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2 march 2017

I haven't been in very many caves, and never, I think, in one that wasn't a tourist attraction equipped with electric lighting and elevators. I'm no more claustrophobic than the next slightly neurotic sedentary office-worker, and darkness, creepy things, and creatures don't bother me. But as Ralph Crane and Lisa Fletcher discuss in their book Cave, the whole point of caves in the wild is that they are never fully known. Every trip into a cave is a potential exploration of the abyss. I prefer cities with grids and streetlights, thank you.

A cave ought to be easy to define, but Crane and Fletcher emphasize the intriguing point that caves exist as humans relate to them. There is no easily identified "cave." There is rock, more or less porous, with greater or larger fissures or holes in it, which have greater or less connection to the outside air, to water systems, to animal lifestyles. But a "cave" is something big enough for a human to get into – an accidental incursion by a latecomer species to a miscellaneous set of geological features that have been around many times longer than we have.

Caves couldn't be more indifferent to us. Crane and Fletcher quote Arne Naess on phenomena that are "independent of the usefulness of the non-human world for human purposes," and caves are one of them (19). They will quietly asphyxiate us, drown us, entomb us forever if we make one false move. Yet people are perpetually drawn to caves, prompting Crane and Fletcher to ask "Would a geocentric approach to caves be just as limiting as foregrounding human interaction?" (19). People have sought shelter in caves, sometimes adapted them as permanent homes, used them as sacred sites, been compelled to explore them, have set up tourist attractions inside them. Caves are metaphors for wombs and for worlds. Studying caves is inextricable from studying human fascination with them.

Crane and Fletcher examine the mythology of caves, their status as venues for ancient art and as subject matter for modern art, their commercialization, and the lore of the extreme sportsmen who have explored them. Interest in caves, the authors note, swings between domesticity and risk-taking. They are less interested in the science of caves, but do provide a defintion of karst, the matrix for most caves, and spend some pages on the adaptations that fauna have made to the utter darkness of deep cave systems (plants can't exist there at all). To this day, only a fraction of such adaptations have been documented. The depths of caves resist human encroachment fairly well, and are thus self-protected environments.

Literary caves abound in Cave, from the Odyssey to The English Patient. Caves are a big deal in Hardy Boys books (The Secret of the Caves is one; the Boys were always snooping around caverns). Crane and Fletcher mention Tolkien briefly. Perhaps that is all that The Lord of the Rings merits in a global history of any phenomenon. But Tolkien was the first author I thought of when trying to remember literary caves. A discussion of Tolkien's literary landscapes would certainly emphasize the salience of his caves, from Smaug's den in The Hobbit to Gollum's haunts to the Mines of Moria and the lair of Shelob. For all the airy expanses of Middle Earth, Tolkien was ultimately claustrophilic. There's horror in his caves, but there are also control and grandeur and adaptation to life underground. Such books, settings for my childhood imagination, oriented me to what little experience I later had of real caves.

Crane, Ralph, and Lisa Fletcher. Cave. London: Reaktion, 2015.