Floodwater mazes: Fingerprint of extreme weather

Although its impact farther north was devastating, Hurricane Sandy didn’t seem like a hundred year storm here in Silver Spring, MD.  The sky darkened for a couple days, the city shut down, a few trees fell and some neighborhoods went without power for half a week – but it really wasn’t much compared to the derecho that came by in the summer, the wild chain of thunderstorms the summer previous, the feet of snow and choking ice we got in 2010, or even the local floods that came along with Tropical Storm Hanna.  Turning the clock back further, I have memories from childhood of big windstorms, heavy ice rimes, and wild floods that both scared and delighted me with their novelty as they smashed through my suburban neighborhood.  When the winds from Hurricane Sandy died down and my neighbors and I gathered in the street, we joked with each other that none of our tree limbs had broken off this time because the events of the past years had already cleaned out all the weak ones.

Worst of the local flooding from Hurricane Sandy

Worst of the local flooding from Hurricane Sandy

Climate change is an extremely difficult issue to handle, both scientifically and politically.  Scientifically, the long-term response of such a vast and chaotic system as the global climate to anthropogenic changes in the air and land is a hard equation to calculate.  The earth is big, it has huge amounts of local variation, and it changes constantly – isolating and projecting the effects of one variable upon the entire system is like trying to predict what exactly is going to happen to the weather in China when a butterfly waves its wings in Iowa.  And politically, in the absence of a simple, concrete, and indisputable algorithm from the scientific community, the subject quickly leaves the realm of the practical, and turns into fodder for various agendas.

One of the scenarios that has been suggested is that as the earth warms, people may feel the effects locally in the form of more extreme weather events (rather than straightforward warming).  While my own life experience has been pretty consistent over the past 30 years, with a slight sense of an increase in recent crazy weather that could be attributed to the recent events being fresher in my memory, it is certainly not a long or comprehensive enough data set for me to use it to pass judgment.  However, the theory does have some compelling scientific support.  So I have become curious, in the aftermath of Sandy, about what impact a climate change model involving extreme weather might have on my favorite hobby – caving.  After a little bit of research, I discovered that the answer is: quite a bit.

Extreme Weather and Caves

The physical development of caves depends on a variety of surface factors, including chemistry, topography, and temperature – but above and beyond all else, it depends on water.  Caves are carved out of solid bedrock by water, both physically through erosion, and (much more importantly in the large systems), chemically through dissolution.  Common sense would therefore predict that the amount of rainfall on a karst landscape would have an impact on its caves – but what I did not at first realize, is that the timing of that rainfall is as much or more important than its total volume.

Climate change theories do not necessarily offer any guesses as to whether total annual rainfall in a given area will increase or decrease in the coming years, but in claiming that there will be more extreme weather events, one can deduce that even if the total rainfall remains the same, it will arrive more sporadically.  Hypothetically, that would mean dry spells punctuated by flood events, rather than a steadier precipitation schedule.  If this trend played out, it would slowly but inexorably change the shape of the underground world.

In conditions of steady rainfall over a karst landscape (landscape bedded with limestone or another highly soluble type of rock), rainwater seeps into cracks in the rock’s surface, and slowly enlarges them by dissolving away the bedrock.  Over time, the cracks get larger and sink deeper into the earth, until eventually the water from each crack joins together and seeks a path toward the nearest resurgence, or spring.  The maps of these steady-flow condition caves, called “branch work” caves, look something like the maps of aboveground river basins: they feature many tributaries, each collecting water from a local depression, which join together underground to form larger and larger trunk passages.

A Branchwork Line Plot - profile of a cave formed by steady flow

A Branchwork Line Plot – profile of a cave formed by steady flow

When it floods, however, the water that finds its way underground is physically and chemically different than regular rainfall.  Most obviously, it enters the cave at a much greater speed and volume.  When a cave is dissolved slowly, passages tend to follow the straightest possible course toward the resurgence, with the focus of dissolution occurring primarily at the downstream end of each passage.  With floodwater, however, the passages become completely overwhelmed with turbulent, chemically aggressive water, and the rock therefore dissolves in all directions, enlarging all of the vulnerable cracks and crannies in the bedrock, not just those at the downstream end.  The result of this type of flow is “maze caves” – caves that display a grid-like or braided pattern of tunnels which intersects in many places, rather than a straightforward series of trunks and tributaries.  Navigating a maze cave is much trickier than navigating a branch work cave, in which you have a limited number of intersections and can orient yourself to the direction of stream flow.  Maze caves have innumerable intersections, many with four or more options to choose from, and can be quite disorienting when paired with the lack of light and the monotony of underground landmarks.

Wind Cave - Profile of a Floodwater Maze

Wind Cave – Profile of a Floodwater Maze

Furthermore, as a result of its greater speed and volume, floodwater can carry a great deal of suspended sediment, from fine silt to large boulders.  The sediment can physically erode passages in ways that water alone cannot, and it ends up depositing large piles of debris in any area where it is forced to slow down or stagnate.  Some other signature features of floodwater caves (or floodwater areas in branch work caves) are solution pockets carved into walls by swirling water, great curving trenches carved into floors, walls, and ceilings to provide outlets for the water’s energy, and large deposits of clay, cobbles, and boulders in all areas where flow rate drops.

If the climate were to change to the extent that events like Hurricane Sandy became a regular source of rainfall in cave country, then the cavers of the future might need to take full advantage of the state-of-the-art navigation equipment that will hopefully be available to them. . . because they’ll be dealing with more and more elaborate maze layouts whenever they venture underground.  And since the presence of mazes also effects the airflow and soil distribution, they may be dealing with subtly different ecological conditions as well.

 

Extreme Weather and Cavers

Cavers like to find and explore caves – and a climate marked with more frequent extreme weather events may make that pursuit unpredictable.  Extreme weather events, especially those involving large volumes of water dumped in a short span of time, can single-handedly open or close the entrance to a cave, or some passage deep down that holds promise to connect to something new.  This can be highly fortunate for cavers in some cases, and frustrating or even tragic in others – it all depends on the luck of the draw.  Over the past 50 years of cave exploration in Virginia and West Virginia, there have been several notable instances of a hurricane or flood changing the game for a group of cavers.  Here are some examples from the old-timers I know of good fortune (for cavers) in the aftermath of the great flood of 1985:

- Hellhole Cave, in Pendleton County, WV, was a promising cave in the early 1980s, but it had a terminal plug at one end blocking further exploration.  The 1985 flood washed open that plug, revealing a tunnel that cavers called the “Drano Passage,” beyond which was the rest of a mega-system that is still being explored today.

- A similar passage in commercially popular Organ Cave, called the “French Connection”, used to be a very tight crawl that eliminated all but the most slender and daring cavers from visiting the rooms beyond.  The 1985 flood washed it open to a ten-foot-high walking passage.

- The same flood opened a small entrance along the banks of the south branch of the Potomac, which led to a cave that was small but highly decorated.  Cavers explored the cave, but over the course of the next year, the entrance was once again plugged with silt and debris from the river at its usual flow level, and became inaccessible to exploration.

 

On the other hand, there are examples of entrances and other passages collapsing or being rendered unstable by a major storm event:

- One of the entrances to Maxwelton’s Sink Cave got filled in from hurricane damage, requiring that cavers create an artificial tunnel entrance in order to access the cave

- Two cavers were killed in the 1970s and 1980s due to entrance collapses following extreme saturation events.

 

Flooding in a Sinkhole Following Extreme Weather

Flooding in a Sinkhole Following Extreme Weather

So it appears that the exploration of caves, as well as the caves themselves, could radically change if the “dramatic weather” climate change models end up coming true.  And the changes in cave morphology, as well as the extreme flux in water volume, would undeniably cause secondary changes in the ecology of the caves, as well as in their functional role in the storing and cycling of groundwater, the details of which are beyond my research or ability to speculate.  Only time will tell how the earth responds to the changes it will go through in the next hundred years, but it seems that cavers, as well as everyone else, have reason to be invested in the outcome.

Spiders.... and Spelunkers

    There really are bats in mid-Atlantic caves.  Sadly, a lot fewer than there used to be, but I still bump into them here and there, sleeping peacefully in places it takes me hours of grunting to crawl to.  There are crickets, too, the speckled kind that you sometimes find in basements.  There are extremely cute and crafty packrats (think guinea pig, not New York sewer) who may confiscate your car keys if you aren’t careful.  There are salamanders, and sometimes in live streams I’ve seen crayfish.

