Islands in the Sky

30696526576_22541054dd_o.jpgI love hiking above treeline. But perhaps more than that, I love hiking above cloudline.

Here in New England, getting above the clouds is a rare gift. It’s not that our clouds never come in low and heavy; they do, and often. In fact, our clouds are monstrously unpredictable, sometimes building up to unreachable heights, sometimes collapsing damp and tired in the valleys, sometimes racing by far above as trailing wisps or untidy cannonballs.

But our peaks are comparatively low, so it takes a special sort of day to get above the clouds. It takes a day when the clouds are wet and heavy, weighed down by exhaustion from a storm the day before, and with brilliant sun and wind at their backs. Then, if you’re lucky, and you don’t mind climbing through the mist, you may find yourself in an inverted sky.

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One Hour From the Surface

imgp1988When I go into caves, I think a lot about the juxtaposition of time. Travel on the surface is nearly effortless by comparison. To reach this point, a point never seen by human beings before us, we had to put in days of effort digging out the constrictions in the passages between, returning to the same project over months and gaining a few feet every day.

Even now, when the only limits that will stop you are your own, to reach this point is not easy. You must climb, crawl for hundreds of feet, negotiate vertical drops on and off rope, endure cold water and gritty mud, and make your way slowly through passages that few people ever have.

These passages that developed for their own purposes, none of which involve people. The floors are uneven. The ceilings are irregular, and often low. The walls are carved into alien shapes. The air is dusty and damp. Streams occupy the space insistently. A person may coexist with these things, but there is no illusion that you are an important part of such a place.

The juxtaposition of time is that to reach the place where I took this photo, we traveled in the cave for over an hour. There is approximately 150ft of solid rock above this place, and then trees, and then sky. If you begin at the entrance and travel to the nearest point on the surface, it is 150ft away, and it takes you only three minutes. But that last 150ft might as well be a mountain between the two.

Strange Places

IMGP0859There are places that are quintessentially human, and places that are emphatically other. For my part, I much prefer the places that are other, where humans are less involved and have spent less time paving over the intricacies of nature with their own ill-considered urbanity and ham-fisted simplicity. Entirely human places tend to annoy me, because they so often lack the depth and breadth and intricacies of the world, and instead enable us to gaze comfortably at our societal navels without thought to the foundations.

I had the opportunity to explore a 200-year old copper mine a few days ago. It is a remarkably odd place, not least because it defies categorization in my taxonomy of places. It is an undeniably human place, but it also has an overprint of deep strangeness–of natural processes in the act of reclaiming it.

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The Privilege of Wilderness


When the United States established the first national forest at Yellowstone in 1891, the conservation of land for recreation was nearly incidental. Instead, the primary motivation was to protect game, water, and timber resources. They weren’t even called “National Forests” at first—Yellowstone started out as a “Timber and Land Reserve” and graduated through “Forest Reserve” in 1902 before arriving at “National Forest” in 1907.

The general public now associate National Forests with recreation, but the reality is that many of our policies still treat National Forests as reserves of resources—not for conservation’s sake, but for ongoing exploitation. I find it a little worrisome that our largest national protection of wilderness does so out of economic self-interest instead of intrinsic value. A part of me wants to say it doesn’t matter if the end result is the same—but the more I think about it, the less I believe that.

When we think about our wilderness as an economic resource instead of a social resource, the way we manage it changes. It leads us to assume that access to wild places is a peripheral privilege, and like so many privileges, it is given mostly to those who can afford it.

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Elementary Challenges

BaldfaceWhen I worked in the wilderness for days at a time, I had the dubious privilege of camping and living in some of the worst weather New England has to offer, and bad weather is something hardly lacking here. The Mt. Washington Observatory proudly proclaims itself home of “the worst weather in the world.”

Hyperbole or not, the elements in the White Mountains will not be disrespected. In the winter and the summer both, weather systems climbing up along the east coast meet cold air pouring down from the Arctic Circle. As the systems meet up with one another, their winds amplify each other. In the wake of storms major and minor, winds in the mountains climb comfortably to hurricane-force. When I noted that, I went to check and found that twenty-one of the preceding thirty days in the Whites were recorded, on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, as being at least class one—“very dangerous winds, will produce some damage.” Of those, eight passed into class two—“extremely dangerous winds, will cause extensive damage.” Three reached the level of a class three hurricane—“devastating damage will occur.”

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A Philosophy of Wilderness

The Gobi (high contrast)At one point some years ago, I stood on one edge of the Gobi desert and looked out into a vast place mostly ignored, not because it is hard to reach but because it is wide, and dull, and hostile. I found that incredibly alluring; I was seized at the time by an urge to start walking into the dunes and just go, as far as I possibly could.

