Springtime in the South 2018

Since the dawn of time the Wandering Weazel has undertaken an annual pilgrimage to the underbelly of the South; there to search for serpents, sniff magnolia blossoms, drive down dirt roads, and listen to the languorous drawl of those who still cling to a much maligned yet noble way of life. Though I live in Florida, an annex of Yankee imperialism, the deep South is and will always be my beloved home.

So it was that at the beginning of May Dr. Ann and I headed to the annual Southeastern Cave Carnival held near Scottsboro, Alabama. Scottsboro is in the northeastern part of the State adjacent to the southern terminus of the Cumberland plateau, the crumbling margins of which are riddled with caves, thus the choice of venue.

Northeastern Alabama is a gentle land where the cows are almost as fat as the people. You can blame Walmart and TV for that. Actually, to get to the root of things, it is better to blame the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) which electrified what had previously been the most backward and bucolic region of America. To celebrate my arrival I purchased a Moon Pie, but I drew the line at drinking an RC Cola lest I join the ranks of the legless obese who navigate the miles of aisles in motorized shopping carts.

Here you see a typical northern Alabama valley with the almost perfectly level top of the Cumberland plateau rising in the far distance.

The lonely road to Cathedral caverns

The Cave Carnival has no fixed location. It is held in a different place every year, wherever there are caves and a campground willing to accommodate rowdy cavers.  The 2018 Carnival had a very odd venue, a Christian retreat hard by the banks of the Tennessee river. By the standards of such gatherings it was a relatively small event with only about 350 attendees. How Christian was it?

Isn’t this a bit overt?

I shudder to imagine the admonitions of perverted Boy Scout leaders who implore their innocent scouts to “unsheathe the sword of the spirit” while “buckling on the chastity belt of truth”.

But the venue was not so Christian that we were prevented from having a foam party on Friday night. This was a first for the Weazel, but given the muddy nature of caving perhaps waist deep soap suds should be a regular feature at such events.

Mind alteration required

But enough of such silliness, we came to go caving, so in the morning we headed to Bluff river cave at the head of justly famous Big Coon holler where the coons really are big and the hills really are hollow.

The bowels of Bluff river cave

Years ago when I first headed up Big Coon valley in search of Bluff river cave I stopped to inquire at a general store where old men in bib overalls sat around actual cracker barrels. The residents were not particularly pleased to offer information. One finally spoke up to say, “You best not park anywhere up that holler. My brother lives up in Matthew’s cove and he don’t cotton to no outsiders. He was OK when he was drinkin’, but now he’s done started taking them drugs so there ain’t no tellin’ what he’s gonna do!” Not to worry, I fooled them all by driving my truck up the dry river bed and parked where my vehicle could be swept away by a flash flood but no one would ever find me.

An unidentified cave babe cups a crawdaddy

I was much dismayed to see no salamanders whatsoever. On my last trip to Bluff river the stream was full of Tennessee cave salamanders (Gyrinophilus palleucus), along with many bright orange  cave salamanders (Eurycea lucifuga) on the walls, and duskies and slimies near the entrance. Now all were gone, probable victims of the emergent fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans (the suffix vorans means “eater of”), a plague that has recently swept the world. I couldn’t care less about starvation in Africa, but I greatly bemoan the extinction of an interesting life form which has graced the earth for the last 300 million years.

After all the bubbles had popped and the tents had been torn down we headed to nearby Cathedral caverns, an Alabama State Park. We were delighted to discover that the Park is run by a clever old caver, and that we had the campground to ourselves. Our fearless tour guide was a bantam of a fellow named Rooster who kept the tourists in stitches with his wry comments. At one point I had to translate the second person pronoun “Y’all” for the Bostonians.

I rarely visit commercial caves, but Cathedral caverns is truly superlative. It features an enormous borehole that leads to a magnificent display of formations. There is even a column named “Goliath” that is an extraordinary 243 feet in circumference!

Incandescent lighting gives a yellowish cast to the otherwise white formations

Cathedral caverns is located in Kennamer cove. While out mountain biking I discovered the grave of old Hans Kennamer who was born in 1736 when Alabama was still a wilderness full of bears, panthers, wild Indians, and virgin forest. His numerous descendants return to this peaceful place every year. How tragic that so few of us have any regard for the past and the achievements of the pioneers, but in Alabama roots grow deep.

