Those with experience of cassette players will recall that moment when the tape got warped or stuck. The flow of the music was suddenly replaced by something comically tuneless or wobbly; or else by unwanted silence.
That was the experience some student friends and I once had on a guided tour of a limestone cave. Fresh-faced earth science students, we were keen to learn of the mysterious processes that shape our earth. The guide was at the other end of the freshness spectrum.
And on your left, you will see seven stalacmites … remembering that stalacmites might grow tall, as opposed to stalactites, which … hah hah … stick tight to the roof. And these formations are known as the Seven Dwarves .. hah hah … they’re certainly not tall … (moves forward five paces.) And right behind them (shines torch in direction of a larger flowstone formation), is of course Snow White .. hah hah …
And so the commentary ran, literally monotonous, and uninterrupted save for the guide’s own interjections of simulated mirth. He had learned the tour so well that he may as well have been a tape recorder. That is until we asked our first question. Then his voice suddenly wavered, wobbled out something wordless, akin to urr or umm, then stopped. He looked at his watch, despite the near darkness, and shuffled his feet. Then, as though it might get his stalled tape recorder going again, he walked on a few paces, and shone his torch on a new formation.
Umm … and here you will see a large number of stalactites, sticking tight … hah hah … to the ceiling. And if you count them you will see that there are twelve of them, so this formation we call the twelve apostles … hah hah … and they stick tight to the ceiling, of course, because they have ascended into heaven .. hah hah …
Formations reflected in Lake Cave, WA
We ventured one more question, with similar results, before surrendering to the flow of pre-recorded similes: The Ten Commandments coming down from on high; Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves sneaking up behind us; The Three Musketeers, with their rapier swords held erect (and here a genuine snigger).
Our guide may have been a crass example, but it is is true that most of us seek out the familiar when confronted with the strange. When it comes to caves, according to Kathleen Jamie, “it’s reassuring, in this gallery of uncanny forms, to map them onto things we know in the world outside. … We are deep in a hall of similes.” (Sightlines, p 166)
In the caves of Western Australia’s Margaret River region, we found some restrained echoes of this urge. Certainly the similes were not as crass as those of my student experience. Yet it still felt as though the beauty of some limestone formations had to be adorned with names, or with artificial lights, in order to make the “accessible”. In one cave the formations were given a coloured light show, changing them from cream to red to green to blue to purple. It was akin to seeing the Mona Lisa turned into a red-head, then given a blonde look, and finally a blue rinse.
Gladly our experience in most caves was more natural and positive. We were given the space and time – and sufficient information – to be mind-boggled by the strange-but-true processes that lead to the incredible beauty beneath the region's forests and vines. To see, for example, karri tree roots deep inside a cave, and in the process of allowing water to penetrate, and create formations, was more wondrous than any light show.
Sometimes the blessings of freshly baked bread are sufficient in themselves. Sometimes we don’t need spreads. Just plain bread, perhaps with a glass of wine – that other blessing of Margaret River limestone – can be the taste of heaven on earth.