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Original Issue


Cavers are folks who get higher by heading down, none more so than Tom Aley, who has a heaven under earth in his Tumbling Creek Cave deep in the Ozarks

There is something especially addictive about what might be called nature sport—hunting, fishing, falconry, birding, mountaineering, white water canoeing and other pastimes of that sort. One reason may be that the challenges are infinitely open-ended and no accomplishment can ever be certified as ultimate. It is possible to pitch a no-hit, no-walk, no-run baseball game, bowl 300, shoot a hole in one, or at least in competitive games come up an indisputable winner. However, nobody has ever perfectly flown the perfectly manned goshawk, caught the ultimate trout or defeated a river. There is always a sense that there remains more to know and experience and these possibilities beckon as ever greater depths do the rapture-seeking diver.

There is no clinical way of ranking various recreations but, of the nature sportsmen I have been around, cavers, as a group, seem to get higher, so to speak, and generally display the most obsessive behavior. These are not the seven million or so citizens who annually buy tickets to take guided tours of commercial caves, which often are wired for gaudy lights and organs, but rather the few thousand enthusiasts whose passionate pleasure it is to find, descend into and squirm about in wild caves. (The difference between wild and commercial caverns is somewhat like the difference between meeting a bear in a circus and coming upon one in a blackberry thicket.) Sometimes these people call themselves spelunkers, because the formal study of caves is speleology. But if they do they are regarded derisively by hard-core addicts, who always say they are cavers and that their sport is caving.

Innumerable Becky Thatcher-Tom Sawyer episodes and a good bit of archeological evidence make it clear that our fascination with big holes and mazes in the ground is an ancient and enduring one. Still, not until after World War II were there enough chronic cavers to make this a discrete, identifiable recreation in this country. A good many other free-form nature sports have caught hold in this period. We came back from our war with the customary distaste for organization and discipline but also with a lot of good liberated gear suitable for much more enjoyable outdoor adventures than those we had been having with it. There is a theory that the so-called environmental movement got going a few years later because so many vets returned possessing, for the first time in their lives, a decent sleeping bag.

In the late 1940s Washington, D.C. became a hub of American sport caving. A group of restless young employees of the U.S. Geological Survey had subterranean expertise and enthusiasm. Also, some of the best cave country in the world, the limestone ridges of the western Virginias, is only a four- or five-hour drive from the District. As a staging area and place to crash, the most regular cavers leased an isolated cabin at the upper end of the gorge of the Bull Pasture River, a tributary of the James. It sat in a grove of big hemlocks near a good spring in which there was an underwater entrance to a cave. There was only one true room, but it had a fireplace and a lean-to kitchen and could sleep 20 or 30 if the floor was efficiently used. It often was, since there were 100 or more sporty wild caves within a 50-mile radius. For cavers, the cabin was what New York's Algonquin Hotel was for the literati in the 1920s. One raw, sleety March day a party of cavers from Yale arrived at the cabin at 3 a.m., having driven straight through from New Haven. Such late entrances weren't unusual and the only reaction to theirs was a mumbled demand that they lie down and shut up. A few hours later I was the first one to have a conscious congress with the Yalies. In those days I had very little confidence in anybody else's ability to make pancakes on a soap-stone griddle and therefore tried to get up first and do it myself. When I did on this morning all of the sons of Eli but one were dead to the world. The exception was a hairy, thin-faced youth who was sitting upright, in his sleeping bag on the third tier of the bunk rack. He was holding a flashlight and was hunched over what appeared to be a notebook. I asked him why he was awake after all that driving. He said, "I cannot sleep when I am near important caves." About the notebook, he said, "I am noting my pre-cave state of awareness."

Personally I think a cave is a kind of environmental drug, which can distort and play tricks on our senses in almost hallucinogenic ways. The sensation isn't always pleasant but it is different from that associated with any other terrestrial habitat.

