Sunken Gardens inside Lehman Caves
Editor’s note: This post is a sad one. Sorry. I tried and tried but just couldn’t get it to come out any other way. I know a lot of people who are struggling with these kinds of losses right now (I don’t know, maybe we all are to some degree, there are certainly sweeping changes afoot…) and, while fear and anger are perfectly natural responses, I personally just needed the room to feel sad. Thought I should let you know. Dia
Sometimes we develop relationships with physical places that feel as intimate and necessary as anything we share with people. It can happen with a childhood home, the family farm, a neighborhood, a church, or a sports stadium. A stretch of coastline or a forest behind the house. A garden, an old tree, a park, or a mountain.
Opportunities for this kind of bonding are pretty endless.
And once we sink our roots into one of these places, losing it for any reason can also be as wounding as the loss of a human relationship. Yet these kinds of wounds are seldom recognized or acknowledged for as serious as they are.
I’m not sure why we’re so resistant to admitting that losing anything other than a first generation relative can be devastating, but we are. I’ve seen people reel just as much or more from the death of a friend, a pet, or the loss of a home, as from that of an immediate family member. I’ve watched them struggle just as hard to climb back out of the resulting hole and rebuild their lives afterwards. But I’ve rarely seen them granted the necessary room to grieve. Our reluctance to accept and dignify these other losses is both powerful and entrenched.
(But then again, we barely give each other room to grieve the loss of a close family member so I suppose this isn’t surprising. Y’know, we really need to stop doing this to ourselves. Communities riddled with chronic wounds aren’t healthy for anyone.)
I bring this up because I lost a place like this a few years ago. It was a still, dark pool hidden in a cavern deep underground, and the loss of it is still haunting me.
My mother’s people come out of Ely, Nevada in Spring Valley. It’s one of those little towns out in the middle of nowhere that you drive through and wonder Why in the world would anyone live here? Five generations of my family have though. Four inhabit the cemetery. Seven have walked the streets of the place and, even though I never lived there myself for longer than a summer, I bonded to it like it was home anyway. It was the central, unchanging hub of my early nomadic life, the one and only place my family returned to again and again, no matter how many times we moved or how many homes we abandoned. Its high desert, mountainous lands became the geographical North Star off which the rest of my life was mapped.
Surprisingly, underneath those dry, desert lands…winding through a vast system of tunnels and caverns carved out over millions of years…is water. A lot of it. And when these subterranean aquifers are relatively full (as they have been for aeons), they seep up to the surface as springs, creeks, and small lakes that support an ancient and delicate ecosystem that would quickly perish without them.
This secret water also collects in countless pools underground that are, for the most part, eternally hidden from human view. But a few of them are accessible. When I was growing up there were a number of such pools in the Lehman Caves at the base of Mt. Wheeler which is a little over an hour’s drive from Ely. The caves were discovered back in 1885 and when my great grandparents first moved to Ely in the early 1900’s, they used to go over and take the “tour” that was available back then. It involved miner’s carbide lights and crawling through tight cracks (with colorful names like Fat Man’s Misery) to access the spectacular caves that are a part of the system.
Lehman Caves, Mt. Wheeler, and its surrounding lands are such a treasure in fact that they were placed under protection in 1986 and declared Great Basin National Park.
Every generation of my family since the great-grandparents has toured the caves, and it was during my own childhood visits that I became acquainted with a particular pool. I could never see very much of it because the water stretched back into a recess outside the range of the electric light illuminating the walkway. But what I could see of it was dark and absolutely still.
Now, some of the pools in the caves tend to ebb and flow with outside water conditions, but this pool had been there far longer. It stirred something old and unsettled inside me as I learned about it. How the pool was thousands of years old. How it had always existed in total darkness and never reflected anything. How it had never known a current because no wind ever touched it, no living thing ever swam in it, and no water ever flowed in and out to create one. It seemed so lonely and pure to me. So dark and foreign. And yet, in some deep, secret place way down inside me, it was familiar, too. Like being so sad, for so long, that finally you don’t even mind anymore, and so can be happy again at the same time.
Everything about it mesmerized me. I wanted to slide my fingers into the water and wiggle them in that dark wetness but didn’t, because the rangers said it would harm the pool somehow and I didn’t want to hurt that still, silent, ancient thing. It had a tangible presence that enfolded me in a sense of age and weight and peace. It both soothed and suffocated me a little at the same time, and as a child I responded.