Cave Cricket

Cave Cricket

    I know that there are caves out there with complicated and unique ecosystems, featuring things like eyeless fish and bugs with glistening glow-in-the-dark lures.  But I don’t visit those caves personally – they’re highly protected; to get in you have to be a biologist armed with a compelling reason.  The places I go, contact between myself and any sort of fauna is sparse.  We cross paths every now and again, but for the most part I have water, rocks, mud, and the occasional fungal bloom as my sole companions.
   And once I get a little ways past the entrance, there are never any spiders.

   There’s no cell phone reception either, so for better or worse, people tend to notice my absence when I go caving.  Returning to society, I then get the pleasure of responding to polite curiosity about where I’ve been for the past four days.
     “Well, I had a caving trip….” I usually start.
Then I stop, and I make a quick internal bet about which reply I’m going to hear.
     1. “Oh, you mean, ‘spelunking’?”
     2. “What about the spiders?”

    These replies are bad for my social life, because I don’t mean ‘spelunking’ (and I’ll tell you why), there aren’t any spiders, and I’ve had the same conversation so many times that I tend to skip abruptly to the end of it and make for the bar, leaving my conversational partners feeling confused and a little bit rejected.

    I’ve already explained about the spiders.  It isn’t like spiders and caves never mix, but my own experience falls greatly short of the Fear Factor images people seem to conjure of me crawling through dank tunnels where the floor is a writhing carpet of arachnids.  I see a lot of those crickets sometimes.  A few spiderwebs at the cave entrances.  And while hiking through the woods, sometimes I walk through some poor spider’s handiwork.  I feel kinda bad about that; I usually say sorry.  That’s about it for spiders, though.
SpidersFearFactor

    But what about ‘spelunking’?  If you find the word in the dictionary, you’ll learn that it means. “the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby.”  Well, I explore caves.  Nobody pays me.  So what’s wrong with calling me a ‘spelunker’?

    The story goes like this: Once upon a time, there was only a small group of people who dared to explore caves.  They were diligent about it, they developed relationships with landowners, they learned how to stay safe underground – and they made a lot of fascinating discoveries.  Initially, these people called themselves ‘cavers’ or ‘spelunkers’ interchangeably; the words, after all, mean the same thing.
   In the past forty-odd years, however – perhaps because the public got intrigued by publicized cave discoveries (or perhaps because the flashlights got so much better) – exploring caves became trendy.  People started doing it on a lark, oftentimes boastfully calling themselves ‘spelunkers’ (because, hey, it sounds cooler).
   The trouble is, these ‘spelunkers’ wouldn’t put much thought into their adventures.
   If you obey a few simple rules (dress warmly, bring enough light, don’t trespass, pay attention to where you’re going), caving doesn’t have to be a very difficult sport.  It’s mostly just a lot of rolling, squirming, and climbing around in the mud.  Fail to obey those rules, however, and you inevitably end up getting lost and hypothermic underground, necessitating a high-profile rescue that brings hundreds of local cavers out of their beds at night to find you, and disturbs the landowner to the point where the cave gets closed for everyone.
   And that is what those ‘spelunkers’ did.  The same story happened frequently enough – inexperienced group wearing t-shirts goes off ‘spelunking’ with one flashlight and no map, rescue gets called, drama ensues, cave gets closed – that caving clubs started printing bumper stickers like “Cavers Rescue Spelunkers.”  And ‘spelunker’, in the caving community, slowly but surely became a bad word.
BumperSticker

    Now, while my caving buddies would never call me a ‘spelunker’ (not unless they caught me without a change of batteries and wanted to tease me for my incompetence); I have no grounds to be offended if my friendly suburban neighbor wants to do so, or my daughter’s ballet teacher.  After all, the average person doesn’t hang out at conventions where everyone wears bat earrings and all the conversations are about ‘pits’ and ‘digs’.  Therefore, the average person has no reason to know (or care about) the story I just told you.
   So the average person asks me, “Oh, you mean spelunking,?” out of a perfectly innocent desire to relate to me.
   And then, of course, the average person needs to know about the spiders.

    What I’ve had to realize is that while in many ways I’m a relatable person, living a life just like anyone else’s, in this one particular area I’ve departed so far from the norm that my perspective is hopelessly warped.  Unless you’re willing to take far more time than a polite conversation provides to get to know me and learn about my hobby, you aren’t going to have a clue what my weekend underground was really like.  That’s not your fault - it’s mine, for being such an oddball.  So I decided to cheerfully resign myself to the mismatched conversations, realizing in turn that I’ve probably asked my own share of ignorant questions about other people’s hobbies (like golf, or civil war reenactment).  Frankly, I don’t want everyone to be passionate about caving: the caves would get too crowded.  So I have to accept that to many people, caves and cavers are nothing but symbols, reduced to our most basic stereotype.
   So what interests me now is taking a closer look at the specifics of that reputation.  I’m very curious about it, because I’ve become so immersed in the reality of caving that I’ve completely lost track of what it symbolizes to an outsider – and I’m rather baffled at the particular notions that people have.  Why is it always spiders, and spelunking?  What’s the deeper meaning there, making those two associations the ones that stick?
   Of course, maybe there is no deeper meaning.  And even if there is one, trying to extract is like dream interpretation; any number of colorful answers would sound just as profound.  But here’s my best guess, based on my imagination and my experience on the receiving end of those associations.

1. Spiders.  In the home, if you leave a spot alone long enough – fail to dust it, fail to redecorate it – it starts to fall prey to entropy.  As the clean human order erodes, what appears in its place? Spiderwebs.  While more webs seem to exist in the woods than anywhere else, most people think of creepy old attics and cellars when they think of spiderwebs: places that used to be human, but where mystery and chaos have started to take over.
   The veritable orgy of spiders that people imagine underground suggests that maybe to the rest of the world, caves are seen as strongholds of those creepy forces of entropy.  Caves are interior spaces – where nobody ever sweeps or dusts or mops.  So naturally, the balance of power there must be reversed.  There, the spiders and their webs reign supreme, and we humans are the ones encroaching.  I assume this is why some people shake their heads and declare me brave: the prospect of venturing outside of a clean, controlled, orderly world can be terrifying.

2. Spelunking.  We have two choices for what to call the sport: “caving”, or “spelunking”.  Why pick the fancy one?  The simple answer is just that: because it’s fancy.  It’s always fun to sound smart.  But I think there’s a little bit more, something that goes along with the spiders and their kingdom of mystery.  “Caving” is a simple and descriptive term: in plain English, it says what happens in the sport.  People go into caves.  “Spelunking,” on the other hand, obscures the meaning of the word, making it sound like maybe there’s more going on.  You have to know Middle English or Old French to realize that “spelunking” means the exact same thing.
     If caves are seen as strongholds of mystery, people probably assume that something beyond the obvious goes into exploring them.  Some difficult, technical skills need to be mastered, perhaps, or some secret ritual needs to be observed in order to grant the adventurer the ability to pass through such a wild place and emerge unscathed.  Hence, ‘spelunking’ must be the better, the more initiated word – ‘caving’ is just too obvious.

     What’s interesting to me is that if my (perhaps overly fanciful) presumptions are right, then the public stereotype of caving, at its essence, is actually a little bit more accurate than the symbols used to express it.  While there aren’t many spiders in there, caves are places free of human order and control – that’s part of why I like them.  I have the greatest respect for human order – I depend on it to survive – but it’s nice to get out of the china shop every now and again.  But caves are far from being the realms of total chaos that people seem to imagine: caves have their own order, governed by basic laws like gravity, chemistry, and fluid dynamics.
     In similar vein, there is something beyond the obvious that needs to be mastered in order to navigate caves successfully.  Ironically, it is what separates the cavers from the spelunkers, not the other way around – but the sentiment is correct.  It isn’t a technical skill, though, or a secret ritual.  To navigate caves successfully, you only need to understand, respect, and adjust to those simple laws that do create order in that world, and accept that the cave is built for them, not for you.  You need to be humble to the lack of human order, instead of taking it for granted.  Fail to do so, and you become a spelunker.
    And then maybe the spiders start coming for you.

A great flood

 

Drinking Water Formation

Drinking Water Formation

“Hey, do you hear that rumbling noise?”

Corey’s head was tilted and his eyes were wide, staring over at the trickle of water splashing down from the ceiling.  The formation next to us always ran clean, making it the designated spot for refilling water bottles on longer expeditions.

I shook my head reflexively.  It wasn’t that I didn’t hear the rumbling noise. It was there all right, faint but distinct under the cheery splatter of the formation.  It was that I didn’t want to hear the rumbling noise.  Because part of me knew exactly what was coming.