On the surface, we are rarely without some light sources, direct or indirect. But in caves, it is truly dark. Caves aren't so perfectly silent, there being occasional sounds of dripping water, streams gurgling, whispering bat wings and faint air currents, but in comparison to the surface, sensual stimuli are few and weak. Also, in caves the range of weather changes—wind, precipitation, temperature and humidity—is greatly narrowed. (The temperature of caves, insulated as they are from temporary meteorological influences, is approximately equal to the average annual temperature of the surface above them. In the great American cave belt stretching from the Blue Ridge Mountains westward through the Ozarks most caves are always in the bland 55° to 60° F range.)

Aboveground there is a chaos of sights, sounds, smells, feelings and movements which bombard us so constantly that we often don't respond to or even recognize them individually. Caves give some respite from this, but for the same reasons are, paradoxically, quite stimulating; the properties of the things that do exist in caves, such as a tiny salamander or the slow dropping of water from a soda-straw stalactite, seem to be perceived and recorded with a supernatural clarity. Because there are so few background distractions there is a heightened sense of one's interior—of the workings of mind, emotions and imagination. The overall effect is a sense of consciousness being expanded and altered. For some, once it is experienced there is a strong desire to do it again, and seeking the experience becomes truly addictive.

Cavers and even alumni of the activity—which describes my present status—tend to search each other out and gossip, in part on the reasonable assumption that above-grounders might not appreciate their special interests and fixations. Therefore, before I met him I had heard stories about a man named Tom Aley. (We didn't become acquainted until last year because he came along a half generation after I did and is from California, which used to be regarded by the Eastern caving Establishment as Vermont skiers might regard Alabama.) The gist of the stories was that Aley was living proof about how wrong and bigoted we had been about Californians, that he was as gung-ho, drive-all-night, impression-noting a man as ever chimneyed his way into a dome cave.

This was probably true, but isn't how he comes on now. At present Aley is perhaps the most prominent and professional American field speleologist. He and his wife, Cathy, a limnologist (a student of bodies of fresh water, especially their biology), are the proprietors of the Ozark Underground Laboratory, which is located a few miles from Bull Shoals Lake, almost on and under the Arkansas-Missouri state line. The principal facility of the lab is a fine, large, wild cave called Tumbling Creek. For a fee, the Aleys make their cave available to professional biologists, geologists, crystalographers and paleontologists who have subterranean research interests; and also to environmental and student groups which have a serious interest in caves or which the couple think might be infected with such an interest.

Aboveground there is a bunkhouse for visitors, the Aleys' own home and a conventional office from which they conduct their business, which, as Tom Aley puts it, is being "consulting hydrologists and limnologists specializing in the groundwater dynamics of karst areas." Another way to put it is that they go about the country identifying and solving problems having to do with how water runs into, through and out of karst areas, or regions of irregular limestone or dolomite with sinks, underground streams and caverns.

Last June I took Aley up on his invitation to visit him near Protem, and he and I commenced a tour of his Tumbling Creek Cave at a pace and in postures suitable for the senior member. By and by we came to a particularly fine breakdown room. (Large rooms and passages are generally formed by two processes. Groundwater eats away at soluble rock, enlarging interior crevices by slowly dissolving the rock, eventually undercutting other blocks of rock which remain in the walls and ceilings. As their supports are weakened these may come crashing down. If there is a cave stream then they in time are dissolved and flow out of the cave.)

Because they are protected from the agents that are constantly changing surface topography, caves are relatively stable phenomena, compared to mountain peaks, slopes or open river gorges. Nevertheless there are inevitably thoughts about engineering and quality control when one is in a big breakdown room. We were talking about this when Aley asked, "Did you ever think you were trapped?"

"I knew I was lost a time or two, but never trapped."

"I did once." Aley is a tall, lanky man with a full, gingery beard. As he talks, he has a habit of blinking like an owl that has come in out of the dark, and he did so with increasing rapidity as he spoke.

