Home PageArchivesVolume no. 4Issue 1Nonfiction: Emerson Andrews

The Void Underfoot

Emerson Andrews

 
Up from the corkscrew passage, where a dank scent wafts, like wet dirt inside a Tupperware container, I hear Max’s cue.

“Off rope,” he says. I go over my gear, silently recite the safety measures and plunge backward into an unknown world. Within moments, the only available light shines from my headlamp.

Caves are divided into light zones: entrance, twilight, and dark. Most caves are completely dark after only a short distance in from the entrance. I jerkily ping pong down the corkscrew cave entrance.i At around fifteen feet, I change belay points in a small chamber, the twilight zone. I focus on safety the entire time. I know underground geology makes rescues intensely difficult. I think about Nutty Putty, about dying underground. I secure my second belay and descend deeper into the chasm. My feet touch ground and I stand behind a bank of sandbags. Max explains, “It protects the cave from filling with silt.” I disconnect from my harness, step over the bank, and begin to slide backwards down a 40-foot slope holding only the rope in my hands. The ground is slippery. My vision is limited, but at the bottom of the slope, in the dark zone, I look upward to find black, arachnid-like roots growing from the walls and the ceilings.

“The roots of surface plants look like moss underground, that’s why the cave was named Spanish Moss,” Max says.

We had parked the white sedan at Rock Canyon trailhead, changed into non-cotton cave-appropriate clothing and loaded up with gear: 200-feet of rope, harnesses, ascending equipment, helmets, three lights per person, water, hypothermia kits, a pocket knife, and a camera. Max, my guide into this underworld, has been involved with caves on a number of levels. He recreates, provides safety training, and otherwise engages in cave restoration, mapping, and rescue. Through rigorous self-study and immense passion, he has become a quirky one-man band of knowledge. Throughout the day we had conversations ranging from car maintenance to Afro-Brazilian instrument making. I’ve waited until this hike to ask him about Nutty Putty.

Rock Canyon is a gateway of red quartzite cliffs buttressed by grey, smooth limestone. The colors of the walls change as we walk the sinewy trail. We hike until we reach a steep slope of cave rock—cloudy, dark stone scarred by lightning bolt calcite deposits. A small trail meanders up this steep, slippery trail. The climb is difficult and I grab branch after branch of gnarled scrub oak to keep my feet from slipping away. Limestone mountainsides, or karst formations, are responsible for most of the caves in the world. Caves form when karst rock is slowly dissolved by carbonic acid (a mixture of carbon dioxide and water) in a process called dissolution. Rainwater mixes with plant matter and seeps into the bedrock, dissolving calcite minerals to form grid-like, underground passageways and rooms.ii Vast chambers enveloped in darkness are connected by confined winding tunnels. Dissolution takes place over millions of years, creating dripping flowstone and crystalline speleothems suggestive of some sci-fi alien planet.

Max Barker is a member of the Salt Lake Caving Grotto. He stands at 5’6” with a bald head, scruffy beard, and two missing fingers. He invited me into the world of caving, and I was fortunate to have him as a guide. Entering a cave is more than jumping into a hole; it is a process. One has to meet the right people, get the right keys, and then bring the right gear. Two days prior to our Spanish Moss expedition I attended a grotto meeting in the basement of a local library. Around the table sat cave enthusiasts of all ages, shapes, and sizes. The majority of the meeting was comprised of adventure talk: caves explored, gear lost, and caves closed. White Nose Syndrome fluttered around the conversation like a bat in the daytime. Most of these people were amateur naturalists with a geologic eye for holes, caves, and anything subterranean. They caved for different reasons—some for fun, some for geology, some for conservation—but they all shared the same hypogeal passion for underground wonders. Underneath all the stories, they were a loose multifaceted network that focused on conservation, recreation, training, and emergencies. Shared knowledge moved between this rag tag crew of hole enthusiasts: cave routes, the best road access, and coveted clandestine coordinates. Max typed the minutes to the meeting. His laptop projected onto an overhead screen that flickered short notes about the Utah Bat Conservancy, restoration projects, and trip reports. Here, I began to understand what it took to go into a cave; and I was starting to see what kind of people go underground for hours at a time for the sake of recreation.

