Last fall, my parents had the locust tree cut down in the back yard. My brother, now in his thirties, had brought it home for arbor day in elementary school. He and my dad had planted the slender tree (my dad says it was just a twig) next to the deck. It grew swiftly, up and out, and cast shade over the yard where we played as kids. When I was in middle school, my dad built an addition onto our deck, filling the space once occupied by our jungle gym. He sunk a hot tub (a gift for my mom) beneath the deck so it looked like a little pool. We call it her “spa pool,” or “spool,” and my friends and I had spool parties on the weekend, and then when we were home from college.
The locust branches caught the breezes and rippled like ferns. In fall, they dropped green flowers that looked like miniature broccoli all over the yard and lower part of the deck. To keep the spool’s filters clean, we’d sweep the deck in the morning, only to find it covered again with green locust flowers by the afternoon. When I moved home for grad school and Grizzly was a puppy, we all spent a lot of time on the deck, playing fetch or letting him watch the kids leave the middle school behind our house. The locust flowers would cover our feet and Grizzly’s paws, and it was hard to keep from tracking them inside.
It doesn’t take too many years on this earth to realize that we are not in control. Locust flowers, heartbreak, cancer, and cracked cell phone screens are daily reminders that we cannot possibly keep up with all that is changing around us. Try as we might, things happen, things that we did not orchestrate or ask for, and we’re left picking up the pieces. We are literally hurtling through space on a spinning orb that we cannot speed up or slow down and somehow expect to manufacture a sense of control. We’re discussing the decline of wilderness on our planet while our entire solar system is tumbling through a wild galaxy larger than anything we can comprehend.
And yet, my very being aches for preservation. Of the wilderness, of memory, of the stories I heard as a child. Perhaps, in protecting my own small spaces, my own little stories, I’m participating in a greater story. Perhaps my own memories are woven together with the memories of others, somehow amassing into the story of the entire cosmos, a memory that doesn’t leave things untold. I’ve seen enough to believe that when it all accumulates, when the patchwork is sewn, all the jewels collected, that even the dissonance will be beautiful.
There were mole tunnels in the graveyard where they buried my great uncle. The ground was uneven as we walked between the headstones to our cars. I remember one spring growing up, there were moles in our backyard. We found a dead one in the walkway between our house and the neighbors’. Its pinkish body lay between two concrete stepping stones, the star-shaped nose turned up. It was hairless; it must have been a baby. I’d never seen a mole before, though I’d seen the lumps they made beneath our grass. I felt sad for it, to have died so young and above the ground in the summer light, while the rest of its family scampered through the dark soil under our feet.
Papa said today that he’s been thinking of calling JD, forgetting that it’s been months
since we visited him in the hospital. I understand; some days I almost ask Papa when he talked to him last. He said that he thinks of Nana too, hears her voice when he’s waking up from a nap, even though she’s been gone for years. It takes a long time to forget someone you love.
A creek flowed through the cave, formed a pool just outside the rocky entrance. We’d
parked by the railroad tracks, followed the little path through the woods, the air cooling as we descended towards the cave’s mouth. The opening formed a diamond, the little creek filling one narrow end. Hopping across rocks, we put on our helmets and turned on our head lamps, the lights barely visible in the bright creek bed.
I think of caving like riding a roller coaster. The beginning is awful, my heart’s beating fast and my stomach is turning. I’m giving myself a lecture about choosing better hobbies and trying to control the grimace on my face so my friends can’t see how much I want to turn around, to sit in the sunlight and wait for them. Once we’re inside, the fear is still there, stealing my voice and talking loudly to my anxiety about cave-ins and how horrible it would be if my headlamp ran out or I got separated from the group. Looking around, though, I can hear another voice in my mind. It’s quieter, but more convincing, pointing out the cave’s high ceilings and the way water has carved texture into the smooth walls. This voice gets louder when I look at my friends, smiling as they crawl through the low passages, laughing in the muddy spots.
My friend Varee has been caving with her dad since she was little. She stays close to me in the dark, knowing that I get quiet when I’m scared. She makes me laugh, too, squirming into tight spots to see if they go anywhere, making tennis-player grunts, and pointing out rocks that look like body parts. She says that caving is the best full-body work out, since you have to use your whole body to wiggle beneath low spots, and use muscles you didn’t know you had to squeeze around tight curves.