"In 1959 three of us were working a big, complicated cave on the north side of the Grand Canyon," he said. "There was a long crawlway entrance, then came a large passage oriented along a fault line. We had left that area and were about a half mile inside when we heard a great roar, as if jets were warming up in the next room. We could only imagine that the entrance must have collapsed. It never occurred to us that it might have been an earthquake. We felt no vibrations and saw nothing move, but we were terrified and we talked about what to do. Finally we decided to go ahead, farther into the cave."

"Come off it."

"No. It's true. Actually it made sense, or at least caving sense. If the entrance had collapsed there was no way we could dig out from the inside and nobody was going to find us or get equipment up there to help us for a long time. We decided that there was nothing we could do about it either way and that if we went back we would end up wasting a whole day of caving."

When they did return they found the entrance open. Later they learned there had been a minor earthquake at the time they heard the noise. "We saw no movement of any kind, and yet the quake had been strong enough to knock things off shelves in shops in the area," said Aley. "What I remember is that it didn't really hit us until we started back. The closer we got the faster we went and the less we said. When we saw light we began babbling, punching and hugging each other. Everything, the sky, clouds, bushes—and especially the sun and space—looked so good. I wouldn't want to repeat the experience, but it does demonstrate how stable caves really are."

As an undergraduate, Aley was a forestry student at the University of California in Berkeley. For recreation he began going about with rock climbers. After learning basic climbing techniques, he found out about caves.

During the next few years he became something of a maestro, discovering caves and making descents and climbs in the Sierra Nevada and other Western ranges which are still admired by cavers for the technical problems they pose. In 1963, in a serendipitous way, Aley lost his amateur status. The Cuban missile crisis gave rise to speculation that Soviet technicians might have placed sophisticated weapons in Cuban caves, and that had created an official interest in caves. A professor of Aley's suggested he might be able to get a grant to do research in the karst areas of one of the Caribbean islands. He applied through the university and a few weeks later was in Jamaica doing research on the hydrology of caves for the Office of Naval Research. "It was nice to be able to tell my draft board that I would be leaving the country to do research for a branch of the armed services," says Aley.

After some more caving (and some more study at the University of Arizona), Aley settled in the Los Angeles area and took a job with a private engineering firm as chief hydrologist. (He had received a master's degree in forestry with an emphasis in hydrology.) The pay was good, Aley says, but the work wasn't particularly stimulating. "Hydrology was originally regarded as a natural science, and I think that is what it is and how it should be treated," he says. "But even by the time I started it was beginning to be a branch of engineering. Most hydrologists tend to look for uniform, technological solutions. If their specialty is surface water they aren't too concerned with what happens to it when it goes underground, and vice versa."

Like many cavers, Aley had thought that it would be satisfying to have a cavern of his own, but unlike most he acted on the notion. "I was impressed with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum [a justly famous collection of living animals and plants, displayed to give some insight into desert ecology]. I didn't have it clearly worked out, but I thought maybe I could do something similar with caves and associated phenomena, establish a research and educational center. I felt there was a need for this because underground systems are so important and so poorly understood."

While still employed as a hydrologist, Aley began looking for underground facilities. Eventually he came upon the Tumbling Creek Cave, which had long been known to local residents but hadn't greatly interested them. As any caver, sporting or scientific, would be, Aley was immediately enthralled. Tumbling Creek is a large system, with about 10,000 feet of passages open to humans. Within it are a sizable underground stream, several waterfalls and a lot of excellent, fancy cave formations. It is perhaps most remarkable for its biology, supporting more than 100 species of animals which, so far as anybody has determined, is more than live in any other single cavern west of the Mississippi River. Largely for this reason it has been designated by the Federal Government as a National Natural Landmark.