Every detail of a cave’s structure bears the signature of water in action; rocks just don’t get carved into exotic shapes all on their own.  But on most trips underground, even when surrounded by undeniable evidence of hydraulic violence, the atmosphere is so steady that it’s easy to get hypnotized into the belief that the cave never really changes.

Three weeks before we heard the rumbling, I was rudely awakened from that particular hypnosis.  Shrugging off an overcast sky, I went underground in a very familiar stream cave and was rewarded several hours later with the awe-inspiring sight of the water rising high enough to nearly drown a ten-foot waterfall.  Due to the size and shape of the passages, I was never in any imminent danger – but the transformed hydrology put a question mark into every step I took and turned a routine cave trip into an unrecognizable adventure.  For the very first time, I saw a cave shake off its deep and profound slumber and really come alive.

After that, the quietude of the underground world no longer seemed so reliable.

“Yeah, I hear it, it’s probably nothing…”

I trailed off, because I was starting to seriously doubt that it was nothing.  In fact, I was starting to suspect that it was probably water, and a whole lot of it.  Despite repeated assurances that there was no good reason for the cave to flood that weekend, I had spent the trip glaring at the gentle creeks, convinced that they were faking their innocence.  Only after nearly half a day underground was I starting to relax, and mostly because we had left the stream behind us and climbed up into some dry, upper passages that seemed quite thoroughly insulated from the water and its shenanigans.  The formation where the noise started was much higher than the streams, and (presumably) owed its potability to its isolation from the surface.  So I sat for a few moments, listening to the uneven rumble and feeling increasingly surreal.  Just when I decided I was jumping at shadows, my heart leaped into my throat.

Corey’s rumbling had stopped.

Aboveground, where abrupt change is a constant companion, it would have been nothing.  A bird calls, then it stops.  The wind blows, then it dies down.  But underground, where the rhythms are so constant, the sudden cease of the undertone rang out like a gunshot.  I had just enough time to contemplate whether there was anything I could do if the ceiling collapsed – and then the cave exploded into life.

Like water pressure returning to a fussy shower, the flow coming out of our trusty formation went from trickle to downpour, pushing out of its cracks with such force that spray shot out sideways and foam started building in the little rim stone pools below it.  Our precious drinking water turned into an unappetizing broth, and then a brand new creek came burbling out of the wall behind us, cutting a shallow bank through the dry cracked dirt and tumbling down into the chamber below.  Other creeks joined it, springing out of unnoticed holes in the dirt walls and churning together at the bottom into a color fit for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Within three minutes, the quiet room with the regal formation at the top and the mellow stream at the bottom had transformed into a veritable water park.

“Keely,” Corey said, looking like he had just woken up on Christmas, “we’re about to learn something!”

Corey chest-deep on a usually dry ladder.

Corey chest-deep on a usually dry ladder.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether to slug him or agree.  I have a good friend who claims that witnessing an underground flood divides cavers into two distinct categories: those who find it exhilarating, and those who find it terrifying.  I was pretty sure at that moment that I qualified for both.  But there was nothing for it, the cave was going to do what the cave was going to do.  It took me a few minutes to catch up with my utter disbelief (and for the cave to settle at its new status quo), and then I gave in to Corey’s excitement.  For the next five hours we explored the transformed landscape, watching dripping canyons turn into rain showers, small creeks turn into loud rapids, and the main artery of the cave rise nine feet in its banks, flowing brown and silent well above where our heads had once been.  When our energy ran out, we returned to our (very comfortable) camp in a dry area and waited for the waters to recede.

Since it took over twelve hours before the stream was passable, I had ample time to sit and think about what it was that I had learned.

For Corey, the flood was an opportunity to pick up clues about the cave’s structure that might help him discover new passages (this is the cardinal pursuit of many cavers).  For myself, a rather unambitious caver in that way, the flood raised more questions than it answered.  Among many other speculations, I found myself wondering why underground floods seemed to suddenly be following me around.  Even with no idea what was going on at the surface (which turned out to be a fairly impressive storm), I found it odd that I had been visiting that cave for four years without incident, and then suddenly in March of 2012 I couldn’t manage to go underground without getting soaked.  Was there something going on with the local climate and hydrology – or were the cave spirits out to get me?

I hadn’t noticed that it was an unusually wet winter.  In fact, the only odd thing I’d observed, from my vantage point in suburban DC, was that the winter of 2011-2012 was unusually warm.  But I resolved, upon securing my return to the finer things in life (like sunlight, dry clothes, and the internet), to see what was going on with the weather out in cave country – and whether I could figure out a connection between that winter’s weather and the cave’s volatility.

According to the NOAA website, January – March of 2012 was classified as “record warm” for the eastern third of the continental United States.  Regarding precipitation, while Maryland was classified as “much below normal” for that timespan, Virginia was only “below normal”, and West Virginia was “near normal”.  Well, okay, so the caves had gotten more rain this winter than I had.  Still, “near normal” meant an average year, not a freakishly wet one.  Zooming in a little, I looked at the data from the closest NWS data center (Beckley, WV).  Pulling the monthly totals, I came up with the following data:

 

Month Temp (Avg Daily Max)departure from monthly average Temp (Avg Daily Min)departure from monthly average Temp (Daily Avg)departure from monthly average Precip (Total)departure from monthly average Snow(Total)

departure from monthly average

December +6.1 degrees +5.2 degrees +5.7 degrees +1.01 inch -6.4 inches
January +6.3 degrees +4.8 degrees +5.5 degrees +0.54 inch -7.0 inches
February +4.3 degrees +2.8 degrees +3.6 degrees +1.09 inch -5.5 inches
March +12.9 degrees +10.9 degrees +11.9 degrees +0.47 inch -2.5 inches

Now, there is a huge amount of regional difference in the mountains.  But supposing that this data holds approximately steady throughout Monroe and Greenbrier counties, then the following statements can be made about the climate leading up to my March adventures:

1. The area got a little more than average precipitation between January 1, 2012, and the date of my second flood trip.

2. Compared to the monthly averages, an unusually low amount of that winter’s precipitation was snow.

3. The temperatures in the area for the three months prior to my first flood trip were significantly higher than the monthly averages.  The temperatures in the area between my first flood trip and my second (ie, throughout March), were drastically higher.

So while it had been a little wetter that winter in cave country than it had been in the DC area, what made the season really unusual was indeed the temperature, not the precipitation.  Which ruled out the most obvious alternative to cave spirits: that the cave was flooding frequently because it had been unusually wet.  Still, I started to feel better: a connection between two unusual environmental circumstances (in this case, high temperatures and flooding) seemed more likely than cave spirits with a vendetta.  But why would warm winters (as opposed to wet winters?) make for wetter caves?

At first I thought the association was counterintuitive.  In my mind early spring floods come from melting snow – of which there was none in 2012.  With most of the winter’s precipitation falling as rain, I figured that moisture would be long gone by the time March rolled around, shunted off into rivers and rolling merrily toward the ocean.  But upon further reflection, I decided that my sense of hydrology might be more geared toward the suburbs.  Where I live, urban development has changed the hydrology significantly: rainfall runs through cement-lined creeks and dumps directly into rivers, creating something of an artificial karst system.  But unlike the real Appalachian karst, subterranean Washington DC doesn’t have much vertical complexity.  Rain really does hit the ground and run off – it has no where else to go.  But out in West Virginia, the bedrock is carved into a complex network of pools, conduits, and reservoirs, giving the groundwater a lot of hiding places.  Without the cold weather to trap it frozen at the surface, it’s possible that the water was permitted water to creep into the cavernous network, slowly filling up all the nooks and crannies.  When the spring rains hit, the filled-up caves were already primed to spill over into flood.  Ironically, a wetter winter, or a winter with more dramatic storms, might have led more water to run off, rather than gently filling everything up.  While cave spirits might not be following me around, it seemed I had stumbled into a veritable ‘perfect storm’ of karst flooding conditions.

Telling the story of karst hydrology is never simple.  The picture painted here of the interrelationship between weather and underground floods might be only partially right, or it might be completely offset by a factor that I haven’t considered.  Scientists who know much more about the intricacies of groundwater systems have put years of study into the ways that the water table interacts with the climate – and the ways this relationship might effect our civilization.  For me, the entire experience primarily served to put the delicate relationship between different parts of our environment into focus – and to viscerally underscore the phenomenal power of a system when it goes out of balance.  Climactic fluke or cave spirits, the power of the elements is not to be underestimated – and that is something I can say I have undeniably learned.

farm 3 2012 flood miller lilly lake

The illusion of safety

I didn’t expect to get much response from my long, rambling email: certainly nothing beyond a simple “wow, thanks.”  After all, WAMU reporter Sabri Ben-Achour emailed my caving club asking for “cavers who were also claustrophobic” and neither I nor anybody in my personal rolodex fit that description. The feverish, rambling discourse I typed in response was more a reflection of my own enthusiasm about his topic – fears and caving — than in any anticipation of an answer. But twenty minutes after prying myself away from his interesting request and hitting send, I was surprised to see Sabri’s name pop up once again at the top of my inbox.

