Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Fears in the Dark

Barbara Hurd opens her essay, “The Squeeze,” with a panic attack. While teaching creative writing at summer camp, she blithely agreed to accompany her students on a field trip into a cave. Hurd lowered herself into a ten-foot-deep pit with no hesitation and watched a guide and all eleven students disappear into a rocky tunnel. But a nameless terror met her as she tried squirming in after them, and Hurd swiftly clambered back up the ropes and into the light.

I thought of that essay and Hurd’s fine book, Entering the Stone: On Caves and Feeling Through the Dark, last weekend when my family stood in a sinkhole, gazing into the dim opening of Penn’s Cave. A tourist attraction to hundreds most summer days, Penn’s doesn’t require belly squirming to enter. Instead of adventure, we were seeking the cool relief of 52 degree air wafting from the capacious entrance. Yet fear still threatened to keep me outside, for my phobia is water, and visitors to Penn’s Cave must load onto rickety, rectangular motorboats to admire even one stalactite. In this case fear of my offsprings’ disdain was even stronger, and I inched aboard, focusing on the illuminated flowstone overhead rather than the cloudy water below.

Fortunately for nature essay readers, Hurd’s supportive friends and own resolve have enabled her to venture underground again and again. Each descent has brought her fresh insights, not just of the geological and biological nature of caves, but of psychology, mythology, personal history and intimate relationships. One thread through her book is a friend’s terminal illness, and Hurd searches for moments of beauty within the woman’s agonizing decline as thoroughly as in any cavern she visits. Hurd takes a flowing, unhurried path through her subject, visiting damp grottoes near her home in western Maryland, desert caves in Arizona, and sacred rifts in the mountains of India. Her essay titles alone may inspire you to join her journeys: “The Solace of Beauty,” “Moonmilk,” and “In the Hollow that Remains.”

Ultimately, Entering the Stone is about facing, not conquering, fears—of tight spaces, shadows, heartbreak, and mortality. Hurd makes clear that the border between danger and safety is a fertile place. Waiting at the threshold of one cave, Hurd writes, “. . . I know that to the right lies the cave’s stale air and darkness and to the left lies the passageway out, the light, the green, the song of indigo buntings.” Yet she chooses to enter, to search for meanings in the paradoxes and uncertainties she encounters in the dark.

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