Not far away is a beautiful karst feature locally known as “the arch”.

The Arch near Honeycomb creek

Most rural landowners fill their sinkholes with garbage, but the owner of the Arch is an enlightened fellow who carefully revealed the inherent beauty of the site and even put in a set of stairs. The feature is located right in his front yard, yet he generously allows well behaved visitors to stop by anytime. Why is it so unusual for a rural landowner to appreciate the beauty of his or her land and be willing to share that beauty with others?

More often, beautiful places are entirely off limits until purchased by either the government or a civic minded conservancy. Such was the case with the magnificent Stephen’s Gap cave which is now owned by the Southeastern Cave Conservancy. I am proud to be a sustaining member of the SCCi.

Stephen’s Gap is open to the public with an easily obtainable permit. There are two entrances, one of which is an easy walk in, but those who wish to rappel the 140 foot deep pit must be vertically competent, for people have died here.

A bad photo of Ann at Stephen’s gap

Enough of Christian camps and State Parks. We headed north to central Tennessee where a fellow caver generously allowed us let us camp on his private property near the confluence of Cane creek and the Caney fork river. The drainage of the Caney fork is my favorite place in the Cumberland plateau and features some of the most spectacular caves on earth.

Our camp directly faced a curving blue pool on Cane creek that is at least 800 feet long by 200 feet wide, and comes complete with a beach and old growth forest. Talk about a swimming hole! The photos do it no justice.

The big pool on Cane creek

Best of all the place was alive! In Alabama I has been dismayed by the invasive plants and general lack of life, but in central Tennessee the river was full of fish and the sky with birds. Insects hummed by day, and the night resounded with the calls of frogs and toads. Remember toads? Those friendly little guys that you should never lick? They were everywhere!

Of all the abundant life forms the geese were the most entertaining. Every morning squabbling squadrons would fly in from who knows where to create pandemonium. You could hear them a mile away. Notice the stone island in the pool above, that was where they played “king of the hill” while covertly engaging in wife swapping. And you thought they were monogamous!

Our camp was near a large spring that was the resurgence of one of the most spectacular caves in the Americas. I have never been to Rumbling falls cave,  and never intend to go. It is way too tough a trip for any old man other than the famous “Old Goat” Marion Smith who made the breakthrough to the top of the Rumble room. From there on the only way forward is straight down Stupendous pit. A mere 200 foot drop isn’t much as deep pits go, but the room below is truly stupendous. Here it is.

The Rumble room. Courtesy Stephen Alvarez

Rumbling falls cave is now over 17 miles long and continues to grow whenever an expedition pushes new leads. For those interested in the full story I recommend an excellent article in Sports illustrated by fellow caver Michael Ray Taylor who often writes for National Geographic. You will soon see that this is not the only cave in the vicinity with enormous rooms.

Cane creek and the Caney fork are full of wonders, the most easily accessible of which is the nearby Fall creek falls State Park.

Fall creek falls

At 256 feet Fall creek falls is considered to be the tallest single drop waterfall east of the Rockies (There are taller multi drop falls).

It is also one of the best places to observe the underlying geology of the Cumberland plateau, and to come to an understanding of how waterfalls form. As you can see in the above photo the top of the plateau is defined by an erosion resistant sandstone cap below which there are various softer strata, especially the easily soluble limestone in which the caves are formed. Here is a closeup of vertical fracturing in the sandstone layer.

Ann climbing a sandstone crack halfway to the bottom of Fall creek falls

Fall creek is a tributary of Cane creek. Few streams escape the top of the plateau without plunging over a waterfall, so here are the nearby Falls of Cane creek to the right, and the taller but smaller Rockhouse falls to the left.

Rockhouse fall on the left, and Cane creek falls on the right

The gorge of Cane creek is approximately 1000 feet deep. Though the area has been inhabited for hundreds of years, and numerous explorers and scientists have carefully combed the forested slopes, we know from hydrological data that numerous huge caves await discovery.