“They closed the caves in Great Basin for 3 years because of White Nose, so we can’t go in,” spouted a squat, middle-aged woman.

“Got cement over Nutty Putty now. Closed the cave because that boy died,” said a wizened, oblong man.

*

The call went out at 8:20 p.m. on Tuesday, November 24th, 2009: John Jones was stuck in Nutty Putty Cave. Jones had been caving there with his family and friends earlier in the afternoon, and became lodged in the passage.iii Nutty Putty was popular, averaging thirteen visits a day, some 5,000 visits a year.iv The cave knew how to hold onto people, and Jones wasn’t the first to get stuck. He was jammed head first in a passage with a 70- to 80-degree decline. Tuesday night through Wednesday afternoon, professional rescuers desperately worked to free him.v

Max had been called to the rescue site early in the morning on Wednesday. The work was arduous. Three cavers got stuck multiple times trying to provide help. Finally, with a rope connected to webbing around his thigh, Jones was dislodged. The rescue crew slowly lifted his body out of Bob’s Push, a tight 10” by 18” passageway. Most of the progress relied heavily on John’s own efforts. It was hard to cover the distance, and after several hours he had moved roughly 10 feet. Max elaborated on the complexities of rescue: “The problem was that there were so many twists and turns in the tunnel, 500 lbs. of force by the rescuers turned into less that 50 lbs. at Johns end.”

Once hoisted up, Jones was given food, water, and the opportunity to talk to his expectant wife. For a moment, relief and peace found space in Bob’s Push. Spirits were high. Darkness had not swallowed John Jones.

Caves are defined by darkness, blacker than ocean depths. Little space, little food, and low oxygen make for a desolate, dripping environment. Most cave life-forms are highly specialized in their niche. Species destined to meander through the dark usually lose their eyes, adapt strange appendages, and maintain low metabolic rates to make the most out of an unforgiving environment. This strange underground world is where cultures find mystery that inspires myths and legends, haunting our dreams and lurking in the dark tunnels of our consciousness. Perhaps it was this attractive mystery that motivated John Jones as he unwittingly wedged himself into Bob’s Push on Tuesday afternoon, becoming entrapped by the permanent grip of the earth.

At 4:30 p.m., on Wednesday, Jones was loosened from his wedged position, seventeen hours after the rescue call resounded. At 7:00 p.m., tragedy struck once more.

“He was hanging head down with his feet touching the ceiling when a prussic cord broke and John fell back down the passage,” recalls Max. Upside-down and folded-over, Jones became despondent and strained to retain consciousness. The team of rescuers futilely pulled out pneumatic tools. However, fluid was beginning to infiltrate Jones’s lungs.

Sgt. Eldon Packer of the Utah County Sheriff’s office announced Jones’s death at 2:30 Thursday morning. The cave became a tomb.

*

The hibernaculum (winter hibernation roost) of the little brown bat is immense. Thousands of ashen-brown furry bodies with dark, leathery wings huddle together and cover the contours of tan rock in some undisclosed cave. Intense warnings underscore every photo on the National Wildlife Health Center’s website.vi A fungal pathogen is spawning its way into caves in the United States. The first signs appeared in 2006 in New York.vii Hundreds of bats were flying around in winter daylight, the majority of which finally succumbed to cold temperatures and disorientation, stopping dead in their tracks, underweight and severely dehydrated.viii

Nine different species are affected by White Nose Syndrome: Indiana bat (Myotis odalisque), little brown bat (Myotis lucifer), eastern small-footed bat (Myotis leibii), northern long-eared bat (Myotis septentrionalis), tri-colored bat (Perimyotis subflavus), big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus), cave bat (Myotis velifer), gray bat (Myotis grisescens), and the southeastern bat (Myotis grisescens).ix The images are heart wrenching: piles upon piles of winged carcasses litter the cave floor. The death is so widespread it is hard to understand. Six years ago the little brown bat was the most common bat in North America, and now biologists are predicting extinction within 20 years.x

What does a large, permanent loss of bats mean? Hibernating bats, much like any other animal, are part of a larger ecological community. They are unique because they play two important roles in two different communities: caves and forests. If these die-off trends continue, severe ecosystem disturbances loom on the horizon, which could end up costing the planet in both dollars and species richness.

