This past Sunday I spent three hours doing one homework assignment. It was hard; it was fun. It was hot; it was cold. It was long; it wasn't long enough. It was fulfilling; it was disappointing. It was miserably wet; it was chokingly dusty. It was pitch black; it was blindly light. It was, in short, a study in contrast.
Now at this point, some of you know exactly what I was doing, but I suspect that that most of you are completely lost. I'll try to explain*.
Somewhere between 3000 and 5000 years ago there was quite an upset on the earth, analogous to a starfish trying to eat. The earth's crust was pushed up into jagged mountains, some of them forming here in Tennessee (well, hills at least.) Now here's where it gets interesting. Inside these mountains, the rock underwent tremendous pressure changes. The rock that used to be under a great deal of pressure beneath the ground now had a lot of pressure removed. This caused the weaker sections of the mountains (especially in softer rocks, such as limestone), around joints and layers of rock to fracture and then shatter. These faults in the rock expanded, spreading through the weaker sections. Aided by water, continued movement, and time, the shattered pieces disintegrated further and settled, leaving openings in what was formerly solid rock. Today, thousands of people around the world (myself included) enjoy walking, crawling, squirming, and otherwise exploring these fissures in the earth.
This semester I have the opportunity to take a class in the art of caving, and one of our assignments is to go on at least three caving trips. This shouldn't be too hard, as Southern is fortuitously located right in the heart of TAG, the most concentrated area of caves in the United States! In fact, we have several caves right here on campus, of which one, the Student Park Cave, is open to the general public regularly. During recent excavation in the summer of 2006, near the Student Park Cave, another opening was uncovered, and to the excitement of the first few people who looked in, it had bats in it (in full hibernation), as well as a flow of cool air. This meant that it had to go somewhere, because remember, this entrance had previously been covered up! So, several cavers donned their gear and ventured in to the previously unentered (to our knowledge) cave. Unfortunately, they rounded a corner about 15 in and were met with a wall of fill which almost completely sealed the tunnel. But, at the top there was a small gap between the mud and the roof of the cave and through this opening, cool air continued to spill out. This gave our friends hope of eventually breaking through the cave fill and exploring the cave further.
Which brings us up to my class assignment. Our professor told us this story and announced that there was going to be a cave dig on Sunday and anybody who went and stayed for the whole time could count it as one of their trips. I was excited about getting to work in a virgin cave and planned to go. Unfortunately, Sunday dawned cold (~42° F) and rainy. However, a few (8) of us braved the weather and met outside the cave around 12:00 PM. We commenced excavation around 12:30, and although hampered by lack of equipment (1 bucket, 1 big tub, 1 little shovel, 1 hammer, and 2 little picks) we proceeded to break out and haul away chunks of clay. Being of a slight build, yours truly got to dig and the front of the line quite a lot, which consisted of lying on your side/back/stomach and trying to wrench out hunks of mostly dried mud and then passing them back to the next person in line. We alternated digging and passing and standing outside in the rain for about 3 hours, before realizing that we had more pressing matters to attend to. Although total distance traveled was probably about 15-20 feet and we didn't succeed in breaking through anything or even spying an end to the mud, we found fulfillment in the sheer amount of dirt that we did move and the momentary excitement of finding several small bones lying on top of the dirt. I know it doesn't sound like a whole lot of fun, but for this male, the combination of rolling around in the mud, digging a hole, and spending time underground with enjoyable company was a blast!
(or perhaps in this case, Devexus ;)
*For those of you who know something about geology, I understand that this is not the generally accepted version of how caves were formed. However, I believe that this theory fits better with empirical evidence and it is also consistent with my belief that a catastrophic worldwide flood and its aftermath formed the geological structures we see today. See Cave Formation by Rock Disintegration by Douglas E. Cox for a more detailed explanation of the theory.