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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Delicate Passages

Air Date: Week of

Michael Ray Taylor author of Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness talks with Steve Curwood about some of the secrets recently yielded from this mysterious terrain and precautions taken to preserve it.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. As a college student in the 1970s, Michael Ray Taylor started crawling into dark holes. It wasn't shyness that took him there. It was curiosity. In the decades since, caving has been his passion. He has joined expeditions in the caves of Mexico, Jamaica, China, and of course the United States, as a writer and explorer. Mr. Taylor says that in the Earth beneath our feet lies a vast wilderness, a hidden realm of delicate beauty that deserves our understanding and protection. The quote is from his new book called Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness. In sharing some of his caving experiences with us, Michael Ray Taylor began by telling us that cave passages come in all shapes and sizes.

TAYLOR: There are all kinds of passages. There are passages with whitewater rivers rushing through them. There are enormous rooms that would swallow baseball stadiums. There are tiny crawl ways that are challenging and sinuous and interesting to pass through. It's so different from what you experience on the surface. You know, mountain climbers like to say they climb mountains because it's there. Cavers go caving because they don't know what's there.

CURWOOD: And for us non-cavers, I mean let's face it, going down into a dark, dank hole in the ground, it could tumble down on top of you, you know, cave in. There are a lot of tight spots. I mean one reason these places are unexplored is that us humans don't feel very comfortable down there.

TAYLOR: Well, the strange thing about us humans, I think, is that anything that frightens us becomes sooner or later irresistible. If, you know, certainly throughout history caves have been where seers and philosophers would go to reflect, to escape the world that was known and come back changed. And there's some of that primal draw in the cave, the same thing that brought the Neanderthals into the caves in France is certainly acting on me when I go into a dark, scary place. But then of course with experience, the other thing is you find out that caves may be dark, but in fact with the proper training and equipment they're really not so very scary. The danger of a cave-in, for instance, that's something you worry about in mines, which are manmade structures, and caves have been stabilized over thousands of years by the natural forces that shape them. And in fact, if I could pick one place to be in the midst of a strong earthquake, I think I'd pick a cave.

CURWOOD: Okay, you go ahead and try that. (Laughs) I'm not sure I'm ready for that. Who else lives down there, aside from visiting humans?

TAYLOR: Aside from visiting humans, there are bats, there are in-cave lakes and streams, all sorts of fish, sometimes there are surface fish that get washed in and manage to survive in the caves. Other times they are blind whitefish that have evolved and live in the cave all the time. There are various small insects, such as crickets and centipedes. And really not much else. Now, there's a whole new class of life that we're just finding out about down in the caves, some very rare microbes that a few scientists have been studying, that apparently live in cave walls and survive off of the nutrients in the rock itself. They've excited some people at NASA who are looking for similar microbes on the planet Mars.

CURWOOD: So NASA is excited about these. Is there anything special for those of us on Earth?

TAYLOR: There's one particular cave, which I describe in Cave Passages, called Litchegia. It's in New Mexico. It's near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. And it is a sort of a proving ground for scientists studying these microbes. It had been sealed for many centuries. And so, the microbes, which have been discovered in this cave, have been living there without any connection to the surface for a very long time, and one of the guys who was studying them because of the Mars implications has got a major grant to study them as cancer treatment. There is a certain enzyme they secrete which seems to do better against cancer cells than any other known natural substance.

CURWOOD: Hmm. My guest is Michael Ray Taylor. His new book is called Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness. And we've been talking about this cave in New Mexico. And what does Litchegia mean?

TAYLOR: Well, it's the name of a plant that grows near the entrance to the cave. It's kind of a spiky member of the aloe family, I believe. And it pokes everyone on their way hiking to the entrance, and so you can't help but notice it, and hence cavers who discovered the cave decided to give it that name.

CURWOOD: Now, this is a pretty amazing cave for some of the things that you can see inside of it.

