Paper No. 3
Presentation Time: 9:15 AM


BOSTON, Penelope J., Dept. of Earth and Environmental Science, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Socorro, NM 87801,

The sensory experience of being in a wild cave is like no other human experience. The silence, the enclosure, the restricted visual field, the often distinctive odor, even the lack of wind on the skin, all signal that one has entered a truly unique place. Some find this disconcerting, but others have found this experience transformative, both psychologically and scientifically. The hyperawareness that immersion in the subsurface wilderness brings is akin to the overwhelming aesthetic and sensory saturation of any grand landscape, but with an added twist. That twist is an even greater isolation, a profound alteration in the balance of our sensory grasp of the world, and the feeling that one has embarked on a journey to another planet, indeed, a planet hidden right below our feet.

The need to compare subterranean spaces to each other has led to the extraordinarily global nature of speleology. Indeed, the development of comparative studies in other fields (e.g. evolutionary biology or planetology), have been supremely powerful. Speleology demands such an approach if we are to develop meaningful, testable hypotheses about caves and karst terrain of all varieties.

Caves and mines (which can be considered anthropogenic caves), can present hazards ranging from poisonous atmospheres to unstable rock masses, to simple gear failure on rappel. Nothing focuses the mind like danger, and the potential peril inherent in exploration makes each subterranean investigation a shining jewel of experience. In exchange for enduring the danger, one’s powers of observation are distilled, perhaps a byproduct of the restricted sensory input, and this facilitates clarity of scientific observation.

The beauty and variety of caves stirs the souls of those who enter. Exploration leads to emotional bonding with place, which in turn leads to attachment. Attachment leads to care. Care provides the foundation for stewardship and management of precious resources. As we come to know the subsurface wilderness, our desire to protect it has grown. As we come to understand the science of subsurface wilderness, our ability to develop best management practices has grown in parallel. Only by a close connection between exploration, science, and management practices can we experience but also protect this very special part of our planet.