Of course, I didn’t—the feeling was heady enough. But that, to me, was the feeling of wilderness: a place that doesn’t need you, doesn’t want you, and will scarcely notice your passing.

The relationship between people and wilderness continually pulls me in two directions. On the one hand, I love wild places and want to experience them as fully as I can. On the other, there is something about wilderness that shies away from the presence of people; the more people there are, and the more easily they can get there, the less wild a place becomes.

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The Unknown

Not long ago I had the privilege to stand with friends in a place no human being had ever before seen.

P1040707Standing in a new place is an unusual experience, but more usual for me given our penchant for finding and exploring undiscovered caves. Even so it remains thrilling and humbling both. Caves are alien places, and new caves are as unknown as the surface of another planet. You know that everything you see has never been seen; that you are among the first of a very few; and that you are experiencing something most people never will.

We work very hard for the privilege of being the first people into any given place. Humans are very good at getting to inaccessible places, and there are few places left, on the face of this planet at least, where no one has preceded you. For better and worse, besides the deep ocean and the undiscovered caves, there is almost no untracked wilderness left to see.

In many ways we rely on this in life—we learn from the experience of others, the knowledge accumulated by our forbearers, and the maps made by explorers before us. We experience nature mediated by knowledge and safety, regimented by the careful cataloguing of predecessors. Certainly it makes such places more accessible—to roughly paraphrase Terry Pratchett, most every mountain peak first reached by valiant explorers at great risk of life and limb will, one hundred years later, have grandmothers strolling up for a picnic.

The comfortable known places are exactly that; but we don’t learn and grow very well in comfortable, known places.

Not everyone has the time or energy or inclination to excavate new caves in search of their unknowns, but that is only one dramatic example. I also seek out my unknown in new ideas, new ways of looking at the world, and new solutions to old problems. And I seek out my unknowns in things well-known to others, but new to me: to be one of the lucky ones who learns something everyone else already knows.

I think every time I learn something new, I also learn myself a little better. A new idea, a new place, a new cave—each sharpens my mind and my thinking.

And there are so many things still to learn and see. I hope there will always be.

Deep Time

ChocoruaTime, like comfort, is a relative thing. Only in the recent centuries of human existence have we stretched ourselves enough to imagine truly deep time. Understanding the history of any rock or cave leads inexorably to the origins of life, and the origins of our world before it, and the origins of our universe before that.

Individuals both daring and careful have paved the way for us to not only see such things, but to understand. Slowly, the great scientific minds of humanity have reasoned and tested their way into a world much larger and older than even the most exotic flights of imagination. Not content with a hand-waving dismissal of history before History, we have asked ourselves “why” and “how” so many times that we can now trace back the creation of our world to its temporal horizon: the big bang. This event is the current edge of our knowledge, and beyond it, time itself seems to have no meaning.

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The Perspective of Antiquity

Big Loop - RapidsThe steady drumming of falling water is meditative as it strikes the marble. Every drop eats away an imperceptible fraction of the stone, carving scallops and flutes more perfect and delicate than any sculptor could manage. One by one, crystals of calcite and graphite melt away or give up their bonds with one another to go skipping down the passage in liquid suspension, deposited later as flowstone or sand elsewhere in the cave, or washed completely down to the aquifer. Some are returned to the surface when the water gushes from a spring. Infinitesimal bit by infinitesimal bit, the stone is being relocated.

This is the entire origin of caves. The rooms and passages of this cave are the footprints of the stream that made it, a living negative space through which we may humbly travel. Standing in this room, looking at the water, I contemplate the shapes of the stone. The room is fishbowl-shaped, telling me that the waterfall, which now tumbles over a far edge, used to enter this room where I did, in the center. It splashed, pooled, and swirled to form this chamber. Where the water now enters is a fluted pit the size of a closet; it has been falling there for some time to carve away so much rock, but not so long as it spent where I stand. And behind me is a narrow crack with a channel leading to a different passage entirely, smaller and older. Everywhere are the signs of what came before.


Following the tracks of the water in my mind’s eye, I see this cave forming. Water follows the joint for a long while, perhaps thousands of years, before volume overwhelms the small passage and begins to carve my fishbowl. Eventually, all the water poured off the ledge above where I stand, eating away the marble for more thousands or tens of thousands of years—but higher in the cave, erosion was working just as strongly. Eventually, relatively recently in the cave’s history, the water bypassed the ledge above me and ran along through the wall to my right to enter the room where it now falls, each drop of water building on the work of billions that came before it. To me, this is beautiful.

