Monday, August 12, 2013

The Cave and the Buffalo

Caves have always held a fascination for me. My earliest memory of visiting a cave was a kindergarten field trip to a cave in Missouri. The guide warned us not to touch the stalagmites or they would “die”. Now I suppose that he meant the oils in our skin would disrupt their natural growth but at the time what I heard was “Don’t touch the stalagmites or you will die”. So I spent the rest of the trip petrified that I might accidentally graze a stalagmite and drop dead on the spot.

That was a bit extreme but caves do have strong symbolism of life and death for many people. Caves are places where humans have lived and where they have put their dead. Because of this, in fiction, caves have often been places of self-discovery where people are tested and changed (The Lord of the Flies and The Empire Strikes Back are two stories that come to mind.) This is not just fiction either! Coming of age rituals have had elders take young men into caves to be left with no light and to overcome their fear and emerge changed; to be born from the cave.
Recently I’ve been interested in cave paintings like the ones in Chauvet Cave in France. Some of these paintings are obviously narrative; painted near a preserved fire pit a charging rhinoceros is shown with 30 horns. One can imagine the artist telling the story of the charging rhinoceros to his friends, drawing the horn over and over again to emphasize some point in his story as the firelight flickered on the wall making the painting appear to move. Other paintings however are deeper in the cave, not near any fire pits. It would have been dark and dangerous to descend to these depths; cave bear scratches on the wall show what creatures shared this cave; and these people did it just to create art. They must have been compelled strongly to show what they saw in their mind and the cave brought this out in them. Maybe it was a fear of the unknown ahead that conjured images of lions that they feared in the world above or maybe it was the curves of the cave illuminated by a torch that made them think to paint a woman on the wall.
Earlier in this trip I visited the wind caves in Pennsylvania and I knew that I would have to deal with my fear of being trapped in an enclosed space. The experience was exhilarating and will surely be one of the best adventures I have on my trip. The wind caves at Wind Cave National Park are much more spacious in the areas open to tourists. They’re also quite well lit and easy to traverse! The reason for the name “wind cave” has to do with the way air rushes in and out of the small natural opening to the cave when the air pressure outside changes. A low pressure front comes in and the high pressure air trapped in the cave rushes out through the opening at 30mph. This is in fact how most caves are found; explorers climb over mountains searching for winds coming out of the rocks.

What fascinated me about this cave was the mythology that the local Lakota people had built around it. They had found the wind coming out of the opening and had interpreted this as the breath of the earth and believed that the living things above ground all came from inside the cave and were thrust onto the prairie. This included the Buffalo which was an extremely important animal to the Lakota, as it was a source of food it was held to be sacred. 
Later in the day I took a hike through a canyon that would climb through the woods and lead back across the prairie. The herd of Buffalo was on the prairie but as I walked through the canyon I saw a number of buffalo chips in the grasses. The trail took me back and forth over a stream until is disappeared into a rock wall. Climbing on some logs to a hole in the wall I could see the water rushing down under the hill to a new unseen stream.
The trail started to climb up the hillside on a narrow footpath cut into the rock. As I came around a corner there in front of me stood a buffalo on the narrow trail behind a fallen tree. At first he was facing away but when he heard me he turned his side to me and watched me intently between dips of his head to gather grass. I had kept my distance from buffalo before because I’ve seen what they can do to cars and people when they get aggravated and charge. They can run 35mph and they are massive. Just the sight of them charging across the prairie with the hair under their arms whipping in the wind gets me a little nervous. So I could either try to pass this buffalo or turn back and hike all the way back to the trailhead.
As I was contemplating this, the buffalo turned his back to me again and I wondered if this was some kind of show of authority so I turned my back to him too, listening for any sound of him moving closer to me. Eventually I heard the crunch of gravel and turned to see the buffalo heading up the trail away from me. So I followed, keeping my distance, but becoming bolder as the buffalo continued to ignore me. We finally emerged to an open clearing and he walked over to eat some more grass. I had room to pass now but curiosity had gotten the better of me and I circled around to see him from the front. He had a huge head and snout with thick fur. I got closer thinking (probably foolishly) that I'd be able to get behind a tree if he took offense. I stood there watching him for a while as he ate and then he seemed to get tired of me and walked up the hill further away. I let him go and continued my hike.
The hills on the prairie were undulating and someone had stolen the trail marker from the post so I had to take a guess of which way I was going. Prairie dog mounds stuck out of the grass all around the trail and they called out when I walked by. I liked how the short tail on the prairie dog twitched each time he let out a squeak, like he was some kind of noise making toy that you operated by flipping the tail.
There was part of a deer carcass in the grass with the skin all leathery that looked like it had been taken apart by coyotes. Just as I had seen before with the buffalo chips, the little bugs were all at work reusing what the larger animals had thrown away. 

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