning, hiding from frequent meteorite showers, these humans huddled together in the darkness waiting for Prometheus to come with electric heating and Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn to invent the Internet.
These early humans were called troglodytes. Humans with dark skin leached white by the absence of sunlight. You could see their blue blood under their skin. Generations followed generations. Their dark hair turned red or blonde. Their dark eyes went first green and then blue. They were hideous baby-eaters invented to scare children.
Now go to sleep, child, and no more complaining or I will call the pale-faced ones! Those who would come for your land and subdivide it!
“Joking,” says Showalter. “Some of my best friends have blue eyes.”
Water drips from the ceiling in these caves beneath the Clarksville Preserve. A stream flows along the rock floor. When the ceiling dips, if crawling becomes claustrophobic, mucking about through the water becomes an option. The temperature reads 44 degrees, cold enough to see one’s own breath. The water is warmer.
The light from the headlamp shines through the clear water down to the smooth, rounded stones and pebbles below. Reflected rings ripple across the curved ceiling. The water has been carving the Devonian rock here longer than humans have existed.
The bowels of the earth, in places, are covered with their own softer flesh, a sluggish muddy covering formed across centuries. Some rock glitters with gold flecks in the light of the headlamp. Underdeveloped speleothem form everywhere. Think stalactites hanging from the ceiling, But these are no bigger than a cigarette lighter. Minerals seep down through cracks in the rock over thousands of years old to create these formations.
“A single careless touch or malicious gesture can destroy what may have taken hundreds or thousands of years to form.” So cautions the NSS guidebook.
Sticking with the east wall through the procession of twistings and turnings through rock chambers and tunnels, the conceit of being sure of one’s bearings begins to flow. Confidence growing, one speeds up, checks the compass less. Takes less notice of any identifying shapes and features. A fork in the river, a scramble down a pile of rocks, the choice to hunch down and crawl along an inclined ledge versus wading through a pool.
This confidence can be a mistake. Having no idea where the end goal may be, when one will have to turn back, time down in the darkness is hard to measure. The features will start to blend together in short-term cave memory.
The body feels stress when hunched over or crawling. The heart beats faster. The panic response grows closer. One ceases to think clearly. Turning around to get out, one finds nothing looks familiar. The perspective has changed. The cave is now seen in reverse from the wrong side of the mirror.
Reaching a split in the path, going a short way down both branches to be sure, one becomes doubly unsure. Thinking the entrance to the cave is close, one tries to climb up too early, only to find no exit. One goes back down, ever more lost in the darkness.
When one is lost in a cave for extended periods, hypothermia is a real possibility. If one is caught in this situation, wearing a trash bag will delay the onset.
Dropping glow sticks behind like phosphorescent bread crumbs has become a popular way to retrace steps. When not retrieved, these markers create a litter problem. Not considering the toxic nature of the chemicals inside, unwitting troglobites and trogloxenes (creatures that can’t leave the cave and those that live in a cave, but eat out above in the overworld respectively) can mistake the glow sticks for food. It may remain best practice to stack little rockpiles in key locations instead.
Or just unwind a long golden thread.
The real trick though is mentally to embrace all that rock overhead, to accustom oneself to that silent weight, to imagine the plate tectonics that shift the slab and the earthquake that tumbles it all, and give up on the idea of ever coming back out. A sort of Grotto Zen Buddhism. Let go of the thread, eat the pomegranate seeds, and meditate in the Spelaean stillness.
Caves are the first churches. If the bats aren’t hibernating, the acoustics are haunting, an endless reverb perfect for singing a lonely song. How far has one come in? How far will it be to get out? Forget these questions. Chemical labyrinths of our own making easier to get lost in. The Internet is a mist. Slow down the breathing. Surrender to patient self-sufficiency.
Now imagine the stars. And the wind and the sun. The grass and trees and blue sky. Turn off the headlamp and open your eyes.
People pay good money for this sort of face-to-face time with the soul, and it’s waiting for free, like a bear lurking in the darkness at the bottom of the descent.
For the best chances to find enlightenment in the bowels of the earth and come back alive the National Speleological Society’s guide to responsible caving, available for free on the Internet, gives experienced, responsible advice and instruction to would-be cavers such as “When you might be tempted to cut corners on gear, preparation, or training, ask yourself how much your life is worth.”
The guide is a repository jammed to the gills with useful information.
For information about visiting caves locally also contact the Northeast Cave Conservatory. The NCC has placed many caves under its august protection, some of which require permits or the leadership of a cave steward to guide groups along their dark paths. Crossbone caves for instance, requires all members of a group to be proficient in vertical caving techniques, to sign a date-specific release form (in case of death or injury), and to obtain a permit. Otherwise, one will be considered to be trespassing and subject to arrest.
The Clarksville caves will be off-limits beginning October 1 until May 1, owing to the need for Northern Longeared bats to get some rest.
Currently a fungal disease called White Nose Syndrome is decimating cave dwelling bat populations, making it essential to wash all clothing and equipment worn in one cave before going to another.
In 2020 an 8.2-acre parcel of land containing the Salamander Cave in Kingston was donated to the NCC by Valerie Conners on behalf of her late husband. With any luck, intrepid Ulster County cavers will have will have access for next summer.
Speleun, scarpland and karst, into to the darkness lovely, dark and deep!