Looking down the gorge of Cane creek

About halfway between our camp and Fall creek falls there is a beautiful canyon known as Camp’s gulf. Since Revolutionary war days the local folks knew of an enormous cave entrance about a mile up the gulf. The short but massive passage had been mined for saltpeter and was a convenient site for a moonshine still, but that was all anyone knew until 1982 when a group of cavers decided to push the breakdown pile that blocked the end of the known cave.

It is hard for a non caver to comprehend what it is like to explore a gigantic pile of breakdown consisting of a jumble of rocks ranging in size from sand grains to boulders the size of a house, all of which are precariously balanced and ready to collapse. There is no obvious way forward. Perhaps the pile is a hundred feet deep, maybe it goes on forever, who knows? It is a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle with you as one of the pieces. All you can do is to wedge yourself through every possible crack in search of a breakthrough. So it was on that fateful day when an intrepid explorer peered through a crack near the ceiling and could see only darkness beyond.

I’ve been through that crack (now enlarged) several times. It is utterly disorienting to emerge from a narrow crevice into an underground void so large that even a powerful light cannot find the walls or ceiling. All you can see is the mist from your own breath and a floor of gigantic boulders disappearing into the darkness.

You turn back to memorize the crack from which you just emerged but it is gone! Everywhere you look there are identical cracks, all of which change appearance with the angle of the light. There are thousands upon thousands of them, but only one leads back to the sunlight. Cavers are careful to leave no trace of their passage, but in Camp’s gulf only a fool fails to leave a stone cairn by that obscure crack, or better still a small illuminated beacon.

The following photo was taken some years ago by a technologically savvy friend using my first digital camera. The camera was set to maximum sensitivity and the exposure time was over two minutes long, during which we “painted” the walls with powerful lights and set off numerous “slave” flashes. The photo is misleading in that I am standing in the foreground, not in the middle of the room. To grasp the size of the room notice the shadows of other people cast upon the back wall. The people themselves are sitting on a rock and are almost too small to be seen.

The first big room in Camp’s gulf cave

There are three even bigger rooms in Camp’s gulf, but I have not visited them. It appears that the entire mountain is hollow, but that is just one mountain. What of the others nearby? Almost all of the streams in the area run dry in the summer. All that water must be going somewhere.

It is my opinion that Rumbling falls, Camp’s gulf, and the many other  gigantic nearby caves are just old “fossil” passages which lie above an as yet undiscovered cave system that may be one of the world’s largest. This hypothetical system cannot be entered because it is full of alluvium, especially sandstone cap rock disintegrated into gravel, and the entire system is filled with water due to the base level of the rivers in central Tennessee.

Perhaps a few million years from now when mankind isn’t even a memory there will be renewed tectonic activity that lifts eastern North America far above its present level. Then the gravel will wash free and the great voids will be revealed, but not to us!

But on a beautiful day in May of 2018 Ann and I had no desire whatsoever to explore the cave. We were content merely to visit the magnificent entrance.

Ann standing at the entrance to camp’s gulf cave

We continued for another mile up the gulf to search for Cueva Guapa del Norte. We found two of the three entrances, both of which were shallow pits with small waterfalls. The cave is said to be several miles long. (Sorry for the exaggerated green, it isn’t slime, just my inability to program my camera.)

Cueva Guapa del Norte

I would be loathe to reveal the location of the nearby Medley arch, my favorite karst feature in the area, but the Park has published a map, and they have even marked a trail to this previously secret place.

Ann standing atop the Medley arch

Those few people who hike to the arch usually stop there, but there is much more to see. The arch is actually part of yet another enormous cave entrance that can only be seen from the sinkhole below. Have I used the word ‘enormous’ too many times? How else to describe such a place? For scale notice Ann standing atop the arch above, and by a triangular rock at the bottom center of the photo below.

Ann standing in the cave entrance below the Medley arch

And the weary old Weazel in the twilight zone (There are some who say I dwell there!)

After two weeks in the wilds of the Cumberland plateau I dropped Ann off at the Atlanta airport then continued on to the low country of South Carolina to meet my old snake hunting buddy Pete in the wretched sprawlopolis of Myrtle Beach, a place that exactly resembles Whorelando.

I begged to be given drugs and taken on a tour of the many miniature golf courses, but he refused and instead we visited the Meher Baba Center, the grounds of which include hundreds of acres of old growth forest fronting the beach. The land is worth millions, or perhaps even billions, but the wise kind people therein would never consider such a breach of trust. For them the land is sacred and suitable only for meditation.