Though there are long-standing suspicions and myths that caves make fine habitats for weird monsters, the fact is that few large animals care to advance beyond the entrance light zone. Obligatory cave dwellers (troglobites, which have so adapted that they cannot now live in any environment except that of a cave) are invariably small to microscopic, including such creatures as snails, isopods, amphipods, millipedes, crickets, mites, tiny spiders and springtails. The largest permanent resident of the Tumbling Creek Cave is the 3-inch-long Ozark blind salamander. One of the smaller, and the rarest, is a pale, eyeless snail which is about the size of the head of a common pin. All known representatives of both the species and the genus of this snail (Antrobia culveri) live along 50 yards or so of the stream that flows through Tumbling Creek Cave.

There are eight species of bats (including the Indiana and the grey bat, both on the federal endangered species list) which are critically dependent on caves or equivalent habitats; 150,000 grey bats, the largest summer colony of this species west of the Mississippi River, breed, forage out of and spend the warm-weather months in Tumbling Creek Cave. They are of immense importance to everything else that lives there (as bats are to all caves) for reasons that are instructive in regard to the overall ecological systems that operate underground.

With the possible exception of extreme ocean depths, caves are the poorest of all environments so far as their energy supplies are concerned. Tumbling Creek Cave supports an exceptional number and diversity of animals because, by subterranean standards, it is so rich in the most common food-fuel-energy resource found in caves. That is bat guano. Aley estimates that the bats that pour out of his cave every summer evening collectively capture and digest about 1,000 pounds of insects from which they manufacture and deposit about 200 pounds of guano a day. Being fascinated by all such matters, Aley has analyzed the manure, great mounds and ridges of which have built up in some of the cave passages, and found that a gram contains 3.5 calories or about the same as an equal amount of fast-food hamburger.

Because of the bats, Tumbling Creek is a kind of Saudi Arabia among caverns. However, all surface habitats accumulate, directly or indirectly from the sun, far larger energy resources than bats can deposit in this or any other cave. Consequently, all permanent cave creatures have evolved to survive in conditions of chronic fuel shortage. Obligatory cave creatures are small because there isn't enough energy available to support big ones. They move slowly—a cave salamander crawls along in what for a surface salamander would be slow motion—grow slowly and aren't reproductively vigorous. Individually, they are long-lived. A cave crawfish, for example, may have a life-span of 50 years while a surface crawfish's may be less than a tenth of that. All these characteristics reflect the fact that it is more energy efficient to produce a few slowly maturing but durable models than to keep turning out new ones which need to be frequently replaced.

Perhaps the most intricate and beautiful adaptation of cave creatures is that they have become relatively unadaptable. On the surface the abundance of energy permits and requires constant change. Virtually all species possess strengths and behavioral options which they may not need in their given environment but which are held in reserve to cope with sudden changes. In a cave this flexibility is largely superfluous, and to a considerable degree has been sacrificed. The catch is that cave creatures are all but helpless if the stability of their peculiar environment is shattered. A surface salamander living in a shallow pond can, if the pond is obliterated or degraded, move elsewhere and has considerable capacity, individually and as a species, to adjust its living arrangements. An Ozark blind salamander deprived of its cave cannot survive elsewhere, and there is little reproductive response the species can make to such a disaster.

In somewhat the same way inanimate features of caves are also very fragile. Most of the delicate formations and the entire structure of many cave passages are often brittle and precarious. Small, sudden intrusions of surface light, water, frost or plant roots can score, crack or collapse marvelous pieces of subterranean sculpture which have been millions of years in the making. So too can humans, who as a practical matter are among the few large animals who go far enough into caves to be disruptive. With a hammer or bare hands a malicious person can casually devastate a beautiful cave in a few hours. Benign but careless ones often create more disturbances than they know. In regard to vandalism, a little-known but particularly offensive sort is sometimes practiced in caves. Owners of commercial "show" caves have been known to go into attractive wild ones with saws, remove all or parts of interesting formations, take them back to and cement them into their places of business. There they are given names like God's Cucumber, illuminated with purple lights and mentioned in the spiel of tour guides as fine examples of How Grand Nature Is.

