12 popular caves in the Chattanooga area and a book to learn more

Michael Ray Taylor talks about the wonders and wisdom found in Southern caves

Vanderbilt University Press / "Hidden Nature: Wild Southern Caves"
Vanderbilt University Press / "Hidden Nature: Wild Southern Caves"

"HIDDEN NATURE: WILD SOUTHERN CAVES" by Michael Ray Taylor (Vanderbilt University Press, 276 pages, $20).

In a career that has spanned nearly 30 years, Michael Ray Taylor has emerged as a Keats of caving, a veteran explorer of underground realms who writes with grace and restraint. His new book, "Hidden Nature," probes the daunting and delicate ecosystems of caves; the passion that drives those who seek a larger connection with the world; and the enthralling reasons the South attracts locals as well as international travelers, thrill seekers and NASA scientists alike.

Taylor answered questions from Chapter 16 via email.

Q: In the prologue you mention your "eureka" moment as a child when you and your family took a tour through Ruby Falls near Chattanooga. What do you make of commercialization of caves throughout the South?

A: Cavers have something of a love-hate relationship with commercial caves. When I was young, such caves tended to the gaudy, with fanciful colored lights and guides who spoke of legends and fairies rather than science. But at the same time, many cavers had, like me, a love of the underground sparked from a childhood tour. The good news is that in recent decades most commercial caves have become more like those in state and national parks, delivering strong educational and conservational messages with their tours. Many of them have now added "wild caving" trips, where visitors are given a helmet, a lamp and the chance to experience a true cave wilderness in the absence of lighted pathways. While working on "Hidden Nature," I revisited several Southern tour caves, including Ruby Falls, for the first time in decades. I was pleasantly surprised by how sophisticated some of these tours have become.

Q: As an editor at Scribner, I had the privilege of acquiring and editing your first book, "Cave Passages," a collection of beautifully crafted essays on the art and science of caving. A quarter-century later, what do you know about caving now that you didn't know then?

A: It's not so much what I know about caving now compared to then, but what I've learned about life in 25 years. I wrote the essays that became "Cave Passages" in my 20s and early 30s. Then as now, there was a burst of new cave discovery going on, and it was an exciting time to be a young man joining expeditions to search for caves, often in distant and exotic places. As I've gotten older, the caves have stayed pretty much the same - they age on a geologic time scale. But I've gotten older, and so have my caving friends.

Lee Pearson, my caving buddy who appears in both books, nearly died twice from heart attacks, and I've been through prostate cancer, yet we still cave together whenever we can. Others I knew then have died, sometimes in tragic caving accidents. As cavers like me return to these magical, unchanging places beneath the surface, we can't help but contemplate our own mortality. The reflection that such trips ignite has made me appreciate the lasting bonds that form underground. My first book was mostly about exciting caves. I feel that this one is more about interesting cavers as much as it describes the places they dare to explore.

12 popular caves in the Chattanooga area

Raccoon Mountain Caverns and Campground - Located off of I-24 at the Lookout Valley exit, visitors can view thousands of diverse formations in the natural state of caves featured in a 45-minute Crystal Palace Walking Tour. Ruby Falls - Located on Lookout Mountain, visitors can enjoy the tallest underground waterfall in the United States, along with the Extended Cavern Experience Tour on the scenic cavern trail. Fairyland Caverns - Located on Lookout Mountain, and features a family-friendly cavern that is a part of the Rock City Gardens experience. Sequatchie Cave State Natural Area - Located in Marion County, Tennessee, visitors can enjoy a 10-acre natural area and cold spring water supplied by the Owen Spring Branch stream. Cloudland Canyon State Park - Located on the west of Lookout Mountain, the state park is home to deep canyons, sandstone cliffs, wild caves, and waterfalls. Russell Cave National Monument - Located in Bridgeport, Alabama, visitors can experience an archaeological site and learn about cultural developments in the Southeast dating back 10,000 years. Cumberland Caverns - Located in McMinnville, it is the second longest cave in Tennessee, with almost 30 miles of caves and underground passageways, and makes the list of longest caves in the United States. The Lost Sea Adventure - Located in Monroe County, a guided tour of Craighead Caverns includes a boat ride on the Lost Sea, which is the world's second largest underground lake. Student Park Cave - Located on the Southern Adventist University campus, visitors can experience a guided and unguided caving experience. Buggy Top Cave Trailhead - Located in Sherwood, Tennessee, a two-mile hike a part of the Cumberland State Park leads visitors to a fragile cave environment with various formations and small animals. Nickajack Cave - Located in Marion County, the cave is only open to the public for viewing from a distance. It serves as a summer home to thousands of bats and has a profound history dating back centuries. Frick's Cave - Located in Walker County, Georgia, the cave is only open one day per year. It serves as a home to endangered gray bats and Georgia's only population of Tennessee cave salamander.

Q: I learned a new term from "Hidden Nature": "spelean biology." Could you elaborate?

A: My wife would slap you upside the head for that question. She's heard me "elaborate" on spelean biology through entire dinner parties. I find spelean biology so exciting, once I get going it's hard to shut up. Scientists have always known about bats, blind fish, salamanders and other common cave life, but over the past 30 years there's been an explosion in new understanding of a vast microbial ecosystem that seems to lie beneath the entire planet - by weight, representing the bulk of life on Earth. Caves provide a window into this mysterious world, where microbes consume rocks, secrete acid to make more caves and live perhaps millions of years with no oxygen, sunlight or other ingredients we have always thought of as necessary for life. Cave microbiologists like Hazel Barton at the University of Akron (Ohio) are redefining life, not just on Earth, but as it may exist on many planets and moons. In the process, they are making discoveries that could lead to useful products for humans. Some of the research I describe in the book has only just begun. Young scientists rappel into caves and make new discoveries daily.

Q: In one sentence, could you summarize what lures you and your colleagues underground, exposing yourself to mud, danger, disruptions to delicate ecosystems?

A: Mountain climbers risk death "because it's there," but cavers descend into the depths to discover what is there, to see places previously unseen, to bring light where no light has been.

To read an uncut version of this interview - and more local book coverage - visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

photo Photo from Chapter16.org / Michael Ray Taylor

Learn more

Michael Ray Taylor will discuss “Hidden Nature” at the 2020 Southern Festival of Books, to be held online Oct. 1-11.

Upcoming Events