“Absolutely fascinating. Would you be up for an interview . . . in a cave?”

I had three things to be worried about as I got into the car two days later. The first was impressing Sabri — and his listening audience. For all that his topic was one I’d spent hours pondering, I wasn’t sure I had any clarity on the matter. The second was keeping Sabri safe, comfortable and engaged for an afternoon in Whitings Neck Cave, an hour and a half northwest on the interstate. Whitings Neck is mostly an easy cave, but with a new caver there’s always some concern. The third, on this particular occasion, was my six-year-old daughter Neeka. Two days’ notice was not enough to secure a babysitter for seven hours on a Sunday — and Neeka was nothappy about being dragged away from the playground for an unexpected January cave trip.

Sabri’s piece was a feature for WAMU’s Metro Connection, inspired by the upcoming weekly theme, Fears and Phobias. Coming at that theme from an environmental background, Sabri wanted to explore whether anyone had ever used caving as a forum for “exposure therapy” (do something you’re scared of until you’re used to it) — for acute claustrophobia. I have met a couple of true claustrophobics in my life (of the variety that puts mundane things like elevators and subway rides out of the question) and have always encouraged them to try caving — and have always been met with blank, incredulous stares. But Sabri found a remarkable woman who had tried that trick successfully; using caving as a setting for intentionally engaging her anxiety over and over, until finally, she had it mastered. When I later sat down and listened to her portion of the interview, I was encouraged — it seemed like my advice had been sound all those years, even if nobody ever listened to it.

Afraid of the dark?

Afraid of the dark?

What Sabri wanted out of me — other than the opportunity to visit a cave in person — was general background on fear, psychology and caving. Initially, that was a challenge to produce: despite hours studying and writing about the topic, it was nearly impossible for me to summarize all of the strange behavior I’ve witnessed underground in one or two short soundbites. I started off producing my usual free-associations, when Neeka started distracting me from the back seat.

Neeka (whiny): ” . . . Mum Mum . . .”
Sabri: “But you said that sometimes people who have been caving for years turn around and develop phobias anyway . . . that’s so fascinating, why do you think that happens?”
Neeka: “MUM MUM.”
Me: “Well, I think that something happens when you stop and think . . .”
Neeka: “MUUUUMM MUUUUUMM!!!!!”
Me: “Neeka! Give me a second!”
Neeka: pouty silence.
Sabri: awkward silence.
Now the whole car was waiting for me to just spit something out so we could move on. So I stopped thinking about it and went ahead and spat something out.

Me: “I guess . . . I guess it’s because safety is really all in your head.”

The second it came out, I realized that I liked it. I liked it way better than any overblown analysis I would have come up with if Neeka hadn’t gotten me out of my head. Sabri nodded; Neeka quit pouting and pointed excitedly to a McDonald’s logo; I let out a breath and merged onto the off-ramp. As I veered right, the car behind me whizzed past at 70 miles per hour, the man behind the wheel holding a cell phone up to his ear and looking tense. Later that day, I would spend a few minutes worrying about Sabri climbing down a slippery 45-foot drop, and a few more minutes worrying about Neeka getting hypothermic after soaking through 3 pairs of gloves. But I didn’t spend a single moment on that trip worrying about driving on I-270, statistically the riskiest activity we undertook that day. And that’s because, as I had finally managed to articulate, my sense of safety is completely in my head.

It’s a fantasy composed of all of my experiences, knowledge, problem-solving skills and emotional habits. Every decision I make is essentially a gamble on the accuracy of that fantasy. For thirteen years I have driven a car nearly every day and never gotten into a major accident, and along the way I have picked up many techniques which help me drive more responsibly. Therefore, in my fantasy world, I have concluded that driving is ‘safe enough’, and I no longer think about it. When I get behind the wheel, I let the illusion of safety wrap around me. I pay attention to the road, put my headlights on, wear a seatbelt, and stay alert — but I don’t sit around tensely deliberating whether or not the activity is safe.

And it’s a good thing I don’t. Riding in the car with a nervous driver is a legitimately scary experience. They’ll merge too timidly, slam on the brakes when the guy behind them least expects it, and jerk the wheel wildly every time an impatient driver whizzes by; until by the end of the trip you’re as nervous as they are. Tied up in worrying, they never relax into the moment and let their body’s natural instincts take over.

It’s no different in a cave: the times I’m the most worried underground are the times when I see someone — or feel myself — start to get stuck in that anxious deliberation mode. Am I safe? Am I really?What if this?! What if that?! That’s when some of the close calls I’ve witnessed have occurred: people freezing at the exact moment when they should be building momentum to get successfully up the slippery bank, over the deep crevasse, or through the tight squeeze. At the end of the day, the body has to do the caving (and the driving, and the living), not the brain. But for someone with the kind of claustrophobia that Sabri features in his piece, that transition from thinking to acting never occurs, because the mind flat-out refuses to accept the illusion of safety and let the body take over. In a way, the person gripped in the throes of anxiety is technically right: something bad could happen. Something bad could always happen. But if you don’t wrap that illusion of safety around yourself and proceed anyway, you’re paralyzed — and something bad could happen all the same.

Luckily for me, Sabri demonstrated a solid personal illusion of safety as we entered Whitings Neck an hour later.  Despite his chosen subject matter — fears and phobias — and his near total lack of caving experience, Sabri seemed completely comfortable underground. Crawling and climbing with his microphone in his mouth, sparkling with running commentary, Sabri fielded every physical challenge Whitings Neck threw his way without any noticeable psychological tension. Watching him (and relaxing myself, since now I felt pretty confident that he could keep himself safe in the cave), I figured that the ability to settle that “Am I safe?” question quickly (and then push it out of one’s head) is probably a useful trait for a job that requires seeking out unusual situations. As far as Sabri was concerned, I supposed, he was ‘safe enough’ most places; therefore he was ‘safe enough’ in Whitings Neck Cave. As far as I was concerned, we were in agreement: Sabri was‘safe enough’ in Whitings Neck Cave. Was he really 100 percent safe? Probably not. But we didn’t dwell on that fact, and at the end of the day nothing went wrong.

Which was a good thing: with the issue of the new caver’s safety settled and my thoughts on the interview finally clear, my mind was freed up to focus on the REAL concerns of the afternoon. Like whether or not I could stretch out a McDonald’s bribe long enough to keep the peace on the car trip home.

For extended audio of the interview, visit keelyowens.com, or go to WAMU’s archives.

Footprints in the Dust

In 2009, while working on a psychology project in Scott Hollow Cave, I had the privilege to stay the night in the home of Mike and Pat Dore, owners of Scott Hollow’s entrance.  I never had it so good at my own house.  Their beautiful countryside property boasts a warm, well-kept farmhouse with soft king-sized beds and an old-fashioned bathtub (accessorized with a rack of gossip magazines, which gives me an excellent excuse to read them!). And it was exciting to think, as I drifted off to sleep, about how the farmhouse and surrounding land was perched on top of the vast, intricate karst network of Scott Hollow Cave.  Unlike many other cave systems, Scott Hollow did not ‘come with’ any natural entrances fit for humans.  Mike, together with a group of compatriots, analyzed the geography and dug open an entrance to the 30+ mile cave system in the early 1980s.

In the Dores’ living room there is a beautiful oil painting, illuminated from below with warm track lighting.  It shows five figures scattered artfully throughout a cathedral-huge underground river passage, their headlamps casting warm pools of light into the stately gloom.  The room they’re in — if you can call a 6-mile tunnel holding a live river a “room” — is known as the “Mystic River,” and the moment depicted in the painting happened about two months after Mike dug the cave open. Scouting through an inconspicuous tumble of rocks that had been previously passed over for more promising leads, Mike and his friends stumbled into this underground cathedral. They were the very first human beings to ever witness the place. In the painting, if you look closely, you can almost taste the mind-blowing awe they must have felt in that moment.