Not surprisingly, most serious cavers are fierce protectionists. "I don't think I'm an extremist," says Aley. "I don't believe that we need to lock up every cave and preserve it. My feeling about environmental protection in general is that we are part of the natural system. We have needs and desires. To satisfy them we will make changes, as do all species. In the process some things are lost and altered, new ones are created. But it is practical and ethical to look beyond immediate gratification, convenience and greed. This-is particularly true with caves. We can make what may be mistakes on the surface—say, level a forest unnecessarily—but we have some capacity to correct them, stop doing what we have been doing and repair the damage. We have no capacity to make a cave or restore one after we have meddled with it. So it seems to me we have to be especially careful with them."

In 1966 Aley bought 126 acres of oak woods and pasture that overlie Tumbling Creek Cave. (He has since increased his holdings to 286 acres.) He then started hunting for a job in the Ozark region. "I thought I might be in for a period of long-distance commuting," says Aley, "but before I began looking for work outside the area I stopped by the Forest Service [this federal agency has large holdings in the Ozarks]. With my undergraduate degree in forestry I thought maybe I could mark timber or something for them."

To Aley's surprise and good fortune, what the Forest Service badly wanted was a hydrologist. As part of the growing interest in environmental matters the Service had been given new mandates to manage water resources but was having difficulty employing experts, because the Feds were not competitive with private employers in salaries. "It was important for me to be in this area, so I went to work for them for about half what I had been paid in California," says Aley. "Professionally, though, it was interesting. Nobody in the Service was certain about what needed to be done, so they gave me a free hand to experiment with some ideas of my own."

For the same reason that the Ozarks have lots of caves—extensive deposits of water-soluble rock—there are also a great many springs, seeps and sinkholes in the area. Much of Aley's work with the Forest Service had to do with these outlets and inlets to underground water systems—investigating the drainage areas and determining how water quality-was affected by surface activities.

"The popular opinion is that all springs are always pure," says Aley. "The reason for it is that springs are cold and look clear because they discharge water from underground, where the temperature is relatively constant and where algae and microscopic plants, which cloud surface water, cannot grow because of the lack of sunlight. However, this doesn't guarantee that they are safe for drinking and other human use. If the water that flows out of a spring has entered the ground in a diffuse recharge area [i.e., seeps slowly down through substantial layers of soil and rock], then the filtering process usually purifies it. But in cave areas much of the water goes underground through discrete recharge zones such as sinks. [On the surface a sink may not appear to be a gaping hole. The mouth may be lightly covered with debris or thin layers of soil, but below it is an open conduit capable of transporting a lot of water.] Sinks are openings to natural pipelines. They discharge water directly into underground passages, and very little filtration and other natural cleansing take place. If a spring is part of a sink system the water will still be clear and cool but it may not be—in fact probably isn't—pure. What comes out of it depends upon what went into it at the other end.

"There is another thing that is hard for people to understand. The direction of underground drainage may not correspond to that of surface drainage. There is a sink area on the laboratory property. We traced the underground flow by putting dye in a sinking stream that entered the ground near the sinks. The marked water reappeared in the cave stream, which was on the other side of the surface valley, passing directly under a surface stream. People who would never think of polluting a surface system—much less a spring—might dump waste water in sinks or other discrete recharge zones. It seems a commonsense thing to do because water disappears rapidly and it appears to be going into the ground where it won't hurt anybody, but what they are putting in a sink may come up miles away in a different direction and contaminate a spring or well.

"I was working in Barbados one time. The government was developing a big cave as a tourist attraction. An official party which included the prime minister visited the cave one day. While his staff was carrying on about what a beautiful place it was, selling the project, I showed him a spot where the water had been contaminated by sewage. The prime minister asked me what the terrible smell was. I told him, 'Sir, that is the smell of feces.'

