More than 10,000 known caves lie beneath the state of Tennessee according to the Tennessee Cave Survey, a nonprofit organization that catalogs and maps them. Thousands more riddle surrounding states. In the new book Hidden Nature: Wild Southern Caves, officially out this week from Vanderbilt UP, Michael Ray Taylor tells the story of this vast underground wilderness. In addition to describing the sheer physical majesty of the region’s wild caverns and the concurrent joys and dangers of exploring them, he examines their rich natural history and scientific importance, their relationship to clean water and a healthy surface environment, and their uncertain future.
Read on for an excerpt from the first chapter of Hidden Nature:
Chapter 1 | Near Spencer
I’m in a cave, lying on my side atop a bed of mud and sand washed in probably decades ago by some forgotten storm. Above me a pleasant fall afternoon warms a pastoral valley. Leaves have begun to turn beneath the spotless blue sky. Up there the Cumberland Plateau dominates the southern horizon, rearing like a green tsunami poised to crash over central Tennessee. In a sense the plateau is an ocean, if one long dead: its stacked sediments bristle with the fossilized remains of Carboniferous sea creatures. Beneath the plateau’s hard sandstone cap, voids riddle the softer limestone—more caves per square mile than in any other location in the United States, according to data compiled by the National Speleological Society.1 These water-carved caverns send out tendrils beneath the plateau’s edges. They can run on for miles, curling and coiling like a labyrinth Lovecraft might have imagined.
Several long caves reach this valley. I’m digging with hopes of breaking into a new one from a short, allegedly dead-end passage. The surrounding landscape is karst, a term derived from a German word describing the geology and topography of the Dinaric Alps, now applied to any limestone landscape featuring caves, sinkholes, and streams that vanish underground. I was sweating before I began this work because I could not find the entrance, hiking an unnecessary hour through boulders, chest-high thorns, and cow pies before giving up, driving up to the ridge for a cell signal, and calling the landowner for more detailed directions. Then I drove straight to it, thorns scratching at my rented SUV, boulders and stobs threatening to gouge the pan. I geared up and crawled over the rough cobbles of the entrance to begin digging in a smooth-walled rotunda at the end of the known space.
Barely 200 feet long, this little cave has been known to local residents for over a century. Proof is written on the white limestone ceiling in the form of a half-dozen blackened signatures and dates, scrawled in candle smoke by rural visitors during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Elsewhere in this valley are caves explored by much earlier settlers from early in the nineteenth century all the way back to Native Americans who lit their way with cane torches thousands of years ago.
People have always been drawn underground. The oldest human remains have been discovered in the caves of Africa, Europe, and Asia—some of them older than our most ancient common ancestor. A spate of studies of human mitochondrial DNA has pushed forward the date when a small band of African humans began to populate the rest of the world. As recently as 60,000 years ago,2 or fewer than 2,000 human generations, our common ancestors may have journeyed outward. Traces of their lives persist: caves serve as repositories for the earliest known examples of art, basketry, shoes, and clothing.
Humanity’s more recent spread through the American South is also chronicled below ground. Less than an hour’s drive away from the spot where I lie digging, I once followed bare footprints in soft, damp cave mud, noting bits of ash and mineral samples dropped by three walkers. Protected from casual obliteration by colored plastic flagging and extreme secrecy, these prints were made by the lined, leathered feet of explorers who traversed the passage more than 4,000 years before me, according to the carbon dating of bits of river cane that fell from their flickering torches.
A big-eared bat chirps nearby. Ruffling leathery wings with a drumming sound, he objects to my intrusion into his normally silent chamber. Over the past decade much of the bat population of the eastern United States has been decimated by white-nose syndrome, a deadly plague spread by fungal spores,3 but the few individuals I can see appear robust and healthy. Their annual hibernation period will soon approach. For now the weather outside remains warm enough that I know they will exit at sunset, each consuming hundreds of insects before returning at dawn.
Except for bats and a few cave crickets, I’m alone in a passage perhaps twenty feet wide and twelve feet high at the center. The old signatures are spread over a comfortable alcove where the ceiling height is about six feet. Farther from the center of the chamber, the roof slopes downward to meet the floor, giving the room the appearance of a lens. At the edge where I’ve worked for the past hour, the white limestone ceiling sits no more than twenty inches above the dried mud on which I recline. I reach with a garden hoe into a still smaller space, barely wider than the hoe’s blade: the spot where all present-day drainage vanishes. Water is rare here. The entrance sits on the high side of a sinkhole so that it only comes in during the largest floods.
Following a list of clues over the past few months, I have found reason to believe that somewhere beyond the reach of my hoe unexplored passages and chambers await, perhaps connecting to a hidden borehole winding northward from the plateau. I can’t say that I’m here merely in the hope of scientific discovery. Other cavers far more accomplished than me have also been poking into sinks in this area, seeking a back door into a known subterranean system many miles long. I deeply admire these explorers: I once wrote a glowing profile of their cantankerous patriarch, Marion O. Smith, in Sports Illustrated, a publication not normally known for caver stories. Smith is by far the world’s most experienced caver, with well-documented trips to over 8,000 separate caves in his seventy-seven years. Each of these caves is meticulously recorded in a shelf of journals going back over sixty years, yet he calls the “most experienced” title “hogwash.”
“True,” Smith recently wrote me, “I’ve been to a lot of holes, primarily short, blind-bottomed pits or 50- to 100-foot-long duds. But I have no technical skill of any kind.” He doesn’t set rigging bolts, draft cave maps, camp underground for weeks on long expeditions, or take on other advanced technical skills commonly applied to modern caving. “I’m lazy,” he says, preferring to call in friends with technical skills to help explore his finds that are not duds. Yet over the decades many young, strong, technically skilled cavers have struggled to keep up with Smith underground. At some of his discoveries—like the fifteen-mile-long system running beneath a nearby valley—he spent many months in secret survey of deep pits and massive rooms never before seen by humans, modern or ancient. As an outsider from Arkansas, I look with awe upon Smith’s accomplishments, yet I would be thrilled to scoop him here all the same.
To cavers, scoop as a verb can mean a couple of things, both marginally scandalous. The lesser offense refers to excitedly rushing through virgin passage without mapping as one proceeds, which caving ethics demand. The greater offense is to quietly slip into an area where one person or team has been digging or otherwise searching for some hidden cave, then to pluck the jewel from under the noses of those who have labored diligently to find it. I sense such a jewel may hide within this overlooked and disregarded passage.
1. See Chuck Sutherland, “KTAG—Cave Density Map.”
2. While many studies of the Y chromosome published since 2010 support this relatively recent “out of Africa” date, others have found small African populations with much earlier common male ancestors, some going as far back as 338,000 years. See Fernando L. Mendez et al., “An African American Paternal Lineage.”
3. For the latest US spread map of the disease and information on current research, see whitenosesyndrome.org, the website of the interagency White-Nose Response Team, which is coordinated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.