TAYLOR: Right. It's unusual geologically. Scientists believe that this cave was formed not by water flowing in from the surface, as most caves and limestone are formed, but by water that percolated up from below, through mineral hot springs, and the sulfur that these springs carried helped to carve out the passages in the limestone so that Litchegia Cave, which so far there's 89 miles of passage cavers have found from the single entrance --

CURWOOD: Eighty-nine miles?

TAYLOR: Eighty-nine miles and still growing every time anyone goes in there to map. And all of it bristles with very gorgeous and stunning formations, things like gypsum chandeliers that hang down from the ceiling and, you know, rooms that are pure white like Superman's house in the movies. And then you also have very delicate latticeworks of aragonite and other types of crystals. And also many formations which have been seen just nowhere else on Earth. Formations for instance called sub-aquaceous halactites, which look like strange fingers or strands of spaghetti that reach across pools.

CURWOOD: Now what happens when people go in there? These formations are pretty delicate; don't people pose a problem?

TAYLOR: They're extremely delicate, and actually, you know, it's always a big philosophical question when you're a caver and you discover a place where no human footstep has been, you know you're going to change that room forever when you step across it. And the question is, how do you protect it and its pristine state? Some of the things Litchegia cavers have done is whenever they discover a new room, they will carefully lay a path with plastic survey tape. And everyone who walks through the room stays in the same place so that after a few crossings that path is very well worn. Yet 2 feet off of the path the floor looks exactly as it has for centuries. And beyond that, one of the things cavers have done in Litchegia is simply limit the amount of exposure the cave has. Right now, after 10 years of exploration, the cave is in the midst of a 1-year shutdown to just give it a little rest from the hundreds of eager explorers who have been finding those 89 miles of passage over the last decade. And a couple of science teams are going in to try to determine just how much impact do we cavers have on such a pristine and wonderful place.

CURWOOD: In the back of your book there's a picture of you wearing a helmet with a light on it and you've got on gloves and glasses. And your body is, like, squished between these 2 rocks.

TAYLOR: Right.

CURWOOD: Seems to me that a lot of caves must have some difficult spots. And I'm wondering if you could tell us of a story of a place where you faced a tight challenge, maybe even tighter than that chimney, and pushed the limits of your nerves.

TAYLOR: Well, Steve, I'll bet you're talking about the Devil's Pinch, which I describe in the book as the tightest single cave passage I've ever been in. It's in West Virginia and it connects to otherwise unconnected and once thought of as separate caves called Bone and Norman. And the Devil's Pinch is nasty, because not only is it tight but it has a thin knife ridge of hard rock running down the center of it.

CURWOOD: Oh boy.

TAYLOR: So it's just barely tall enough or a person to crawl through and you've got this blade of knife digging at your chest trying to cut it open as you move through. And I went into that cave a few years back with a group of friends. We went through the cave from one direction to another and decided to call our trip a little bit early, and rather than going out the other entrance, which was still some distance away, we came back through Devil's Pinch. And I somehow got myself stuck coming back.

CURWOOD: Couldn't go forward, couldn't go back.

TAYLOR: Couldn't go forward, couldn't go back. I knew that I'd been through it, I knew I could go through it again. So what I did was just try to relax and exhale, and when I exhaled I could scoot forward an inch or two. And then I'd inhale and I'd feel the roof and the floor compressing my chest. And, you know, I started thinking well what if I squeezed myself in to where I can't inhale at all? And so I backed out and took off my coveralls, which gave me just a little bit more clearance. And so in my underwear I lay down in this passage, I threw my coveralls and my pack ahead to the guy who'd been through the passage ahead of me, and exhaled completely, slid forward, and sure enough I was stuck again. Couldn't inhale, but I knew I was nearly past the really nasty part, and so my friend Lee grabbed my arm and yanked me, and with 2 inches I could breathe again, and then I scooted forward and a little bruised and scraped but none the worse for wear. I was out of the pinch. But it's all part of caving. If you want to see the truly wild places, then you just have to work yourself through those tight spots one way or another.

CURWOOD: My guest has been Michael Ray Taylor. His book is called Cave Passages: Roaming the Underground Wilderness. And he teaches at Henderson State University in Arkansas. Thank you, Sir.

TAYLOR: Thank you, Steve.



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