The fungus strikes when the bats are asleep. During hibernation bats suppress their metabolic and immune systems, rationing precious energy and making themselves susceptible to an invasive pathogen. A white fuzz creeps and grows onto the muzzles, wings, and ears of these tiny mammals while they slumber toward spring. The disease attacks when the bats are at their weakest and disrupts their regenerative circadian rhythms. These cold and humid North American hibernacula provide a perfect climate for WNS. The fungus thrives because the bats’ lowered body temperatures, between 2–14 Celsius, coincide with the pathogens’ range, which tops out at 20 degrees Celsius. WNS preys on this relationship between bats and humid caves, taking advantage of slumbering victims with lowered temperatures and moist bodies.xi

White Nose Syndrome (WNS) and the associated fungus G. destructans are believed to affect the bats in a number of ways. Wings, which are crucial to the bats’ immune system, are the most voraciously attacked. WNS transforms the elastic and supple wing tissue into a crumpled and withered fatal wound. The evidence of destruction is written in holes and tears in the membrane.xii Unfortunately, WNS also wreaks havoc on other important systems of the defenseless mammals. The afflicted commonly have depleted fat stores (because frequent awakenings require much more energy expenditure), an inability to thermoregulate, and disruption in their circulation (often in the wings). Blighted bats are often found walking with their wings on snow or slowly dying of dehydration and/or starvation on the hibernaculum floor. Sadly, WNS on average wipes out 75–90 percent of cave bat populations. And it is moving fast: in the last five years the fungus has spread west from New York to Oklahoma, south to Kentucky, and entered parts of Southeastern Canada. An estimated one million bats have died to date. However, dead bats are only the beginning of a much deeper problem.

*

Caves have always captured the imaginations of cultures around the world. For the ancient Greeks caves were either portals to Hades’ underworld or the domain of Gods. Makua Cave in Oahu, Hawaii is believed to be the womb from which humans emerged. In the Himalayan Mountains the massive ice stalagmites of Amarnath Cave attract thousands of Hindu pilgrims, because they are believed to represent the Gods. In Mesoamerica caves were portals of the supernatural and were often used for ritual sacrifice. Today, the remains of human ancestors are found decaying in cave soil around the world, their beliefs etched into the wall.xiii Murals and bones act as archaeological wormholes that tell stories of the dead and their forgotten cultures. These mysterious underground spaces contain information that can enlighten us about ourselves and the world around us. They are wonderful micro ecosystems that reflect the health of the above ground area, in many cases helping us understand how minor changes affect a given environment for better or worse.

Everything is connected: what happens on the surface is felt underground. Either directly or indirectly, humans have always left their mark in caves. Through uses like storage, burial, development, research, or worship, the world underfoot has become threatened in response to the changing world above. Subterranean ecosystems are forced to cope with the toxic bi-products of human existence. The negative effects of the human/cave interaction range in intensity. The impacts can be small and solutions simple. For example, Timpanogos Cave each experiences enough visitors each year that a thin layer of lint forms and covers the surfaces of the cave’s deeper chambers. To fix the problem, Max and some colleagues volunteer each year to clean up the fuzzy mess. While lint may have an easy fix, many cave ecosystems face more hazardous problems such as groundwater contamination and introduced species, and the solutions are not so easily seen, developed, or executed.

Most karst geology contains hard limestone passageways that make perfect conduits for fast moving aquifers. The distribution of pollutants happens through either permeation of the topsoil or direct entry into karst windows (surface openings).xiv Typical pollutants include heavy metals, nitrogen, and non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs) such as solvents, insulators, and fuels.xv Heavy metals change the chemical composition of speleothems and permanently alter the way a stalactite or stalagmite may form.xvi Nitrogen disrupts the nutrient cycles between species and harms specialized relationships.xvii Cave contaminants come from a variety of places including mines, farms, and urban development, which makes pinpointing the source of a particular pollutant extremely difficult. Unfortunately, speleological species are highly specialized and therefore sensitive to drastic ecosystem changes.xviii