From Myrtle Beach we traveled southwest to the Francis Marion National Forest to hunt for snakes. I will not bore you with photographs for it is not a pretty place, but it is alive! For reasons that I do not fully understand the herpetofauna has rebounded from the biological cataclysm that has eradicated most life throughout the southeast.

The Francis Marion National Forest is well managed. If it were up to the local authorities every tree would be cut down and sent to the paper mill in Georgetown, but the Feds manage the land for biodiversity, which means annual burning of the pine flatwoods. Between snakes and mosquitoes it is an unappealing place for the average Redneck, so we saw very few people while driving countless miles down dirt roads in search of serpents.

The big news is that we found six kingsnakes along with a canebrake rattlesnake and various other creepy crawlies. (Pete deserves all the credit for his relentless driving). It had been many years since I had last seen a kingsnake anywhere other than in a cage on my back porch. Here is a fine example.

The uncommon common kingsnake

You may have heard of “science denialism”, a phrase often heard in association with anthropogenic climate change. It is a perversion of rational thought often practiced by the superstitious ignorami, but not even scientists themselves are immune to presumption.

I have often been told by putative experts, foresters, ecologists, etc., that the magnificent live oak trees that surround my home here in Weazelworld, many of which are well over 20 feet in circumference, are only about 100 years old. I have been told that prior to the great freeze of 1894–95 my entire property was an orange grove. Others contend that for thousands of years it was all a long leaf pine savanna ecosystem until fire exclusion allowed oaks to grow.

I consider all such estimations to be nonsense, for my trees are clearly ancient, but how to prove it? The problem is that conventional dendrochronological methods do not work with live oaks because the annual growth rings are indistinct. Even radiocarbon dating is problematic. Other than girth the size of a tree means little for growth rates vary and storms often take a toll. The bottom line is that there is no good way to accurately estimate the age of a live oak tree, but we can make inferences based upon context, so let’s delve into a bit of history.

Hampton plantation is located along the Santee river in the heart of the South Carolina low country. It is one of the oldest and most magnificent plantations to be found anywhere in the old South. The enormous white pillared mansion was built in 1735. It is now a National Historic Landmark and open to the public. Ghosts are often seen by the credulous, and the balmy air is redolent with the musk of magnolias.

Would you care for a julep, Suh?

Perhaps you have read “Gone with the Wind”?  A great story with a brave heroine, but only a story. I cannot help but suppose that Margaret Mitchell based her novel on the amazing career of Eliza Lucas Pinckney, a truly liberated woman who was born in the West Indies, started managing a plantation in the prerevolutionary wilderness at age 16, was a polymath who corresponded with the great minds of Europe in regard to scientific matters, revolutionized agriculture in the South, outlived her husbands, and owned three plantations, one of which was Hampton. All of this happened several generations before the time depicted in Gone with the Wind.

Why do feminists not laud this great woman? Is it because she owned slaves?

(Note to humanists: Not all people are equally capable of comprehending much less utilizing the abstract concept of freedom. Economic progress of any kind, especially that based upon agriculture in the preindustrial age, requires the exploitation of mindless drones whether they be field slaves or office workers. We have all benefited, including those said to have been exploited, so we are all complicit. Civilization requires hierarchy. It is, to use a much maligned phrase, “the natural order of things”.)

In 1791 President George Washington and his entourage set out on a great Southern tour by coach. The plan was to inspect the fertile lands of our new nation and to meet the leading citizens, especially those who had fought on behalf of the revolution. Hampton had given refuge to Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox”, so a visit was mandatory.

While the great man sat on the porch overlooking the expansive lawn and gardens he was asked, “Mr. President, should I cut down that oak tree to improve the view?” Washington asked that the tree be spared. Here it is today.

The Washington oak at Hampton plantation

As you may remember, George Washington was not a fellow who scrupled the cutting of trees, most famously cherry trees, but also the great cypress forests of the Dismal swamp. He was above all else a practical man, so why did he ask that this one live oak tree be spared?