"There were a lot of very open connections for water between the surface and the subsurface in that part of the country. People had made a point of building their outhouses in them because the waste disappeared rapidly. Where some of it went to was this show cave. They were able to clean it up, whether through sewage treatment or moving the outhouses, I'm not sure. I've found the same thing in the Ozarks—caves and springs contaminated with raw sewage, runoff from highways, industrial chemicals and even solid waste. There is one passage I know in which the floor is covered with scraps of moldy leather which were flushed underground from a sink that a shoe factory was using as a dump."

While he was employed by the Forest Service, Aley was frequently sent to other administrative regions to ply his unique trade. In 1973 it was decided that he should be transferred permanently to Illinois to deal with hydrological problems associated with strip mines in the coalfields. Aley didn't want to relocate in Illinois, had no great enthusiasm for the new assignment and quit the Forest Service. It was at about this time that his first marriage broke up.

For some months Aley had a rough time of it. "I was lonely and I was broke," he says. "I thought there was an economic and environmental need for a consultant with my background, but I sent out scores of letters and proposals and there was only minimal response for a good many months. The difficulty was not so much selling myself—I knew a lot of people and I think had a good reputation because of my work in California and with the Forest Service. It was selling the idea of what amounted to a new profession. There was nobody doing what I wanted to do—and, as a matter of fact, there is still nobody else doing it on a full-time basis."

While potential clients were mulling over their need for a consulting karst-hydrologist, Aley supported himself as a freelance carpenter and guitarist in coffeehouses in towns in the area.

Among the early student parties that came to Tumbling Creek was one from Wichita State University. In the group was a young woman, Cathy Keith, who was then completing work on her master's degree at that institution. Aley had previously been acquainted with the presiding professor. A few months later when he was in Wichita doing a concert Aley asked him if he had a student who might like to work as an associate at the cave. Aley said any such person should have an academic interest in water and underground phenomena, would have to work for very little money and should be female.

"To repeat, I was lonely," says Aley. "I was an arranged bride," says Cathy Keith Aley. "My professor told me about the job but not the female part. It was in the summer and I was doing some collecting in ponds and streams in Kansas. I put it out of my mind, mostly because I didn't think my credentials would be good enough. But I liked the idea because I wanted a job which was interesting and I didn't care that much about the money. Late in the summer I wrote Tom a note inquiring about the job. A few days later this man called me on the phone and talked and talked and talked and kept insisting I drive down to the place. I finally said I would. When I got here I figured out what the real score was, but the work he talked about was fascinating and also I liked Tom. I stayed a week, went home, packed up my things, came back and moved in."

By then Aley's consulting business had picked up or, more accurately, commenced. "One night I was working on the house and the phone rang," he recalls. "It was somebody down in Arkansas who had well and spring problems. It was a couple of hundred miles south of here but I said I'd be there by six o'clock the next morning. While I was packing I got another phone call from somebody to the north of here. I said I'd be there in a couple of days. When I stopped back to get clean clothes on my way from Arkansas there were two letters from people who had jobs for me. Ever since there has been as much work as we want."

In 1975 Cathy and Tom Aley became full partners professionally and matrimonially. The two children from his previous marriage frequently visit them. "We still have our specialties," says Cathy, "but there is no hard and fast division of the work. We have learned from each other. I can run dye tests, and Tom has learned to take biological samples."

Among other things, the Aleys are apparently the only pair of professional cave consultants in existence. They have made their expertise available to public land agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and a number of owners of private, commercial caves to explore and assess the recreational potential and environmental importance of caverns. Also they train both public and private guides.

The more substantive part of their practice now involves natural underground water systems. Currently, for example, the couple is engaged in a hydro-logical survey for the community of Eureka Springs, Ark., a resort famous for its fine water. A few years ago local residents became concerned that some of the springs were not as fine as they had been. The suspicion was that they were vulnerable to contamination from the city sewage system. The Aleys are now testing these springs and their sources, collecting aquatic organisms and making recommendations about what should be done with sewer lines to protect the quality of the waters.