The cave is beautiful without this knowledge as well. Deep flutes and grooves sweep through the walls, scallops are cut into the floors, and the entire form is laid into a white crystalline marble with jet-black highlights. Imagine walking through cookies-and-cream ice cream, and you will have some idea of how this marble looks in cross-section. The black is in chunks and streaks, bits of other rock that were broken up in the marble as it formed. The white is lightly banded in shades of off-white and cream, scattered through with sliver crystals of graphite that catch and reflect light like a field of glitter. Up close, I can see the tiny, interlocking crystals of calcite and graphite in the walls. At a few inches, the walls of the cave seem to be made of jewels.

This, too, has a history. The story of the cave is the story of the water that made it, but the stone tells a different, older story. Marble is limestone that has been buried deep in the earth, subjected to the great heat and pressure thousands of feet below us, and then exhumed by erosion. Usually it is smooth, and the crystals are almost invisible to the eye—this marble was cooked for millennia to form crystals so large. When it was buried millions of years before, it was limestone inter-bedded with shale and dolomite, but rocks are not static things; deep in the earth, on a scale of thousands of years, they move like plastic or putty. The limestone recrystallized to form the pure white marble, each crystal growing for millennia. The dolomite and shale became tan marble and schist respectively, and, less plastic that the white calcite, broke apart in the matrix as it was compressed. Eventually, the whole complex was lifted by the geological movement of the earth on a continental scale, thrust upward even as the surface eroded away. Eventually, perhaps a hundred thousand years ago, the marble was close enough to the surface for water to begin its work.

The limestone and dolomite and shale, the parents of this marble, have again their own history. They were laid down in the shallow seas below a great mountain range that ran through this place more than a billion years ago. They were the accumulated bits and pieces eroded from those mountains by the waters that ran through gullies and caves of their own, long before humans ever existed and before all but the most simple forms of life even graced this planet. Those mountains in turn were lifted by the colliding plates of the crust of our earth, then torn down, replaced and torn down again many times since.

Now, more than a thousand million years into the process, I stand in this room, watching water carry off the stone to lay it down elsewhere, as it will continue to do until the whole of these mountains too are leveled, and their detritus builds new rock that, in a far future, may hold another cave. Brushing the wall with my fingers, I am touching the rough traces of a billion years of history, and more, as the mountains that made this rock were assembled themselves in depths of time so impenetrable that they defy comprehension.

This is one reason I visit caves—to stand in a place where the shear weight of history is intoxicating and touch time itself. To see, as the famous geologist James Hutton wrote, “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”

Wild Places

My first wild cave trip was to a cave named Clarksville. Randy, the director of my college outdoor program, took me there alone as training for a later trip, which I was to be partly responsible for. We talked on the drive over about gear, safety, and what I would need to learn. In a rocky parking lot behind a small store, we put on helmets, gloves, kneepads, and dusty WWI army coveralls that Randy had gotten from a surplus store years before.

Hiking somewhat stiffly along the trail to the entrance, I imagined beautiful hanging formations, a good deal of ambient light, and wide, easy passageways. Looking around expectantly for the way in, I saw nothing–the ground seemed rocky enough, but there didn’t seem to be any cliffs large enough to support the walk-in entrance I imagined.

Randy, meanwhile, had stopped above a tiny hole in the ground between two rocks. “Don’t forget to turn on your light,” he said as he vanished into the ground like a gopher. The world became surreal as my expectations realigned with reality—somehow, until that moment, I had neglected to consider that caves might involve small spaces. Nonetheless, here I was, standing over a hole barely a foot and a half across, and, fortunately for me, too stubborn to back out. Swallowing my fear, I turned on my headlamp and lowered myself gingerly over slick, cool rocks into another world.

One does not learn from the curated reality of a textbook, museum, or show cave that wild caves are incredibly alien places. The processes that create them begin on the surface, but quickly enter a realm of chemistry and confinement that is mostly invisible from the above. Groundwater, picking up acidity from the soil, seeps into bedrock and starts dribbling its way down toward the water table. As it goes, it dissolves the calcium that is a major component of carbonate rocks—usually limestone but sometimes marble or a few other types—and carries it away. The more these insipient spaces dissolve, the more water they can carry, and the more rock that water can dissolve. Above the water table, tributaries form along joints or beds in the rock that carry water downward. Below the water table, currents dissolve the rock wherever the water is moving.

