I work in a cave. It is my other job, an unusual occupation, not my career but I have learnt a lot through this work. I know much more about scientific method and how knowledge is developed through hypothesis. To understand karst systems, one needs to be comfortable not having all of the answers. I’ve also learnt how to be present with people in a way that opens up the environment, allowing them to build their own humane connections with the earth. And of course I have come to know something about darkness and light.
But I am not a natural caver. As a child visiting a cave in New South Wales, Australia, I was terrified by what the guide told us, just before turning the lights out. He said that your eyes never adjust to the darkness under the earth, and if trapped there, you would eventually go crazy; your mind turning as black as the cave itself. As a five year old, those words were seared upon me. There was a darkness within that could take over.
I was terrified of the dark as a kid, there were many bad dreams in the night. Even as an adult, at times, the dark has been menacing to me. And in Tasmania, where I live, throughout the winter months it can feel as if darkness is wrapping itself around your life. Many Tasmanians flee this, and heard north for respite and warmth through the coldest season.
Now that I am a guide, it’s my job to facilitate an appreciation and understanding of the dark. I also do black-outs although I don’t tell visitors they will go crazy by remaining in the cave without lights. And I have come to appreciate this experience of subterranean darkness for what it brings up to the surface. Sometimes people giggle in the dark, they often talk, whisper and hold onto each other or shuffle around, becoming agitated and a few months ago, in the blackness, a man proclaimed loudly, “This is what death will be like!” There was nervous laughter all around. We fear the dark and are uncomfortable with it.
I usually work afternoon shifts at the cave, and sometimes, late in the day, as dusk takes hold, no one arrives for the scheduled tour. Then it’s my job to go into the cave, right down into the deepest chamber and collect first-aid equipment, returning it to the office. In the last few weeks, I have challenged myself several times to go in there and turn the lights out, doing a black-out on my own. This is not something I can do very often, if tired or emotional, I’m not capable of being there, alone in blackness. Because what emerges is primal fear. It is a sort of terror that becomes greater than my body or being and seems to surround me, filling up the entire chamber. It is fear that is beyond my control. In reality I know that the cave is made up of rock, space, air, drips of water and calcium. But in the dark, I easily imagine demons or ghosts, personifying what I cannot name or subdue. I fear someone is behind me, I fear someone is in front. A looming face in the darkness.
It is fear of the other that arises. I project onto the cave my own fears, my own darkness. In those moments of pitch black, I am being confronted by the other that lives in me, my “share of human darkness, hidden inside my soul.” These are the words of Helen Garner, who has written much about the dark habits of human beings. She says, “I’m interested in apparently ordinary people who, under life’s unbearable pressure, burst through the very fine membrane that separates our daylight selves from the secret darkness that lives in every one of us.”
In that cold place in the cave, the secret darkness that lives in me is unleashed a little. As hard as it is, this is a good thing because in coming to accept the dark, to hold steady with fear, I am learning to meet the ultimate darkness that eventually overtakes us all. The other that is death.
Strangely though, light is not entirely absent from the cave experience. Alongside this deep darkness is the presence of luminosity. Cave crystal is always translucent. This means that it absorbs light. The mineral (in this case calcium) allows light to shine through and does not block it, but instead begins to glow. In other words, it lights up. Why would crystal have this ability? It grows in darkness and lives in pitch black. But when light is present, when an exterior light source shines directly onto cave crystal, the depth of the stone is truly revealed, with all its dirt and flaws, colour and luminous beauty. As much as I am familiar with how they are formed, having recounted the story of crystals hundreds of times for visitors, it remains a mystery to me as to why translucency is a necessary quality in there.
This can also be a metaphor for our lives. In darkness, below the surface, there is luminescence, growing in strange shapes, through the movement of dripping acidic water as it dissolves rock and earth, depositing minerals. It happens slowly. Over many years something beautiful is formed, something that is soft but stable. Something that is comfortable with darkness, but holds onto light. The luminosity of cave crystal is “comfort like grace, not earned, not deserved” in Garner’s words. It is something to treasure, not to fear.