John Burroughs



The Riverside Press, Cambridge



Some idea of the impression which Mammoth Cave makes upon the senses, irrespective even of sight, may be had from the fact that blind people go there to see it, and are greatly struck with it. I was assured that this is a fact. The blind seem as much impressed by it as those who have their sight. When the guide pauses at the more interesting point, or lights the scene up with a great torch or with Bengal lights, and points out the more striking features, the blind exclaim, "How wonderful! how beautiful!" They can feel it if they cannot see it. They get some idea of the spaciousness when words are uttered. The voice goes forth in these colossal chambers like a bird. When no word is spoken, the silence is of a kind never experienced on the surface of the earth, it is so profound and abysmal. This, and the absolute darkness, to a person with eyes makes him feel as if he were face to face with the primordial nothingness. The objective universe is gone; only the subjective remains; the sense of hearing is inverted, and reports only the murmurs from within. The blind miss much, but much remains to them. The great cave is not merely a spectacle to the eye; it is a wonder to the ear, a strangeness to the smell and to the touch. The body feels the presence of unusual conditions through every pore.

For my part, my thoughts took a decidedly sepulchral turn; I thought of my dead and of all the dead of the earth, and said to myself, the darkness and the silence of their last resting-place is like this; to this we must all come at last. No vicissitudes of earth, no changes of seasons, no sound of storm or thunder penetrate here; winter and summer, day and night, peace or war, it is all one; a world beyond the reach of change, because beyond the reach of life. What peace, what repose, what desolation! The marks and relics of the Indian, which disappear so quickly from the light of day above, are here beyond the reach of natural change. The imprint of his moccasin in the dust might remain undisturbed for a thousand years. At one point the guide reaches his arm beneath the rocks that strew the floor and pulls out the burnt ends of canes, which were used, probably, when filled with oil or grease, by the natives to light their way into the cave doubtless centuries ago.

Here in the loose soil are ruts worn by cart-wheels in 1812, when, during the war with Great Britain, the earth was searched to make saltpetre. The guide kicks corn-cobs out of the dust where the oxen were fed at noon, and they look nearly as fresh as ever they did. In those frail corn-cobs and in those wheel-tracks as if the carts had but just gone along, one seemed to come very near to the youth of the century, almost to overtake it.

At a point in one of the great avenues, if you stop and listen, you hear a slow, solemn ticking like a great clock in a deserted hall; you hear the slight echo as it fathoms and sets off the silence. It is called the clock, and is caused by a single large drop of water falling every second into a little pool. A ghostly kind of clock there in the darkness, that is never wound up and that never runs down. It seemed like a mockery where time is not, and change does not come—the clock of the dead. This sombre and mortuary cast of one's thoughts seems so natural in the great cave, that I could well understand the emotions of a lady who visited the cave with a party a few days before I was there. She went forward very reluctantly from the first; the silence and the darkness of the huge mausoleum evidently impressed her imagination, so that when she got to the spot where the guide points out the "Giant's Coffin," a huge, fallen rock, which in the dim light takes exactly the form of an enormous coffin, her fear quite overcame her, and she begged piteously to be taken back. Timid, highly imaginative people, especially women, are quite sure to have a sense of fear in this strange underground world. The guide told me of a lady in one of the parties he was conducting through, who wanted to linger behind a little all alone; he suffered her to do so, but presently heard a piercing scream. Rushing back, he found her lying prone upon the ground in a dead faint. She had accidentally put out her lamp, and was so appalled by the darkness that instantly closed around her that she swooned at once.