I fell in love with it.
Eventually, I grew up though, and there followed a gap of decades where I didn’t return. When I did finally go back, I discovered something unexpected and devastating. My secret, ancient pool was now half empty. It was slowly draining away.
As the explosive growth taking place hundreds of miles to the south in Las Vegas demands more and more water to support its expansion, aquifers from farther and farther north are being tapped to supply it. The local water tables are dropping as a result and the dark, beautiful pool I fell in love with as a child is just one small example of a much larger kind of collateral damage taking place.
The system of large, interconnected aquifers that exist throughout the Great Basin is fragile. If more water is pumped out of it than is flowing back in, the system sustains structural damage. Caverns can collapse without the support the water gives them, but an even greater harm comes when the layers of soil dry out and ground subsistence sets in. The sinking, hardened, compacting earth no longer allows enough water to filter down from the surface to refill anything. There comes a point where the aquifers can no more be recharged with water than a dead human skull can house another living brain. As with biological life, the ancient, geological processes that created these systems only work in one direction. In a very real sense, aquifers can die. Indeed, this has already been the fate of the aquifers of the Las Vegas valley itself, which is why the desperate city has been thrusting its pipelines northward.
And standing there that day in the Lehman Caves, watching my dear little pool slowly drain away, I couldn’t bear to think about what was happening, much less see the evidence of it with my own eyes. I finished the tour, climbed in the car, and then left the cave, the park, and the state behind me and stayed away for a few more years. Eventually though, I couldn’t bear that either and I’ve gone back to the park a number of times recently, but I still haven’t been able to make myself go down to the caves. A park ranger told me that the pool I loved is gone now and sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever go back in. I spend my time up on top of the mountain instead, where the vast changes taking place below haven’t shown up yet.
In my years with hospice I learned how to be around human dying, how to navigate all the emotions that our final passage entails, but this is different. Geological dying is so achingly slow. When a person dies, no matter how important or how beloved they are, it happens and then it’s over with. Even a long dying process finally ends and then survivors can move on with the tasks of grief and rebuilding. Sooner or later they can climb back out of the shadowlands into sunlight.
But this? These aquifers, these ancient systems, take so much longer than that. The disappearance of my pool was only an early symptom of a dying process that could continue for…I don’t know how long. I don’t even know how to define when they’re alive and when they’re dead. What does the death of a geological system look like? They don’t have heart beats and brain waves so what am I supposed to measure instead?
I think that I’m still reeling from the loss of that pool because on some deep, genetic level I can’t make sense out of it. I don’t have any ancestral memory for this kind of thing. My predecessors didn’t survive global shifts of this magnitude and speed often enough to pass down the instincts I now need to navigate them.
I guess what I’m really trying to understand is this:
What am I supposed to do now? What is the last person standing at the end of a thousands-and-thousands-of-years-long line of people supposed to do when the music suddenly stops with her? What is my duty as witness here during the dying of a small, dark pool and the larger changes that it entails?
And as I wrote that last sentence the answer suddenly came clearer. I guess that is what I’m supposed to do now…just bear witness and continue to love these places. I need to do the same thing I did while working with hospice. I never turned away from those rooms, never refused to look at those who were dying or tried to pretend like they weren’t. I didn’t ignore or abandon them. I was there to help and to care. To listen and touch them as many times as they still needed to be heard and touched. To witness their dying and affirm their lives, and to catch and contain as much of the wonder and miracle of them as I possibly could, so I could carry it forward in my own life afterwards.
I guess it’s time for me to return to the empty pool now. I need to go back and touch its dry, limestone bed, to remember and say good-bye, thank you, and I really, really miss you. And, for both our sakes, I also need to keep visiting, touching, and caring about the caves and mountains and high desert lands that I love so much. Because no matter whether it happens in my lifetime or some far-off day in a different age, the dying of these places was never meant to stop my loving them.
In closing, here’s a photo of one of the larger, ebb-and-flow pools. Beautiful, no?
Great Basin National Park Photos, Lehman Caves
copyright Dia Osborn 2011
Links about the impact of a pipeline:
Will Federal Study Save Great Basin National Park?