Consider that in coastal South Carolina live oak trees were useless and innumerable, the wood good only for the ribs of sailing ships, and very few had the exact curvature required for that purpose. Most importantly they were an impediment to agriculture for nothing of value will grow in their shade. They were good for lining driveways and sitting under but nothing else. So why spare that one tree that was blocking the view? I can only conclude that in 1791 the tree was already a magnificent specimen, beautiful enough to be spared the ax.

It takes at least a hundred years for a live oak tree to reach full normal size. This fact can be easily established by correlating the known age of homes with the trees that were planted in the front yards. Such trees can be seen in old communities throughout the South.

White point gardens, Charleston SC

This waterfront park in Charleston was where nationalistic testosterone crazed idiots started the UnCivil war in 1861, 157 years ago. There were no trees here at that time because it was a battlefield. They have subsequently grown back. As you can see these are beautiful trees, but nothing like the old mossy oak spared by George Washington. If the tree in question was only as large as these trees I doubt that old George would even have had an opinion. I believe the tree must have been much larger and more beautiful than these puny 157 year old saplings to have received a presidential pardon.

So let’s do the math. Washington pardoned the tree 227 years ago. I contend that the tree must have been well over 200 years old at that time, so I would guesstimate the Washington oak to be between four to five hundred years of age, perhaps even older.

I did not measure the girth of the Washington oak, but it appears to be slightly larger in circumference than the biggest oaks here in Weazelworld. My largest is 23 feet in circumference at breast height, perhaps the Washington oak is 25 feet in circumference, so I can only conclude that the largest champion oaks are much older still.

So why would so called sober scientists insist upon underestimating the age of live oak trees on the basis of no evidence whatsoever? Perhaps because they are too sober? Fearful that the slightest admission of aesthetic sensibility might taint their reputations as automata?

One could well blame the educational system, for all those exposed to the utilitarian tenets of forestry must insist upon the ephemeral natural of all living things to so wantonly dispose of them.

I fear that it is something deeper and worse. As we inexorably morph into the termites of tomorrow we feel the need to rewrite history to serve our narrative of progress. We contend that mankind, the measure of all things, has always meddled in the affairs of the earth, and should. One might as well suppose, as Christians do, that all this was created for us. The age, indifference, and nobility of an oak makes a mockery of our hubris so we denigrate it.

Most importantly, the totalitarian narrative of “fairness” requires that we believe that the age of heroes was nothing but a story, that no one person or persons could have affected the course of history through force of will, that we are all equal, and all carried along by the tide of progress. One of our most revered prophets famously plagiarized, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, But It Bends Toward Justice”.

There is evidence to support this contention. I look forward to reading “The Better Angels of our Nature”by Steven Pinker wherein he quantifies the improvements made by mankind over the course of history. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, it is a fact that we eat better, live longer, and are subjected to less violence than any of our predecessors. But is such “progress” either just, or more importantly wise? I think not.

We are the product of evolution red in fang and claw, but history clearly shows that some of us have at certain times and places risen above others both morally and materially. Throughout history we have celebrated such persons while the mass of men have rightly disappeared into oblivion. Now all of that, the real progress we have made in regard to both our genome and our civilization, is threatened by the great leveling that will reduce future generations to motes of undifferentiated dust in a biological desert.

Call me a dinosaur lumbering off to oblivion if you will, but I would much prefer to dwell in a world where women like Eliza Lucas Pinckney, and trees like the ancient oaks in my yard, are given the respect that they deserve.

PS: This just in. Speaking of heroes who have made the world a better place through inspiration and force of will, the Weazel mourns the passing of Dr. Thomas C. Emmel, Founder and Director of the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera & Biodiversity at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Dr. Thomas C. Emmel (Image swiped from the Museum website)

Like all true naturalists Tom recognized his passion for butterflies and all things living and beautiful as a child, then devoted his entire life to sharing his discoveries and insights with others. He followed his dream which culminated in the creation of the McGuire Center, and especially the Butterfly Rainforest which I was honored to have designed and constructed under his leadership.

Tom died in Brazil at the age of 77. I don’t know the details, but can only hope that he died with butterfly net in hand, reaching for the skies with beauty in his eyes.

Here is the Weazel in situ at the Butterfly Rainforest with a Caligo butterfly  sucking sweat from his brow.