Sometimes it seemed to me as if I were threading the streets of some buried city of the fore-world. With your little lantern in your hand, you follow your guide through those endless and silent avenues, catching glimpses on either hand of what appears to be some strange antique architecture, the hoary and crumbling walls rising high up into the darkness. Now we turn a sharp corner, or turn down a street which crosses our course at right angles; now we come out into a great circle, or spacious court, which the guide lights up with a quick-paper torch, or a colored chemical light. There are streets above you and streets below you. As this was a city where day never entered, no provision for light needed to be made, and it is built one layer above another to the number of four or five, or on the plan of an enormous ant-hill, the lowest avenues being several hundred feet beneath the uppermost. The main avenue leading in from the entrance is called the Broadway, and if Broadway, New York, were arched over and reduced to utter darkness and silence, and its roadway blocked with mounds of earth and fragments of rock, it would, perhaps, only lack that gray, cosmic, elemental look, to make it resemble this. A mile or so from the entrance we pass a couple of rude stone houses, built forty or more years ago by some consumptives, who hoped to prolong their lives by a residence in this pure, antiseptic air. Five months they lived here, poor creatures, a half dozen of them, without ever going forth into the world of light. But the long entombment did not arrest the disease; the mountain did not draw the virus out, but seemed to draw the strength and vitality out, so that when the victims did go forth into the light and air, bleached as white as chalk, they succumbed at once, and nearly all died before they could reach the hotel, a few hundred yards away.

Probably the prettiest thing they have to show you in Mammoth Cave is the Star Chamber. This seems to have made an impression upon Emerson when he visited the cave, for he mentions it in one of his essays, "Illusions." The guide takes your lantern from you and leaves you seated upon a bench by the wayside, in the profound cosmic darkness. He retreats along a side alley that seems to go down to a lower level, and at a certain point shades his lamp with his hat, so that the light falls upon the ceiling over your head. You look up, and the first thought is that there is an opening just there that permits you to look forth upon the midnight skies. You see the darker horizon line where the sky ends and the mountains begin. The sky is blue-black and is thickly studded with stars, rather small stars, but apparently genuine. At one point a long, luminous streak simulates exactly the form and effect of a comet. As you gaze, the guide slowly moves his hat, and a black cloud gradually creeps over the sky, and all is blackness again. Then you hear footsteps retreating and dying away in the distance. Presently all is still, save the ringing in your own ears. Then after a few moments, during which you have sat in a silence like that of the interstellar spaces, you hear over your left shoulder a distant flapping of wings, followed by the crowing of a cock. You turn your head in that direction and behold a faint dawn breaking on the horizon. It slowly increases till you hear footsteps approaching, and your dusky companion, playing the part of Apollo, with lamp in hand ushers in the light of day. It is rather theatrical, but a very pleasant diversion nevertheless.

Another surprise was when we paused at a certain point, and the guide asked me to shout or call in a loud voice. I did so without any unusual effect following. Then he spoke in a very deep bass, and instantly the rocks all about and beneath us became like the strings of an Æolian harp. They seemed transformed as if by enchantment. Then I tried, but did not strike the right key; the rocks were dumb; I tried again, but got no response; flat and dead the sounds came back as if in mockery; then I struck a deeper bass, the chord was hit, and the solid walls seemed to become as thin and frail as a drum-head or as the frame of a violin. They fairly seemed to dance about us, and to recede away from us. Such wild, sweet music I had never before heard rocks discourse. Ah, the magic of the right key! "Why leap ye, ye high hills?" why, but that they had been spoken to in the right voice? Is not the whole secret of life to pitch our voices in the right key? Responses come from the very rocks when we do so. I thought of the lines of our poet of Democracy:—

"Surely, whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow,

As the water follows the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around the globe."

Where we were standing was upon an arch over an avenue which crossed our course beneath us. The reverberations on Echo River, a point I did not reach, can hardly be more surprising, though they are described as wonderful.

