Over spring break I participated in a research trip to Mammoth cave with students from my Mammoth Cave honors class, our instructor, David Kime and Student Orientation Coordinator Jeff Iker. In addition to cataloging artifacts, discussing geologic formations and hiking through trails in the national park, I also had many unique experiences in the cave…
“Everyone, turn off your lights.”
With cold fingers, I carefully reached up to the top of my helmet and felt around for the switch on my headlamp as the guide had instructed. One by one, our high-powered LED lights went out, leaving myself and 12 of my classmates sitting on the dirt floor of Mammoth Cave in complete darkness.
It took me only a few seconds to realize we were experiencing a total absence of light. I estimated that we were about a mile into the cave and several hundred feet below the surface, creating a kind of pitch black, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face type of darkness. Not only was the passage in complete and utter blackness, it was also totally silent.
And that moment really made me think: how many times in our life do we encounter total darkness and total silence?
Even when you’re lying in bed on a clear, quiet, dark night, there is always some sort of small noise or source of light that our senses subconsciously perceive. It could be crickets chirping, traffic from the street below, a faint glow radiating from the crack beneath your door or footsteps from the neighbors who live above you. Despite our best efforts to block everything out and experience total peace and solitude, there is always something going on in the background to divert our attention.
In a cave it’s much easier to withdraw for a few moments.
With absolutely no distractions, I felt a sense of calmness and serenity as we all sat together experiencing the strange phenomenon of true darkness and quiet. My worries and daily problems, which matter on the surface, faded away for a few moments. In the cave, it didn’t matter that my enormous English paper wasn’t quite finished or that I was nervous about an upcoming interview.
In the cave you can just be still. It’s as if time stops.
To quote Davis McCombs in his famous poem about Mammoth cave, “There, I have lost hours, whole cycles of the sun.”
After a time, we turned our headlamps back on, stood up and marched back toward the entrance of the cave.
After spending several hours underground, the experience of emerging from the cave and coming out on the surface is equally as strange and beautiful as encountering total darkness and silence. The Earth suddenly seems so alive and fragrant. The scent of the woods unexpectedly overcomes you as your nose becomes reacquainted with the smell of living, breathing, growing things. The sun strikes your face. The breeze blows through your hair. Nature appears so alive and green. Your senses become overstimulated by everything and it hits you that Earth is really beautiful. I couldn’t help but smile as I took my first few steps back on the surface.
If you ever get the chance to visit Mammoth Cave, be sure to take in the stunning views of the Green River, go on a hike through the thick trees, and climb every ridge.
But, when the time comes to go caving, take a moment to stop and appreciate the silence. Then emerge and see the Earth with new eyes and a fresh perspective, being reminded of just how beautiful our planet really is.