Caves in the United States have lost biodiversity as urban development encroaches on the land. Most troglobitic species are highly endemic, rare, and vulnerable to extinction because caves are usually isolated underground-islands. The Valdina Farms Sinkhole salamander existed in only one cave, which Texas-based Edwards Underground Water District used as a recharge well. In 1987 the well flooded over and wiped out the salamander population and drove out local bat colonies. In West Virginia, during the 1980’s, the Rich Mountain Cave beetle was destroyed along with the cave for a limestone quarry.xix While only a handful of extinctions are confirmed, several cave species are either threatened or on the endangered species list. Mammoth Cave alone lists 70 threatened species.xx Mitigating the human/environment interaction means understanding the importance of caves and their species. Only when the complexity of caves is understood can humans know what to do in order to conserve and protect this unique underground world.

*

The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988 is the foundational policy of cave conservation in the United States. Regulations derived from the Cave Resources Act have jurisdiction limited to public lands. According to the National Speleological Society (NSS) caves are protected in or on “National Parks, National Forests, BLM land, and other lands administered by the Departments of Agriculture and Interior.”xxi As a result Spanish Moss cave was sealed by a red iron gate under lock and key. To get this key, Max and I had to sign a no-damage waiver as per The Federal Cave Resources Act. The two purposes of the act were printed on our waivers:

…to secure, protect, and preserve significant caves on Federal lands for the perpetual use, enjoyment, and benefit of all people; and to foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities and those who utilize caves located on Federal lands for scientific, education, or recreational purposes.xxii

The agreement made sense enough to me: step carefully, once in the cave. We scribbled our names and went on our way.

I thought about what it meant to protect a cave. Conservation manifests in a number of ways, ranging from monitored access to cave closure. Gating, or the placement of iron barriers at the entrance, has resulted in both success and failure. Generally, the choice to gate is a last resort. Spanish Moss cave was gated and managed because it was on public land. Nutty Putty was managed but not gated because it was on private property. Cave conservation is viewed and interpreted differently, even amongst cavers. Max thinks that conservation and gating should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Dale Green, a local caver, takes a more extreme viewpoint and feels that “(caves) should be protected! Secrecy can only last for a finite period of time. Gate it while you can.” Ultimately, the truth of the matter is that caves are damaged directly and indirectly. On our drive from Provo, Max told countless tales of cave damage done by greedy and careless people. Formations broken off at the base told the sad tale of speleothem harvesting. Ecosystems are ruined when too many curious people attempt to capture the essence of a cave. I wondered: was WNS also a form of careless damage?

*

The problem of introduced species has increased since humans became more globally connected. David Blehert, the lead microbiologist for the USGS, elaborates the problem: “Global travel and trade have effectively eliminated natural barriers, such as mountain ranges and oceans, that once prevented the spread of disease agents around the world, and are today recognized as one of the most significant drivers in the emergence of infectious diseases worldwide.” White-Nose first reared its fungal head in Howes Cave close to Albany, New York. The hibernaculum there is connected with an undisclosed show cave and it is likely, due to high human traffic, that a visitor unwittingly carried a microscopic stowaway. G. destructans is widespread throughout Europe and is a likely source for the pathogen. However, hibernating bats in Europe are not as drastically affected as the species in North America. The United States is forced to witness the potential extinction of its cave bat species and swallow the painful ramifications of their disappearance.

All of the bats affected by WNS are insectivorous and therefore play an important role for a number of species, including humans. A single bat on average devours 4–8 grams of insect nutrition each night. The amount of bug biomass consumed by one million bats annually is estimated to be between 660 and 1,320 metric tons. This disruption of the food web has negative effects on agriculture, forest ecology, and cave ecology. Bats are known pest controllers. The value of bats for agriculture is estimated to be between $3.7 billion to $53 billion a year in pesticides alone.xxiii In addition, bats also play a top-down suppression role in forest ecology by limiting the populations of herbivorous insects, which can in turn affect plant diversity.xxiv Those same insects, when digested, bring nourishment in the form of guano to full-time cave denizens. Bugs eat plants, bats eat bugs, and cave life eats the digested remains. Without the bats the interdependence disintegrates. One introduced microscopic fungus has caused a cascade of disruption throughout North America.