I’ve been in a few so-called ‘virgin’ cave passages myself. Unlike Mystic River, they didn’t have much else to recommend them — tight, windy, dusty tunnels are not most people’s cup of tea — but I can assure you that no matter how humble (or horrifying) a place may be, it’s a wild feeling to be among the very first people to set foot there. In a cave, change happens very slowly, so any traces of human contact (footprints, cairns, tiny arrows scratched into the wall) can linger for hundreds of years – and the more people who have visited the cave, the more it starts to feel like a human place (today, for example, the Mystic River has noticeable trails winding through it).  It takes a lot of cave trips to get so accustomed to the exotic climate, lighting, scenery, and physical demands of the underground world that you become sensitized to this subtle humanization … but once you are, when you then find yourself exploring some out-of-the-way crack and your gaze hits a dry silt floor that is completely smooth and undisturbed, the contrast really hits home. You feel two things, deep in your bones: first, how powerful and beautiful the earth is, without any help from humans, and second, how utterly rare it is, even when caving, to get a chance to witness any part of it bare of the forceful signature of our species.

Undisturbed Cave Floor

Undisturbed Cave Floor

The mark of humanity on the aboveground world is even greater, despite the fact that footprints tend to get washed away more quickly. Cave entrances can be (and often are) kept secret, whereas aboveground wonders like Niagara Falls or Yosemite Valley stand in plain view, attracting everyone’s attention. And these days there are a lot of everyones out there to attract: the world population currently stands at nearly seven billion people, increasing by 1.1 percent per year. That is a daunting number, especially when you realize that we have reached it so recently. There weren’t even a billion people on the earth when Frenchman Etiene Brule first saw Niagara Falls in 1615, and when Dr. Lafayette Bunnell entered Yosemite in 1851, the human population on earth was still at a meagre 1.5 billion. (In the mid-1980s, when Mike found Mystic River, it was at about 4.5 billion). While Niagara and Yosemite were already well-established features of the Native American landscape, and accordingly bore subtle signs of human presence, they didn’t yet have the paved paths, tour buses, automobiles, fenced in viewing areas, gift shops, bathrooms, and other amenities necessary for a natural wonder to withstand the attention of seven billion people.

It is tempting to mourn — or to try to prevent — the increase in human presence in these beautiful and wild places. There are many forums dedicated to complaining about overcrowding in Yellowstone, water pollution at Niagara — and too much human traffic in caves. Looking at undisturbed dust on a cave floor and thinking of how quickly it would get covered in footprints if anyone knew it was there, I felt the same inner wince that probably motivates those forums — almost a claustrophobic feeling (strange for someone who enjoys small spaces) at the prospect of sharing this unexposed place with anybody else. But the fact is, seven billion people have to gosomewhere. And I can’t ask that everyone except for me stay at home in a city. Let’s say 10 percent of humans are restless and adventurous.  In 1851, at a world population of 1.5 billion, Bunnell was among 150 million adventurers to spread amongst all of the earth’s frontiers. Today, at 7 billion, that’s 700 million adventurers roaming the earth. But we don’t have Yosemite to explore anew anymore. While the planet stays the same size and the human population keeps growing, the wild places that our grandfathers discovered become tamed by our civil planners and engineers, making them accessible to everyone — and giving the adventurer fewer and fewer lonely places to go. No wonder more footprints are turning up in caves. More people are going into caves because more people are going everywhere.

The same essential problem exists with all of the earth’s finite resources, many of which are much more vital to our survival (though maybe not to my adventurous spirit!) than new places to explore. While lowering resource consumption, inventing more clever technology, and gaining education are all important goals, it seems to me that truly solving any problems involving scarcity are going to have to involve slowing, if not reversing, our human population growth.

And therein lies a serious sociological problem indeed. Because voluntarily decreasing our population as a species is a daunting task. Biologically, we all have a fundamental drive to reproduce, to reach into the future through our children. Culturally, we are all very different, believing many different things about why we are here, what our responsibilities are, and under what circumstances we ought to bring children into this world. Historically, we have shown both a persistent desire to cooperate with each other, and a persistent inclination toward serious violence in the face of stress when we fail. Thinking there is any way for seven billion people, from such a wide array of cultures, to cooperatively limit our population in any sort of organized, peaceable way, seems like a laughable fantasy.

But the fact is, the earth isn’t getting any bigger, and if we don’t manage to limit our population by banding together, singing kumbaya, and having fewer babies, we’re probably going to end up limiting it by fighting with each other and starving to death. We’re extremely clever creatures, and there are many more resources we have yet to tap into, but you have to remember that population growth is exponential. Even if we could, say, colonize Mars and sustain life there on solar power, if we kept our growth rate steady it wouldn’t take us very long to fill that planet up, too. At 1.1 percent per year, it takes approximately 63 years for our population to double. So whenever we “fill up” the earth — inhabiting it at a density beyond which it absolutely can’t support any more humans — it will only take us another 63 years to “fill up” Mars, too (and that’s generously assuming that Mars can sustain the same number of people as Earth). For anyone interested in an extremely articulate, and sobering, series of video lectures on population growth, please visit Al Bartlett’s website: this Colorado mathematician delivers what is perhaps the most engaging mathematics lecture I have ever experienced.  (If your time is limited, start with Part 3).

Considering the current level of crowding even in the humble, hard-to-reach extremes of the Appalachian caves, I’m personally not so happy with the population at its current level of 7 billion (no offense to the rest of you!), and the thought of it at 14 billion – which I might live to see, if nothing changes and I make it to 92 — terrifies me. It seems pretty clear that as a species we are probably going to reach zero (or even negative) population growth somehow — the question is: how? Looking at my own footprints now marring dust that hadn’t been touched for centuries, I really wonder what the answer is going to be.

Contemplating heroism: The underground snapping turtle

“Homie”, the Common Snapping Turtle, inside the cave

When I walked my first-grader to the bus stop that September morning, I explained to her that she was going to a friend’s house after school because Mommy was heading over to Darby Cave to “rescue Homie”.  She turned around and leveled me a serious look as the bus pulled up.  “Mommy,” she said, adjusting her princess backpack, “you’re going to fail.”

She was speaking from experience.  Neeka had met “Homie”, the foot-long common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) stranded 2000 feet from Darby’s entrance, on the same day I had.  We were both tagging along with perennial caving buddy Corey Hackley on a school holiday (which means we cave in western Maryland), and he gave us his typical scant notice of the challenges ahead.  “Um, a couple of weird climbs, some risk of flooding – and oh yeah, there’s a live snapper stuck back in there somewhere.”

Entrance to Darby Cave, mostly clogged with debris from Homie’s flood

I bothered him for the details.  Darby periodically floods to the ceiling, and in its submerged state, apparently it is possible for an out-of-control snapping turtle to get swept along in the complex currents, ending up on the wrong end of vertical drops, narrow climbs, sharp bends, and awkward crawls.

The plight of the stranded turtle immediately tugged at my heart.
To die slowly, alone and lost in the dark and cold . . .

“If we bump into him,”  I told Corey and Neeka, “I want to do a rescue.”

Corey stared at me, appalled.  I asked him what the problem was.

“He’s a snapping turtle!!!!

He sure was.  We found him (or her?) easily: “Homie”, as he was about to be named, was sprawled directly across our route.  Neeka and Corey watched skeptically from a safe distance as I emptied my pack and then tried to herd the confused animal into it via poking it with rotting sticks.  I shrieked several times as the turtle broke its statue-like stillness to take powerful snaps at my fingers, and then cursed extensively as it crawled over my pack, bent my sticks sideways, and took shelter under an unreachable rock.  “Homie, you’re so dumb!!!”  I shouted at the peak of my agitation, making Neeka and Corey break into giggles and tagging the poor turtle with the dubious handle “Homie” for the rest of our time together.  But seriously – didn’t the stupid turtle want to live?  On that particular afternoon, it really didn’t seem like it.  After Neeka and Corey finished laughing at my expense, I admitted defeat and we turned our attention to the cave’s other attractions.

Some of my Turtle Rescue Gear

So Neeka had reason to predict that Mommy would fail.  But Mommy is incredibly stubborn, and the plight of poor Homie haunted me in the intervening weeks.  I decided to return prepared: arriving back at Darby about a month after the first trip armed with a towel, two racquetball rackets, a Whole Foods basket, a skeptical Corey – and the determination to get that turtle out of that cave.

Homie wasn’t so easy to find a second time.  Corey, quite predictably, gave up searching in the first ten minutes.  After poking around in low, uneven crawls for another hour and a half, I too was about to call it quits, when one of the rocks about a foot in front of my elbow twitched.  I turned my head and shone my light at the twitching rock – and then screamed and backed up quickly as it resolved itself in my vision into Homie’s prehistoric face.

