Cave: Nature and Culture
Reaktion Books (Footprint), $29.99 pb, 222 pp, 9781780234311
What is it about caves? An irresistibly enchanting hidey-hole to any small child and yet the birthplace of our deepest fears. Dragons, narguns, goblins, and gorgons are all born of caves, and yet who can go past an opening in the rock without peeking in? We cannot resist exploring this underworld of darkness which seems to provide safety from the perils outside, while at the same time exposing ourselves to the risks and dangers of the unknown and the unseen.
Ralph Crane and Lisa Fletcher, both literary academics from the University of Tasmania, offer not so much an exploration of caves themselves, but rather an exploration of the ways in which we experience caves. This is, quite literally, an anthropomorphic venture. As the authors point out, we define caves largely through the human experience of them. A cave without an entrance is not a cave at all, but a vug. A ‘proper cave’, apparently, has an entrance at least 0.3 metres high, accessible by a human body.
Caves are, literally and figuratively, the gaps and fissures between the bedrock of our knowledge. They are spaces that open up beneath our feet and between the disciplines. The archaeologist will illuminate an entirely different vision of a cave from that of the geologist, the palaeontologist, the hydrologist, the biologist, the poet, the novelist, the film-maker, the artist, or the musician. The catch-all designation of ‘speleologist’ is not so much an academic field as a passion – a term for the adventurous explorers of these spaces who may well also be any one of the above specialists as well.