*

Spanish Moss cave is alive with speleothems and strange bugs. Orange-yellow stalactite columns of dripping rock line the walls. White, frost-like, helictites shoot in every direction and cover the ceiling. Obelisks of melted stalagmites rise from the ground, sometimes connecting with their trickling counterparts. The cave is a rippling liquid-like landscape reminiscent of the surface of Mars. As we penetrate deeper my eyes start to notice movement. Crawling along the cave floor are Wasatch cave spiders. I am as transfixed as an entomologist by their white abdomens, six black legs, and two modified pincers.

As the passageway narrows my awareness becomes more acute, and the silence becomes deafening. With each breath the thick atmosphere courses through my lungs. I am underneath thousands of pounds of rock and the only way out would be exhaustive rope-work. My focus drifts over the visual landscape until my light illuminates gossamer mushrooms growing from small dark pellets. I poke Max to share my discovery.

“What are those?” I ask. He giggles.

“Rat shit. Anything left in a cave becomes part of the cave,” he replies. These delicate fungi grew from the droppings of a transient rodent. Magnificent. Every occurrence in this very sensitive environment has connected consequences. If this unique ecosystem were to disappear, very few would notice other than cavers like Max. Thoughts about value start to infiltrate my awareness. What is a cave ecosystem worth? For a farmer it is worth dollars. For Max it is worth research and knowledge. For me it is worth a vivid experience. For John Jones the ecosystem of Nutty Putty charged the toll of death. For the little brown bat it means shelter and survival. Our karst pathway continues to narrow until both Max and I are on our bellies crawling through a small, tight passage. I think again of John Jones, and battle claustrophobia as I inch along the narrow tunnel.

*

On Friday, November 27th the closure of Nutty Putty Cave was announced in the local media. The cave was to become a permanent grave as per the wishes of John Jones’s family.xxv Cavers were frustrated at the closure and voiced their feelings on various forums and websites. Sentiments ranged from anger to sympathy. Max was upset to see the closure because he believed that Nutty Putty relieved the recreation pressures of other wild caves in the area; but, having been involved in the rescue, he understood the complex issues. Dale Green, an old time caver who led the first party to explore Nutty Putty, initially believed that only certain passages of the cave should be closed. However, after contemplation of the grim facts he changed his mind.xxvi

“I now believe that the walls are so porous and have many small connecting passages that the stench from the decaying body would have permeated the entire cave,” Dale said. He wishes he had kept his mouth shut when he first found Nutty Putty in 1960.

Michael Leavitt, the cave access manager of Nutty Putty at the time of the incident, posted an editorial on the Nutty Putty website discussing the decision for closure. He lamented about the effects the closure might have on Nutty Putty’s ecosystem and about the loss of recreational opportunity. However, the cave was a liability, especially because it was on private land. No owner wanted to take on the risk of death. Even more intense was the fact that John’s body remained underground, and his gravesite needed legal respect.xxvii The events that put the lid on Nutty Putty are tragic, without a doubt. But death can’t be avoided in the natural world. What does it mean to close a cave for our own protection? By the same logic, should a river be closed when it claims a life? Thousands of people die in car accidents each year but the roads remain open. Ethical lines obscure into darkness. Humanity is left to reconcile its place on the planet, and in this case it did so with four feet of concrete over the entrance to Nutty Putty.xxviii

*

In May 2011 the U.S. Federal Government drafted an updated national white-nose management plan. The draft is composed of seven elements: communications, data/technical information management, diagnostics, disease management, epidemiological/ecological research, disease surveillance, and conservation/recovery.xxix With this plan they hope to slow the spread of the disease, research the fungus more thoroughly, and inform the public about what to do to help. Additionally the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends that all cave closures and advisories be followed for the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Virginia. They also ask that all clothing believed to have been used in these areas be immediately decontaminated and remain unused. The National Speleological Society, Northeastern Cave Conservancy, and the Southeast Cave Conservancy have closed their managed and owned caves in response to the risk of infection.xxx White-Nose Syndrome is being addressed through an inter-organizational cooperation working towards understanding and controlling the pathogen. Unfortunately, while humans are managing our interactions with caves, bats are responsible for the spread of the fatal fungus.xxxi