There’s a spot in this cave we call the prayer room. You have to crawl through a low tunnel about the size of a car tire and push yourself up like you’re getting out of a swimming pool. This far from the cave’s entrance, the prayer room is pitch black. Its sides are tiered like auditorium seats, so we sit down and someone says to turn our head lamps off. We enjoy the silence for a while, listening to our heartbeats and the water dripping faintly in the distance. Then someone starts to sing, a hymn usually, and we all join in, our voices filling the room, smooth against the walls, like Kentucky humidity. After we’ve sung all the songs that seem sacred enough for this space, we turn on our lights and crawl out.
This cave is a straight shot; we exit on the other end, climbing up and away from the creek bed, out to meet the train tracks and follow them back to our car. Walking out into the sunlight is disorienting, so we take our time, sit for a while in the woods, retracing the deep passages beneath our feet. At the end of the cave roller coaster, the anxious voice in my head is quiet. I’m talkative again, ready for round two. Laughing with my friends, I gush about how amazing it is to visit these secret mansions, about all the beauty that goes unnoticed, unseen by human eyes, about that Psalm that says God’s love finds us even in the depths, that the darkness isn’t dark to him.
One time, the creek at the cave’s mouth was flooded, so we followed the railroad tracks to an entrance I’d never seen before. It was dry, so we turned on our headlamps and crouched down, following the winding passage until the mud was thick beneath our feet. We were standing at the top of a mud hill with the roof high above our heads and the slick incline falling below us into a large pool of water. Varee slid down first, laughing and inviting us all for a swim. The water was cold, and even the tallest guy in the group couldn’t touch the bottom. We swam
across the pool to a little island of rock and climbed out. Sitting in our wet clothes we marveled at this giant unmarked cavern.
That’s the thing that shocks me about caves—how big they are, even the ones that aren’t part of a national park or marked with a sign. No matter how big the cave extends underground, it “belongs” to the person whose land the entrance opens on. Kentucky is full of caves, huge passages winding beneath the bluegrass. There could be cathedrals under our houses, and we may never see them. I heard once that the Native American’s opposed the European view of property ownership because they wondered how high or deep this ownership went. I wonder if they were thinking of caves.
On one end of the pool, the water filled a large, circular tunnel. The tunnel was wider than a school bus, with just a foot or so of air between the top of the water and the rock. My friend Jordan, who’d led us to this entrance, thought that the tunnel connected to the main passage of the cave and suggested we follow it back. Those of us who were confident swimmers decided to give it a try, leaving our helmets on the rock island with the others. With our flashlights on our foreheads, we could tip our faces back far enough to breath as we swam, even in the sections where the roof came closer to the water. The tunnel’s sides were smooth and we still couldn’t reach the bottom, so we swam slowly, checking on one another, making sure no one wigged out. I was comfortable in the water— I’ve been a swimmer my whole life— and even with the cave roof so close above my head, my breathing was steady.
Every now and then the tunnel would open up above our heads, large cavities carved by churning water. In some places, stalactites hung down from the roof into the water, giving us a place to stop and rest, holding onto the smooth pillars. It was hard to tell how far we swam, maybe 100 yards, before deciding to turn back. We met our friends on the rock island in the big room and made plans (we’ve yet to see them through) to come back with lifejackets.
Sitting here, under a cottonwood tree, it’s hard to tell which way the river’s moving. I know the current flows west, towards the city and the bridges that rumble under traffic, but the wind is skipping south across the water towards the steep bank below the park. A few miles upstream in one of the river’s slow curves, is the marina where my dad keeps his boat. At the bottom of the steep ramp where marina workers tow boats up and down all day, there’s a dock attached to an enormous pole anchored out in the water away from shore. When the water rises, let out in huge gusts from the dam further upstream, the wooden dock rises, rattling against the rusty pole. The river laps up the hillside, covers the cement ramp, the plastic bottles and tires caught in the sticky undergrowth.
The picnic table where I’m sitting is littered with leaves, and there are kids playing on the jungle gym. A barge across the river rumbles as heavy rocks slide down a chute into deep chambers, and the water’s surface dances between the current and the breeze. It’s perfect; one of those moments where my eyes aren’t big enough and I keep running them over my view trying to capture every detail: the leaves wiggling against the blue sky, clouds casting shadows in the grass messy with clover. I’m trying to realize, or remember, that I’m really here. That the hill across the river is real; that it would exhaust me to swim the river, to climb the hill. Maybe if I could look down on it all— could see my small self, sitting here at the red table, downstream from the marina and the rattling dock— maybe then I could get a grasp on my presence in this place, this time.
The wind is blowing again, soft against my face, and playing in the decorative grasses by the gazebo. Two little girls are walking that way, beneath the green roof, past the sprinkler. Their pink shoes smack against the wet sidewalk. They laugh, their little voices catching the breeze, rolling with it down the hill towards my table, out into the rolling river.