First I hollered my shock at the snapper’s sudden proximity (we were sharing a pretty tight passage there, Homie and I), and then I hollered for Corey.  He came reluctantly (I think Corey was secretly hoping Homie would have perished in the intervening month, sparing him this nonsense), and then sat back as I made a second go at packaging the frightened turtle.  I got pretty serious with my racquetball ‘chopsticks’ for a few tense minutes, and after a brief struggle, Homie was securely wedged into the Whole Foods basket.  From there, it was merely a matter of dredging the basket through the maze of chutes and ladders that sat in between Homie’s god-intended resting place and the sunny surface.  With a minimum of fuss, we made it.  I bore Homie proudly over to a wholesome pond, dumped him out, and then sent a text-message to the babysitter to tell Neeka that Mommy hadn’t failed after all.  Homie sat there motionless on the bank while we went back and collected our junk from the cave – but by the time I returned one last time to get a picture of him in his new paradise, Homie was gone.

The Great Rescue

In the following weeks, I was quite proud of the good deed I had done for the local wildlife.  If I were to write a headline for that story, it would go: “Heroic Caver Rescues Grateful Turtle From Horrific Fate”.  But as I pondered the situation further, I started to wonder if perhaps my perspective was somewhat naive, and maybe even a little self-centered.  I had taken nothing but a shallow glance at Homie’s situation, and automatically decided that he was a victim, I was a hero, and the world would be better off if I interfered.  I’m not sure what the final judgment ought to be: Homie, and the world, are probably doing just fine with the current state of affairs (Homie in the pond).  But I offer a few considerations as food for thought to the next bleeding heart like me, who doesn’t think of any of this stuff until the adventure is over:

#1. What if Homie was okay in the cave?

If I were stuck in a 55 degree cave for four months with no light, no food, and no source of warmth, I would be dead, having suffered greatly on my way to get there.  So I automatically extended that assumption to Homie.  When we left him the first time, I thought there was a good chance he’d perish from starvation and exposure in the intervening month, rendering all my heroism in vain.

But snapping turtles are not humans.

As part of their lifestyle – and they have been around way longer than we have, bearing little evolutionary difference from their Proganochelys ancestors who lumbered around with the dinosaurs – they routinely hibernate in the muck below the ice of frozen ponds for 2-4 months out of the year.  There’s no light down there.  No food.  It gets considerably colder than 55 degrees.  And beyond all that, there isn’t even very much oxygen.  Yet Homie can handle it.  So in fact, Homie’s stint in Darby Cave was probably a vacation compared to what he’ll go through in his “paradise pond” come mid-December.

And if the cave flooded once, it will almost certainly flood again, and with the passages submerged, there’s a possibility that Homie could find his own way out.  In fact, there’s a slight possibility that hitching a ride into Darby Cave on floodwaters is something that Homie does regularly.  It isn’t likely: even for a tough Dino-turtle like Homie, starting one’s hibernation season in June or July – and having to wait until March for the heavy rains to make one’s exit – is quite the marathon.  So my rescue probably did something for Homie’s long-term odds, though it wasn’t quite the dramatic “snatching the patient from the jaws of death” scenario that I had originally imagined.  Which just goes to show that any wanna-be hero really ought to look into whether the victim wants to – or needs to – be saved before jumping in.

#2: What if Homie had a unique fate to fulfill in the cave?

Somebody has to be the first turtle to get stuck underground and start adapting if we’re ever going to have unique species like the Blind Albino Underground Dwarf Snapper, which nests in the caverns of Western Maryland, living off of cave crickets, salamanders, and the occasional bat.  If you were wondering, such a creature doesn’t really exist on this planet.  And now, since I went in and ‘rescued’ Homie, perhaps it never will.

Let’s say I got Homie’s gender wrong (both sexes of snapping turtles look equally like dinosaurs to me), and what I was working with there was actually a pregnant female, whose clutch of eggs laid in the cave that autumn was destined to be the forefathers and foremothers of something totally new: the aforementioned exotic cave turtle.  In dragging Homie back up to the fishpond instead of leaving her down there, I had no faith in the crazy coincidences that have created all the fabulous complexity that exists on this planet.  I opted instead for maintaining the status quo.  Homie and her children will remain Common Snapping Turtles until they run into some other ecological challenge down the line, the crickets and salamanders in Darby Cave will remain untested by a unique new predator, and perhaps the world will be a little less interesting.

#3: What if Homie was okay with dying?

Okay, picture this (and bear with my melodrama).  Homie spent his weeks there in the darkness reaching a profound state of peace.  He pondered his karma, forgave everyone who had ever done him wrong, contemplated the great circle of life – and was on the brink of total enlightenment, when out of a crack pops my goofy face.  I proceed to scream, blind him with my headlamp, holler insulting things, and then cram his body into a grocery basket (of all the humiliating receptacles), and dump him right back into the tiring world of sin.

You might or might not not want to give a turtle credit for that much profundity.  But Homie’s “enlightenment” scenario could also apply to many of the heroic rescues undertaken in our culture every day.  In many cases – kind of like my encounter with Homie – we modern humans, with the best of intentions, battle an inevitable death well past the point where both dignity and a reasonable expenditure of resources have been surpassed.  Surrounded by technological miracles, we sometimes lose the ability to accept when it is a creature’s (or a person’s!) time to go, and encourage peace and acceptance rather than fighting to stay alive at any cost.  Bearing with suffering is not an easy thing to do (just look at me and Homie), but in light of our ever-dwindling resources and ever-more-crowded planet, we might at some point need to reconsider the lovely notion that every death on this planet should be avoided – and every snapping turtle should be rescued.

Bat blight: Beyond the obvious

What do cave-dwelling bats, the extinct passenger pigeon, and the American Chestnut blight have to do with each other . . .

When the infamous fungal blight hit the American Chestnut in 1904, the forest management officials reacted as anyone would to an intruder in the home: they came out with guns blazing. They employed organic fungicides, chemicals, quarantine, and finally clearcut huge “firebreaks” into the forest in the hopes that the blight would at least be contained. They cared deeply, they worked hard — and ultimately, they failed.  By 1940, the 4-billion strong population of American Chestnuts had been decimated, leaving the tree all but extinct in its mature form.

Why did these well-meaning, dedicated, intelligent conservationists fall short? Perhaps because there was nothing anyone could do. But perhaps also because they looked at the blight as essentially a simple (if formidable) problem: fungus killing trees. A certain and straightforward equation, but with ecology, you only ever notice the tip of the iceberg.  Under the surface there lies such a complex system that any action you take (or don’t take) will have an infinite cascade of unpredictable consequences.

Now that another devastating fungus is sweeping down out of northeastern Appalachia — this time one that threatens nearly the entire multi-species population of insectivorous cave-dwelling bats in this country — modern ecologists would do well to remember the story of the American Chestnut — and the people who tried to save it.

White-Nose Syndrome (WNS), the “bat blight”, was first observed in New York in 2006, and has since radiated south and west along the cavernous Appalachians in classic epidemiological fashion, leaving climbing mortality in its wake. While the epidemic quickly seized the attention of both the caving and the conservation communities, and has been researched by both government and non-governmental organization (NGO) scientists, the precise cause of the mass mortality has not yet been conclusively determined. There are, however, very strong correlations implicating a soil-dwelling fungus, Geomyces destructans, in the syndrome. Bats with WNS can be observed during hibernation with G. destructans — a whitish, spotty fungal bloom — visible on their faces, ears, and wings. These bats behave unusually during hibernation: displaying agitation, changing roosts, taking flight into the winter landscape — and dying, by the thousands. Autopsies commonly yield the cause of death as a combination of starvation and exposure, and the mortalities associated with WNS accordingly occur primarily during the hibernation season.

Little Brown Bat With WNS Facial Fungus Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife

While controversy about the epidemic remains, the current best possible theory is that the fungusG. destructans — suspected to be an overseas import like the Chestnut blight — eats away at bats’ skin, causing them to wake frequently during hibernation in order to control the irritation. Failing to truly hibernate, the bats burn their fat reserves early, and must resort to the high-risk, low-gain endeavor of hunting in the middle of winter. With this as the strongest theory and time running out, management of the syndrome has focused upon containing and eradicating G. destructans. Fungicides have been explored (tools which would wipe out over half the biota in the average fungus-rich cave habitat), as well as quarantine — even the approach of eradicating whole bat populations (cutting bat “firebreaks”, if you will) has been both entertained and attempted. And yet, like the chestnut blight, WNS advances implacably. Turning back the tape: when the chestnuts were threatened at the beginning of the previous century, scientists and conservation managers failed to pay attention to the rest of the chestnut forest’s ecology in their haste to combat the trees’ new, exotic enemy. They payed little heed, for example, to the impact of the recent extinction of the passenger pigeon upon the trees’ nutrition.