There are four or five levels in the cave, and a series of avenues upon each. The lowest is some two hundred and fifty feet below the entrance. Here the stream which has done all this carving and tunneling has got to the end of its tether. It is here on a level with Green River in the valley below and flows directly into it. I say the end of its tether, though if Green River cuts its valley deeper, the stream will, of course, follow suit. The bed of the river has probably, at successive periods, been on a level with each series of avenues of the cave. The stream is now doubtless but a mere fraction of its former self. Indeed, every feature of the cave attests the greater volume and activity of the forces which carved it, in the earlier geologic ages. The waters have worn the rock as if it were but ice. The domes and pits are carved and fluted in precisely the way dripping water flutes snow or ice. The rainfall must have been enormous in those early days, and it must have had a much stronger and sharper tooth of carbonic acid gas than now. It has carved out enormous pits with perpendicular sides, two or three hundred feet deep. Goring Dome I remember particularly. You put your head through an irregularly shaped window in the wall at the side of one of the avenues, and there is this huge shaft or well, starting from some higher level and going down two hundred feet below you. There must have been such wells in the old glaciers, worn by a rill of water slowly eating its way down. It was probably ten feet across, still moist and dripping. The guide threw down a lighted torch, and it fell and fell, till I had to crane my neck far out to see it finally reach the bottom. Some of these pits are simply appalling, and where the way is narrow have been covered over to prevent accidents.

No part of Mammoth Cave was to me more impressive than its entrance, probably because here its gigantic proportions are first revealed to you, and can be clearly seen. That strange colossal underworld here looks out into the light of day, and comes in contrast with familiar scenes and objects. When you are fairly in the cave, you cannot see it; that is, with your aboveground eyes; you walk along by the dim light of your lamp as in a huge wood at night; when the guide lights up the more interesting portions with his torches and colored lights, the effect is weird and spectral; it seems like a dream; it is an unfamiliar world; you hardly know whether this is the emotion of grandeur which you experience, or of mere strangeness. If you could have the light of day in there, you would come to your senses, and could test the reality of your impressions. At the entrance you have the light of day, and you look fairly in the face of this underground monster, yea, into his open mouth, which has a span of fifty feet or more, and down into his contracting throat, where a man can barely stand upright, and where the light fades and darkness begins. As you come down the hill through the woods from the hotel, you see no sign of the cave till you emerge into a small opening where the grass grows and the sunshine falls, when you turn slightly to the right, and there at your feet yawns this terrible pit; and you feel indeed as if the mountain had opened its mouth and was lying in wait to swallow you down, as a whale might swallow a shrimp. I never grew tired of sitting or standing here by this entrance and gazing into it. It had for me something of the same fascination that the display of the huge elemental forces of nature have, as seen in thunder-storms, or in a roaring ocean surf. Two phœbe-birds had their nests in little niches of the rocks, and delicate ferns and wild flowers fringed the edges.

Another very interesting feature to me was the behavior of the cool air which welled up out of the mouth of the cave. It simulated exactly a fountain of water. It rose up to a certain level, or until it filled the depression immediately about the mouth of the cave, and then flowing over at the lowest point, ran down the hill towards Green River, along a little watercourse, exactly as if it had been a liquid. I amused myself by wading down into it as into a fountain. The air above was muggy and hot, the thermometer standing at about eighty-six degrees, and this cooler air of the cave, which was at a temperature of about fifty-two degrees, was separated in the little pool or lakelet which is formed from the hotter air above it by a perfectly horizontal line. As I stepped down into it I could feel it close over my feet, then it was at my knees, then I was immersed to my hips, then to my waist, then I stood neck deep in it, my body almost chilled, while my face and head were bathed by a sultry, oppressive air. Where the two bodies of air came into contact, a slight film of vapor was formed by condensation; I waded in till I could look under this as under a ceiling. It was as level and as well defined as a sheet of ice on a pond. A few moments' immersion into this aerial fountain made one turn to the warmer air again. At the depression in the rim of the basin one had but to put his hand down to feel the cold air flowing over like water. Fifty yards below you could still wade into it as into a creek, and at a hundred yards it was still quickly perceptible, but broader and higher; it had begun to lose some of its coldness, and to mingle with the general air; all the plants growing on the margin of the watercourse were in motion, as well as the leaves on the low branches of the trees near by. Gradually this cool current was dissipated and lost in the warmth of the day.