My dad was a geology major. He ended up in medical school for various reasons, but he never lost that love for rocks. For years, the license plate on his old blue sedan read ‘INOKROX’. And I guess you could say the hobby rubbed off on me—in Mississippi shark tooth hunts, Coon Creek digs, and the simple elation of finding a Crinoid stem in the garden gravel.
As a teenager, I “rebelled” by taking myself as far away from science as possible and embracing the arts. I told stories. I decided to become a writer. But no amount of godly grammar and punctuation could negate the fact that my early stories were about giant leeches.
Following my rebellious period, I boomeranged back into discovering that science is awesome. It’s even more awesome when you have the privilege of looking in at it from a completely different field (in my case, editing). In fact, I’ve spent hours thinking about going caving as a kid—how vividly the cold primordial puddles pull me back. I don’t mean state-sanctioned Mammoth Cave tours with carpet and railings; I mean ventures to Indian Gravepoint and Lost Creek Cave with my dad—lighted helmet askew, backpack full of granola bars, ready to wear the mud like a red carpet dress. Learning the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. Tuning my ears to the sound of water flow carving out miles of ancient rock.
A first knowledge of caves often involve cartoons of Neanderthals warming themselves by a fire just inside the entrance of a stone face smooth enough to be the door to a prefab home. We’ve all read THE FAR SIDE (and immortalized it, I hope). We’ve come to think of caves as nature’s ready-made shelters, warm and welcoming. Popular media makes little money off the fact that most caves require helmets, grappling gear, strong flashlights, and a very active mind. For what to do when the cave’s entrance requires crab-walking for 30 yards and it’s raining hard enough outside to flood the phreatic zone [area below the water table]? You go out with a prayer, slurping the air, Indiana Jones-style.
Of course, the danger involved is not the be-all, end-all of what makes caves and their inhabitants fascinating. They are, in the most basic sense, sandcastle moats—limestone and sediment carved out from years of underground streams (or, if you’re adventurous, leftover tunnels formed from raging hot magma; though most prefer the limestone). They feature calcite and crystals in the kind of formations you’d expect to see in outer space—for who can disturb these chemical processes underground? Active caves also boast waterfalls as breathtaking as any tropical getaway. And we haven’t even gotten to examples of actual biology. The closed-off environment often acts like a natural petri dish, giving rise to organisms that would serve well as a control group for any evolution experiment. This is, of course, why many a horror movie chooses to blame its monstrous protagonists on cave science. (Again—who can disturb the creation of these creatures underground?)
The most monstrous thing at work there, however, is time.
Time that allows solid rock to be rendered into fissures by the relentless flow of water. Time that takes liquid calcium and stretches it into speleothems that drip so far as to sometimes join in the middle like geological Parthenon columns. Time that is perfectly content to ignore us and our trespasses. We might often think that these human-shaped entrances were designed for our use; but the rocks will keep changing, forming sinkholes and cave-ins, carrying on long after the expeditions end.
My favorite trip to Indian Gravepoint remains, in my memory, as only a car ride home: exhausted, encrusted, enraptured by a classic Western band called the Bar-D Wranglers tearing up their fiddles about tumbleweeds. I was twelve. I felt five hundred. Like I knew the meaning of the universe, then.
“I haven’t peed in nine hours,” I announced with pride. It was the only way I could think to express the great footsteps of giants I felt I had stepped in. Gulliver himself would yearn for my prowess.
Me and five dudes. Just the mud, some food, and the dark.
In this competition with the earth—soccer at recess, digging for fossils, climbing stone walls—I found worth. In Legos, mudholes, cicada shells. Treasure troves of sediment. Dead land. I killed it. Or tried to. Triumphed over the death. I was a scavenger, storied and natural, like sea salt.
I live in the city now, and I love every minute of it. My dad lives in Tennessee, where he can drive for a mere 20 minutes and reach an outcrop of quarries and non-civilizations pre-buried and ready for his hammer to fall [insert Queen riff].
I’m happy to be where I am. I’m also thrilled to have the kind of father who took my hand at age two and showed me how to crack open a geode, because science is awesome, and I never needed a damn Facebook meme to tell me so.