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Notes from underground

Conservation of caves pays off in underappreciated ways.

Peter Youngbaer exploring the New River Cave in Virginia.
Peter Youngbaer exploring the New River Cave in Virginia.Courtesy of Peter Youngbaer

There is nothing like the stillness that envelops you 1,000 feet underground in the heart of a cave. My favorite thing to do down there is turn off my headlamp and just listen. I hear what sounds like a stream in the distance — it’s actually just a trickle of water, but the acoustics of the cave are unlike anything you can encounter on the surface. There might be a rush of cool air, signaling to me another passage. The breeze is weighty, yet free. It’s really like entering another world within our own.

It’s my wife Jane’s fault that I’m so obsessed with caves. We met at Goddard College in Vermont back in 1969, and at the time she had some experience with caving. It was one particularly boring afternoon in the spring when she suggested we check out nearby Morris Cave. I looked at her like she was crazy, but I agreed. I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday — we stoop-walked and belly crawled 400 feet, went through a few narrow passageways, and popped into this vastly huge, beautiful space. I was giddy with awe! From that point on, I was hooked.

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Jane and I studied abroad in France to see some of the most famous caves in the world. We saw the Pech Merle cave that has these intricate drawings from 25,000 years ago — really, a prehistoric art gallery. We met up with a local caving club outside of Paris that brought us to a cave hidden next to an apple tree in the backyard of an old couple’s house. Imagine that.

Jane and I have been exploring and working to conserve caves for decades now. During the day I’m the manager at the Plainfield Co-Op, a small community grocery store in central Vermont, but I always have my caving pack with me in case I need to help with a rescue or lead a weekend trip for the Northeast Cave Conservancy.

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I think a lot of people have a misconception of what caves are about and why their protection and conservation are so important. Caves conjure up all sorts of fears, which is why most people cringe at the idea of going into one. But even bats — kind of spooky creatures — play a critical role in our ecosystem. Bats promote biodiversity by dispersing the seeds of hundreds of species of plants and acting as major pollinators.

It’s also crucial that we protect caves because they are incredibly important to our understanding and treatment of groundwater pollution. Networks of groundwater are greatly affected by the topography of caves. Surface development projects that fail to consider the placement of caves, such as the building of airports or factories, can cause contaminated runoff that seeps into the waterways of underlying cave systems. That’s why the cave conservation community has occasionally intervened in legal proceedings to protect groundwater. We are not only trying to conserve the caves from development, but we’re also trying to protect the public from groundwater pollution and flooding, which can result in undrinkable water.

I also want to preserve caves for curious individuals like me who will continue to steward them. Caves offer a glimpse into the earth’s natural history and also our human history. Humans have been going in and out of caves since our dawning.

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Caves are the last wilderness on earth. The uniqueness of what exists underground is absolutely breathtaking. Gypsum crystals in the ceiling that are 18 feet long and look like they belong in a ballroom chandelier. Cave systems that are 550 miles of continuous passages. Coastal caves, and caves with bioluminescent moss that glows when the light coming in is just right.

I feel lucky to have witnessed so many beautiful landscapes underground, but it’s that brief moment when I turn my headlamp off and hear the cave breathe — the movement of cold air, a twinkle of water, my own inhale and exhale — that leaves me coming back again and again.

Peter Youngbaer, 68, is a life member and former vice president of the Northeastern Cave Conservancy. Rachel Hellman is a journalist based in New York’s Hudson Valley.