Controlling the conflagration of WNS across the United States is a difficult task. David Blehert explains: “Once established, diseases in free-ranging wildlife are rarely, if ever, eradicated. Biologists trying to manage WNS within bat populations face multiple challenges, including the need to deal with numerous host species, long-distance migrations of infected hosts, poor access to some host populations, impracticalities associated with treating individual wild animals, infected hosts that are sensitive to being disturbed and that inhabit fragile ecosystems, and environmental persistence of the pathogen.”xxxii WNS shows no clear signs of stopping, and biologists are left to pick up the bodies. Bats continue to die and little can be done to contain the cascade of issues. Can we really control our world and fix the problems we create, or are we struggling to understand catastrophes much bigger than ourselves? The answer is not so clear but the problem remains persistent. Craig Stihler of West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources gets to the heart of the matter when he says that WNS “is obviously not going to put an end to the world but its going to change the world.”

*

In the final room of Spanish Moss Cave, Max encourages me to shut off my headlamp, and sit still in the darkness for five minutes. I oblige him. When I place my hand in front of my face I can’t see it. After a few minutes, I hear a low, large noise. The cave’s groan sounds like a violin bow slowly pulling across the strings of a massive stand-up bass; and I am lulled into a comfortable peace.

“Did you hear it?” Max asks.

“I did. It’s beautiful,” I reply. He turns on his headlamp.

“Call it what you will,” he says, “but I think the Earth is singing.”
 


Emerson Andrews is currently completing his Masters of Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. In his spare time he trains Capoeira, performs hip-hop music, and explores his local landscape. Read more on his blog, Between Spaces – An Ecology of a Life Contradicted.
 

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iii Max Barker. Personal Interview. 5 Nov. 2011
iv Jasper, John. Presentations Page. Saving Nutty Putty Cave. 2006 <http://jonjasper.com/Presentations/SavingNuttyPuttyCave>
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xviii Elliot, W.R. “Protecting Caves and Cave Life” Encyclopedia of Caves Ed. David C. Culver. Burlington: Elsevier, 2005.
xix Elliot, W.R. Subterranean Biota. Elsevier: Texas. 1998
xx Mammoth Cave National Park – Animals. National Park Service. 27 September 2010 <http://www.nps.gov/maca/naturescience/animals.htm>
xxi Conservation for Cave and Karst Systems. National Speleological Society. 2004 <http://www.caves.org/committee/conservation/>
xxii The Federal Cave Resources Protection Act of 1988. Public Law 100–691; November 18, 1988; 16 U.S.C. 4301 through 4309
xxiii Boyles, J.G. Et al. “Economic Importance of Bats in Agriculture.” Science April 2011: 41-42
xxiv Kalka, M.B. Et al. “Bats Limit Arthropods and Herbivory in a Tropical Forest.” Science April 2008: 71
xxv Stark, M. “Nutty Putty Cave will close despite hundreds of complaints.” Deseret News 1 December 2009.
xxvi Dale Green. E-mail Interview. 7 Nov. 2011
xxvii Leavitt, Michael. Nutty Putty Official Website. Saving the Cave. 2009 <http://www.nuttyputtycave.com/MLSave.html>
xxviii Bergreen, J. “Nutty Putty cave sealed with concrete.” Salt Lake Tribune 3 December 2009.
xxix The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. A National Plan for Assisting States, Federal Agencies, and Tribes in Managing White-Nose Syndrome in Bats. May 2011.
xxx The Battle for Bats: White-Nose Syndrome. Webumentary. Dir. Dave McGowan, U.S. Forest Service/ U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2009. 9 minutes.
xxxi The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. White-Nose Syndrome in Bats: Frequently Asked Questions. October 2010.
xxxii Blehert, D. S., et al. “Bat white-nose syndrome: an emerging fungal pathogen?” Science 2009: 227.

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