The Eureka Springs job is especially satisfying for the couple, because it is preventive. Increasingly they are being called in after hydrological disasters have occurred and legal actions have begun. The Aleys became involved in one such controversy several years ago when they received a call from a desperate dairy farmer in western Missouri. For years the man had been, without difficulties, piping water for his herd from a large spring. A few months before he called the Aleys the spring had suddenly gone bad. Chemical analysis revealed excessive amounts of nitrogen. The concentration was so high that milk production from cows that drank the water decreased. The dairyman suspected that the nitrogen was coming from one of the fertilizer pipelines which crisscross that part of the Midwest. This seemed to be beyond proving, because the nearest such line was half a mile from the contaminated spring.

"I drove up to look," says Aley. "This fellow was in tough shape. He was afraid he was going to lose the whole farm. He told me the pipeline company had said that they had no responsibility for what happened to his water. That ticked me off. He was very short of cash but I told him I would work just for expenses."

Aley found a small sink immediately adjacent to the pipeline on a ridge beyond the farm. "It was dry and we couldn't haul in enough water to force dye through that hole. Instead we piped water from a pond near there down the sink. We strung up about 1,000 feet of irrigation line and that little sink sucked up 18,000 gallons in six hours. When it was going and I had put in the dye, I drove home. I didn't get back until midnight. At 4:30 the next morning the farmer was on the phone to tell me the whole area around his spring and the stream below it was emerald green from the dye. That was conclusive evidence about the source of contamination. This is getting to be a common problem. Some of the fertilizer lines were previously used for gas and oil. When they are converted they should be treated, because fertilizer is corrosive, but a lot of operators haven't bothered to do this. Fertilizer eats through the line. Generally the leakage in cave areas isn't obvious and can't be traced, but because of that sink we were lucky with this one. The pipeline company settled with that farmer and when it did I was one of the first to get a check."

Though they charge modest fees for its use, both Aleys tend to bristle at any suggestion that Tumbling Creek Cave is commercial and are quick to point out that income from the cave itself barely covers the expense of maintaining it for the use of others and doesn't begin to pay them, at their customary rates, for the time they spend displaying it.

Tumbling Creek isn't open to casual passersby. Small student and environmental groups must make advance arrangements to visit, and when they do either Tom or Cathy spends most of a day with them providing what amounts to a short course in cave ecology. Typically, a tour group will be occupied in the morning walking about on the surface, listening to an Aley hold forth on sinks, drainage systems and karst features. After lunch the visitors are escorted underground to be instructed about the cave itself. The Aleys feel this sequence is necessary to illustrate a point which they preach with almost messianic fervor—that there are complex and influential relationships between surface and subterranean happenings.

"Many of the people who come here are already enthusiastic environmentalists," says Tom, "but I try to make the point that hard-core protectionism is not the best or even a practical solution to many problems having to do with caves or the environment in general.

"We try to determine what will be the consequences of various courses of action and make them known to the people who live there and are concerned. I believe that if people have good information they will almost always act in reasonable and responsible ways. In surface-underground relationships a big problem has been that a lot of people haven't had good information and aren't really aware that there are such relationships. That comes back to why we think this cave is educationally valuable.

"If we mismanage our land, waters and natural resources out of ignorance or greed we weaken and degrade our country in fundamental and lasting ways," says Tom. "To the extent we can find and practice environmental harmony, we improve the quality of life and decrease the costs of living. I think that is a profoundly patriotic act."



Cathy Aley, here measuring the rate of stalactite drippings, studies water movement.


Flowing 170 feet below the earth's surface is Tumbling Creek, the cave's namesake.


Tom Aley's discovery of a wondrous array of animal species led to the cave's designation as a landmark.


The focus of the free-form house that Tom and Cathy built (left) is up. Checking equipment for a descent, he's deep in thought.


Ozark sinks are common, though gaping holes are not.



The cave is in the heart of the Ozarks, almost on and under the state line.









This 3-inch blind salamander is the cave's largest resident.


A troglobite is a tiny cave creature.