Passenger Pigeon

The pigeons, which before the late 1800s had boasted populations so high that they “darkened the sky for days”, had been a keystone species that cycled nutrients from the fields where they hunted back to the forests where they roosted. All of the fresh fertilizer that the chestnut forest needed to thrive was amply provided by those hordes of excrement-producing birds. But the passenger pigeon’s ecological niche depended on its vast numbers, and in the face of the habitat destruction and mass extermination that resulted from the pigeon’s clash with humanity, their population plummeted rapidly, rendering the bird ecologically extinct by 1890, and completely extinct by 1914. Having effectively existed without the pigeons for ten plus years, by the time the blight struck, the chestnuts were essentially a malnourished species. As anyone working in health care knows, the ravages of a disease upon a malnourished population is dramatically amplified over that of a population with good nutrition, yet the trees’ overall health was never the focus of any attempts to protect them.

Conservationists also failed to credit the trees with any genetic resilience, automatically taking the heroic approach and assuming that the trees would not adapt to or resist the fungus on their own, and would therefore never make it without humanity playing the role of rescuer.  The chestnuts’ situation was certainly dire, but no species exists unless it has adapted, again and again over the course of its evolution, to changing circumstances. In taking it upon ourselves to battle the fungus with heavy chemicals, and in cutting down vast numbers of trees in attempted quarantine, we neutralized any hope the chestnut had to recover naturally — especially considering that the trees were starving. Would the chestnut have recovered without our intervention? Quite possibly not. Would it have had a better shot were it not lacking nutrition? Definitely. Has the chestnut recovered with our intervention? Not really. There are ongoing attempts to create blight-resistant hybrids, and a few mature trees can be found outside of the trees’ historic range, but the vast chestnut-dominated forests of the previous century are not to be found anywhere.

Blight Scars on Chestnut Bark

So a century later, approaching the dying bats, can we offer anything other than chemicals, futile quarantine and population culling? Some of us are trying: the scientific and managerial approaches so far have ranged across the full spectrum of possible options; and many of them demonstrate decided advances in ecological sophistication. Yet many of the WNS management programs remain tangled up in politics, which tends to promote whichever approach just gets something done,darn it, regardless of how futile — or even potentially harmful — those efforts might be. Seeing such devastating epidemics sweep through our natural systems as we see these days on a regular basis is wrenching and terrifying for those of us who value our ecology; even more difficult is to accept the fact that sometimes there is nothing we can do, or at least that what we should do isn’t immediately obvious. But it might be that the skills of zooming the lens back and trying to grasp the big picture, of looking beyond the obvious, and of acquiring the discipline and wisdom to know when to hold back in addition to when to act, are the skills we need to hone if the bats — and the rest of the ecosystem — are to have any hope.

Further Information
Ecology and epidemic management are both complex, fascinating, and highly charged topics.  I try to be thorough in my research and careful in all of the statements that I make, but I can’t tell you I know for sure what is happening any more than the next guy.  I also won’t take credit for the research or the brilliant ecological connections described in this blog; that work is being done by hundreds of curious, dedicated people working in those fields, and I simply want to share it.  For a more complete exploration of the connection between the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the American chestnut epidemic, please visit The Permaculture Activist site and read Peter Bane’s article Keystones and Cops: An Eco-Mystery Thriller, originally printed in May 2003.  Bane’s article is a fascinating read, and is the initial source for the picture I paint here about the progression of that historic ecologic tragedy.  For more information about the bats, and about WNS research, WNS management, and WNS controversy, the two sites below are good places to start.  I can’t speak for where you’ll end up . . .
White-Nose Syndrome Timeline and Reference List
Current Research and Management Strategies

Most Recent (Fall 2011) Research Abstracts

Not By Humans, For Humans

Caver in Stream Crawlway, Paxton's Cave, Virginia

Caver in Stream Crawlway, Paxton’s Cave, Virginia

I live in a world where my physical surroundings reflect thousands of years of human engineering. My floor is perfectly flat and smooth, so that I can walk upright on my two feet without a care. My counters are set at just the right height so that my arms easily reach the things I need to work on. When I’m tired, I can sit down in a soft chair with a firm back to support my spine as it relaxes, and then when it’s time to lie down, I have a perfectly level, perfectly soft bed, in a dark room where the only noises I can hear are the quiet hum of my machines. My world is created almost entirely by humans, for humans.

Caves, on the other hand, are created by water, for water. Water doesn’t have two legs, a big heavy head to support on a vulnerable spine, and long arms with opposable thumbs that it likes to do stuff with.  And water doesn’t want to eat, read, dance, sleep or build things. Water is a basic space-filling fluid that wants to cut through the layers of rock in between where it lands when it falls from the sky and the nearest available river, as quickly and efficiently as possible. I always try to keep that in mind when I’m caving, and it makes a world of difference. When moving through a cave, I am most effective if I move like water, rather than like a lumbering bipedal primate. Luckily, over 90 percent of my body is water, so it’s not an impossible feat; it’s just one that requires I let go some of my unconscious suburbanized habits — a trade I’m more than willing to make, since I’m anxious to get rid of them anyway.

When I take people like me — people accustomed to a modern-amenity lifestyle — into a cave for the first time, it usually takes a serious adjustment before they figure out how to move, and I find it fascinating to watch. Invariably, my new cavers take their first few steps into the cave moving the way they always do: with an assumption built into their body that the space around them was designed for them. Body upright, center of gravity balanced, feet are what touches the ground.  They take a step, they frown with concentration — and then, to a man, they fall on their rear end.

For some new cavers, the experience is delightful. “Ooh, I have to get my cave legs,” one girl giggled after the third time she slid back down the slimy bank she was trying to climb in Scott Hollow Cave, Monroe County, WV.  Each time, she would put her feet on the bank, shift her weight forward, take a step — and fall. On the fourth try, she stared at the bank for a second, frustrated, then plopped her belly down on it, spread her gloved fingers wide over the bulges in the bank’s texture, kicked her boots into the little depressions that just hadn’t been working as footholds before, and wiggled right up like a penguin. I was so proud. On the way out of the cave, she was moving a lot less like a lumbering primate and a lot more like water, letting all parts of her body (shoulder, back, hip, knee, elbow, hands, neck) touch and flow over the mud and the rocks, getting her coveralls and her gloves as dirty as they ought to be and justifying my insistence that everyone on the trip wear kneepads.

For others, being in a world that is not designed for them and does not match their unconscious habits of motion is extremely stressful. Each time they fall, they curse, anxious and upset that they are failing to get it right. They peer over the side of little climbs and are unwilling to extend their body out over anything exposed, and they eye crawls with trepidation. The cave seems cruel, playing tricks on them where simple tasks are difficult, they feel perpetually disoriented, and it seems that they cannot trust their bodies. Usually, unless these cavers can be convinced to relax and adjust, after a pretty short time underground, they want out. Some of them flat-out panic, seeking human attention to hold them up where their instincts seem to be failing, where others are more stoic, never complaining, but also never quite arriving, never quite making the transition into a world where you get to turn back into water.

The psychological gap that needs to be bridged in order for “city dwellers” to “get their cave legs”, holds a mirror up to modern culture. Any creature trying to get along in the world and adapt to novel situations has three choices: we can change our behavior, we can use things in our environment to change our physical body, or we can change the world around us. Due to our innovative nature, humans have more liberty to make the second and third choice than many of our fellow creatures. In today’s world, we’ve gotten so good at it that that’s basically all we do. Our eyes don’t work well in the dark, so rather than sleeping at night, or learning to adjust our activities to what can be done with the small amount of light provided by the moon and stars, we have changed the world around us so that it stays bright on our streets and in our homes even when the sun goes down. Our bodies get tired and our minds have a hard time focusing after spending too long bent on a particular task, so we have discovered and refined drugs that push the right endocrinological buttons inside us at the right time so that we can continue to perform at the level we desire.

Allowing the environment to force us to actually adjust our behavior is something that many people I know think that they shouldn’t have to do.  A hurricane goes through my suburban neighborhood — a hurricane! — knocking the power out for 24 hours and forcing my neighbors and I to go without power for one pleasant post-hurricane summer day (so everyone hangs out in the street and talks to each other now that their TVs don’t work), and everyone is outraged at the inconvenience. It’s ridiculous, they say,  the electric company should be more competent at getting the power back on on time.