Caves are really the footprints of water, revealing what it did and where it went. Sometimes they show the path of water from recent storms, and other times they show the route of phantom streams that vanished millions of years before. Unlike streams on the surface, they follow patterns that are not immediately intuitive. Often the way forward for a human being will appear nearly random—a huge room may stop suddenly and the continuing passage may be a tiny hole in the wall on one side, or in the floor at the top of a mound of dirt and rock. At times, to go down, one must instead climb up, tracing abandoned passages to reconnect with the water’s main path. Such travel is never simple—rock is carved into fins, spires, and bizarre fingers, or collapsed in breakdown: huge slabs that have fallen from the ceiling under their own weight.

The first room that Randy and I entered in Clarksville cave was a large breakdown room with at least six paths leading out of it. With my claustrophobia temporarily assuaged by the large room, Randy gave me my first lessons in cave navigation. “Look at where we just came from,” Randy instructed me, pointing at a small, inconspicuous hole near the top of a pile of rock. “Remember what it looks like.” The advice was well-timed; had I entered the room from another route, I would never have given that particular hole a second’s thought. In a complex cave, getting lost can be as much of a hazard as anything else—thus, memorizing your route can be crucial.

As we continued on, I also discovered that one doesn’t really walk so much as clamber—over rocks, under rocks, and across ledges or mud banks. And then the tunnel opened into a wide, comfortably high stream passage. We sloshed forward through water and gravel, enjoying the echoes and the oppressive and exciting feeling of being deep in the bones of the earth. This was nature in its raw state; unrestrained, unmolded by human hands. Just being, for its own sake.

On the return trip from a beautiful underground lake at the end of the stream passage, Randy called to me to follow and again vanished into a small hole—this time a side passage off the main stream, a different way than we had come in. It started as stoop-walking, only four feet high, and the walls closed in until I had to kneel and shuffle sideways. Randy was gone out of sight and earshot ahead, and my heartbeat increased. Ahead, the passage shrank to a hands-and-knees crawl barely two feet wide by two feet high. Blood pounding in my ears, I pushed on. It looked impossible, but Randy had certainly gone this way. Just when I was ready to scream, I saw light around a bend, and came through into a tiny chamber just large enough for a few people to stand. Randy was watching me intently—in retrospect, I’m sure my fear was obvious. “There’s two ways out,” he said, pointing to an impossibly small crack just about head-height on the wall. “If you want, we can go back the way we just came, but if you’re going to lead cave trips, we should go this way.”

The crux of the matter—I am a stubborn person, something I despise and for which I am eternally thankful. It requires a certain presence of mind to restrain it, but without it, I would never have been able to do one of the things I most enjoy. We went through the crack.

I have traveled much more difficult passages since, but at the moment we emerged into the chamber beyond that crack, it was the most remote place in the world. I wriggled out the other side into a second room where I could rest, only to be presented with another tight passage leading onward. I came face to face with dread in a way I had never done before. My life, my friends, my comforts and aspirations and principals: all shrunken down to a bathroom-sized chamber in solid rock and the simple fact of having to go on. That is a place of true wilderness—when you are alone with the world, and you hit a limit, and you know that you are the one who will have to bend.

It is difficult to describe why I do this. Caves here in the Northeastern United States are often small, narrow, or both. I am, or used to be, claustrophobic. Caves are wet; I am nervous in water. Most caving involves climbing, descending pits, or traversing far above the floor, and I have a healthy dislike of heights. Caves are dark—and I do not mean the ambient darkness of nighttime, or the grey light of darkness in a movie; caves are truly dark. Without a light source, you cannot see at all; as a caver, I carry three, because I know that finding my way from the depths to the surface without them would be next to impossible. So, with my helmet, and lights, and gloves, and assorted other gear, I crawl and climb and push and squeeze my way into the dark until the cave decrees that one can go no further. It is often painful, exhausting, cold, difficult, and pervasively dirty.

There is something unnamable here that I find in few other places. It is something of solace, something of serenity, something of freedom, something of spirit. All and none of these, and more. The surface world is tracked, mapped, explored, numbered, and daily disassembled by those who would profit at its expense. The surface is crowded, and growing more so daily. The surface is busy, and loud, and tiring, and we dream of fantasy and space travel and the romantic days of the past because they satiate our desire for the new, the different, and the unknown. I find my unknown in the bones of the earth, following the tracks of water and stone that wend their way beneath us and which few human beings ever see. And I find beauty in the sculpturing of nature, the carving and building of water and rock.

Perhaps most importantly, I find places rarely touched or seen. There are caves almost everywhere beneath our feet, but they are unknown by all but a few and most of them are as wild and unaltered as any place on earth. Many of them begin and end in the depths, inaccessible to any human. Many more will only be visited by the few tenacious explorers skilled and hungry enough to do so.

Caves contain some of the last true wilderness left on this planet.