I’ve been telling people I’ve been in a cave for the past few weeks – otherwise known as the PhD Confirmation process – and the metaphor has reminded me of how deeply (pun!) I love caves.
I’ve seen the Wombeyan caves, the Undara lava tubes, and the Kelly Hill caves in Australia, and Waitomo Glow Worm Cave in New Zealand, but my favourites by far are the five Jenolans I’ve managed to visit (Lucas, River, Imperial, Temple of Baal, and Orient). I’m not in the league of serious cave-explorers (spelunkers, potholers, cave divers), but I get excited about the stories caves tell to those who can read them, who are willing to translate them for geological illiterates like me. Stories told on unimaginable timescales. Stories about the movement of earth, the action of water, the formation of rock, climate change, meteors, volcanoes, tectonic collisions, over millions of years. I love the air in caves – still to the point of stale, damp, smelling so strongly of limestone it’s like breathing liquid rock. I love the dark, the quiet, the sound of dripping water which speaks to a different kind of life from that of the sunlit green world above. And cave decorations – shawls, columns, straws, helictites, cave pearls, stromatolites, pools, flowstone – can take my breath away.
I was challenged at my Confirmation Seminar to explain the kind of awed joy I experience – and believe others experience – in the encounter with a physical landscape feature such as a cave. Was I talking about the sublime?
I’m not comfortable with the sublime as a term, given the many shades of meaning it has picked up through being handled by so many philosophers. Certainly in a cave there’s something of the “agreeable horror” originally implied by Ashley-Cooper, Dennis and Addison, who were describing their individual encounters with the Swiss Alps. Caves, mountains, the ocean, the night sky, tell us how small we are in the scheme of things, and that’s both terrible and wonderful. As Douglas Adams said, “if life is going to exist in a universe this size, the one thing it cannot afford to have, is a sense of proportion”.
There’s also the hint of threat in a cave, stronger for some than for others. My dad, for example, can’t do cave tours because he can’t bear the idea of all those tonnes of earth and rock above his head. It’s not a fear but a phobia – a combination of claustrophobia, and something more specific about depth underground. In the same way I’ve been known to have panic attacks in multi-storey buildings, sensing all those floors of air beneath my feet. It’s not that Dad believes the rock will collapse, or that I think I might fall through those storeys of air. It’s just an intolerable awareness of the nature of the space around our bodies. Fortunately for me, I don’t get that sense of threat underground: I find caves deeply peaceful, and at the same time exciting. Alien/Other, yet not – the stalactites and I are equally real and valid elements in a universe of matter, energy, space and time.
Is that the sublime? I don’t know yet – but having been told to take six months longer than planned on my PhD, to do justice to the ideas involved, I have high hopes of working it out!