When you step back and look at our species’ trajectory of population and consumption increase, it’s pretty clear that we’ll be better off if we can learn some conservation habits. We need to use fewer resources, so that there will be enough left for future generations. We need to recycle and reuse, rather than making more stuff from raw nonrenewable resources.  We need to wean ourselves off of petrochemicals. That’s all pretty old news, but in the ebb and flow and complexity of seven billion people’s personal lives, and the decisions we all have to make every day, conservation often doesn’t happen — at least, not in any major way.

Ecopsychology, which is the field that studies both the psychological and ecological dimensions of the human-nature relationship, has a great deal of theories of human motivation that give partial accounts for how it is that we can know what we need to do in order to “keep money in the bank”, as it were, and yet still end up continuously running our ecological debt higher.  For me, watching people’s instincts adjust to the way that space is laid out in a cave answers at least part of that question. Adapting to our environment, rather than altering our environment to adapt to us (which is always much more costly, environmentally speaking), is an art that our culture has all but lost. For many people, they have not only gotten out of that habit, they have lost the confidence that they are even capable of it, that their body and their instincts really do have the amazing and miraculous ability to cope with — and even to celebrate — a pretty wide range of circumstances. While comfort is a wonderful thing, there is a critical element of pride and joy at being alive that comes with realizing your natural, inborn strength through having it tested against a world that is not “comfortable” — because it is not built for you.  If we are ever going to consume less, we are going to have to nurture that pride at adapting to the world, rather than forcing it to adapt to us.

So if you’re looking for somewhere to start, just send me an email and I’ll take you caving . . .

Tunnels in the rain: An artificial suburban karst

Greenbrier County, West Virginia — Corey Hackley, my caving buddy on this particular trip out to limestone country, tried to pretend he wasn’t surveying the sky as we drove west out of Lewisburg. The day was hot and heavy, air buzzing with humidity, and though the weather radar showed absolutely no rain in the forecast, I thought the density of the clouds to the southwest made the radar look a liar. Corey scoffed at my lack of faith in technology, but as we pulled the car off the road and tromped out into the weeds, I caught him scanning the sky one last time.

As I laid eyes on our destination — the entrance passage of Frog Hollow Cave No. 2, which we intended to map that afternoon — I immediately understood why even relentlessly optimistic Corey was betraying signs of unease. The entrance to No. 2 quickly turns into a low, tight passage about eighteen inches high and 3 feet wide. Shoving your body through this constriction is kind of like being a mummy in a sarcophagus — provided someone first filled the bottom of the sarcophagus with two inches of cold, clammy water, and also dumped piles of sand and gravel into it that had to be cleared out before you could enter. Yes, radar is pretty reliable; it wasn’t likely to rain that day. But if it did …

Frog Hollow Cave No. 2

Entrance to Frog Hollow Cave No. 2

I had plenty of time to think about that as I lay there a soggy mummy for the next half hour, wriggling my body into the passage feet-first with my nose brushing the cold stone ceiling, pushing creek debris ahead of me like a snowplow. I had plenty of time to visualize how quickly a passage that small would fill with water, especially given that Frog Hollow — like many caves — is situated at the business end of a sinkhole, which is essentially a topographical funnel for surface water. That mental picture was unsettling enough, but what made it far more disturbing was how much it resembled the reality of my neighborhood back in suburban Maryland the last time I took a walk around the block during a thunderstorm. It’s one thing to respect the challenging hydrology of cave country when you’re in cave country – and quite another to have it driven home to you that you and your fellow humans have actually created those conditions in an ecosystem that was never meant to handle them.

As much as I love caves, I recognize that it’s a good thing the whole world isn’t composed of them.  Caves form wherever the exposed bedrock dissolves in acidic water (aka, rain), creating all sorts of fissures, cavities, and tunnels. When heavy rain falls on cave country (named ‘karst’ after an exemplary cavernous region in Germany), it rushes underground, the local topography having adjusted to direct water more and more efficiently into the underground drainage system. Water, after all, wants to go down, and it’s going to get there a lot more quickly if there’s a gaping hole in the earth to collect it. The paths carved by this aggressive hydrology are beautiful and exciting to explore, but the signature speed with which a karst landscape drains creates a less than ideal situation for the local ecology.  Rain that funnels immediately into a pit and then roars through a network of rocky tunnels does not have time to hydrate the local flora and fauna on its way, nor does it get much of a chance to take advantage of the filtration provided by topsoil. Karst regions like Greenbrier County, West Virginia, have a hard time maintaining enough water in the topsoil to grow crops, and wells dug there are notoriously unreliable – one major storm can flood a potable reservoir with pure runoff, rendering it unsafe to drink for months.  Furthermore, it doesn’t take very much to cause an aboveground flood in karst country; just picture a bathtub with the drain plugged, and that’s what you get when a hunk of debris gets wedged in a major water-bearing cave entrance.

In contrast, rainwater in non-karst regions — like the edge of the sturdy Piedmont Plateau where Silver Spring, Maryland, (my Washington, D.C. suburb) is perched — takes a lot longer to cycle down to the water table. There’s a lot of soil for the water to seep through on the way down — soil that doesn’t get a chance to wash away down some giant gaping hole in the bedrock. Suspended for a time in that soil, the water in Silver Spring gets much more of a chance both to be filtered of  impurities, and also to be made available to the growing things in the ecosystem.

My neighborhood creek in Silver Spring is calm before a rainstorm.

My neighborhood creek in Silver Spring is calm before a rainstorm.

Or at least, it used to. Prior to European settlement, Silver Spring was a fertile forest dotted with clean springs and healthy streams. Nestled next to Washington, D.C., the area served as a getaway for rich dignitaries who had business in the capitol once the city was formed. History reports that one such gentleman gave the area its flowery name after drinking from a delicious spring lined with sparkling silver mica. But as D.C. swelled and its residential development radiated outward, Silver Spring became prime real estate for converting into suburbs. Water is a precious commodity for all living creatures, but for basements, roads, patios, and parking lots, it is a serious construction challenge. To allow for maximal luxury while protecting the new homes from flooding, developers covered the earth with impervious surfaces: waterproof roads, driveways, sidewalks, and roofs. The developers learned how to cleverly slope and grade the land to shunt water away from houses, how to channel its flow into metal gutters and paved curbs, and ultimately how to force it down into brick-lined storm drains that emptied into concrete stream channels, all intricately directed to avoid making trouble for us lucky suburban dwellers.

In short, they turned Silver Spring into a parody of karst.

Very few people are outside during a heavy rain in Silver Spring — why should they be, when they have perfectly climate-controlled, water-tight homes and cars? I, however, am curious, so I took a stroll around the block and down to the nearest creek during the most recent storm. The scene I witnessed was easily as dramatic as what I might have experienced in Frog Hollow had it rained that day. Within fifteen minutes of the first raindrop, all of the sidewalks, curbs, and driveways in my neighborhood had accumulated several inches of water, all sheeting madly downhill toward the storm drain openings. Several drains had backed up by the time I got to the end of my street, and were pooling five inches deep into the road. I splashed across the closest one — the water was warm on my bare feet from all the heat picked up from the pavement — and walked down the hill to Sligo Creek, where all of the storm drains in my neighborhood empty. Sligo had risen a foot in just a half an hour, and the water rushing through it was angry, brown with eroded sediment, and clogged with floating sticks and trash. What I couldn’t perceive with my unaided eyes, but knew to be true, was that the thrashing brown foam cruising through Sligo’s swollen banks toward the Chesapeake was also chock full of chemicals picked up from roads, roofs, and lawns. If the drastic increase in turbulence, sediment, and temperature weren’t enough to do a number on the water quality and ecology of the creek (and ultimately the Bay), the chemicals and trash would surely do the trick.

Silver Spring Creek Flood

My neighborhood creek in Silver Spring on the day I walked in the rain.

Unlike the rural dwellers of Greenbrier County, West Virginia, we in suburban Silver Spring don’t rely on our topsoil to be fertile, or the water in our streams to be clean, because the intricacies of our economic system make such niceties seem unimportant. After all, both our bottled water and our carrots come, as far as we can tell, from Whole Foods, and the most important concern we have during a rainstorm is that our clothes don’t get wet and we can still make it to work on time. But when you force yourself to think about what’s happening to our water, and when you realize that a place like Silver Spring, had we not altered it so severely with our panorama of impervious hardscaping, would be the envy of all the water-starved farmers in a natural karst landscape like Greenbrier County, you realize what a potentially dangerous mistake we city-dwellers may have made in our haste to concentrate our population and protect ourselves from inconvenience.  Should the economy ever fall apart, I would feel far more vulnerable in Silver Spring than I did in the entrance to Frog Hollow No. 2, and that is a sobering thought indeed.