I got into the cave, finally, around midnight, after having taught all day and having been seriously depressed by various turns of events in the department. My wife and I had gone out for sport, unaccountably choosing to locate ourselves in what turned out to be a noisy, depressing, unsatisfying and demoralizing Japanese restaurant that was throughly regrettable in every respect. We returned home and I packed a space blanket, a ground cloth, some water, some nuts, two sandwiches and my drum and then had Angela drop me off, at last, at the parking lot by the river behind the disco.
I headed over the railroad bridge. My shadow projected out onto the river and onto the enfillading shrubs, the hubbub of the music from the clubs receding, the approaching darkness. I passed under the highway at a juncture where the percussive, symphonic overtones of a new music were intermittently provided by the overhead traffic and then I passed through the small tunnel and up the trail. The path was rocky and uncertain and much new growth had erupted since my last visit. The path took a turn to the right and wound down amongst the rocks that faced the opening of the cavern. It was darker than I had remembered it- the winter solstices are surprisingly bright here and it’s usually not too difficult to see one’s way then-but this was difficult.
I dropped down a ledge, wound my way along the watercourse and through a small boulder field, and then climbed up onto the lip of the space. The water was low, it seemed, no more than an inch deep at most, but it flowed fairly energetically from deep within the cave. The light seeped into the darkness rather quickly- within a few feet of the entrance one was in total darkness and I recognized that my ambitions had perhaps outstripped my capabilities and that maybe I’d be a lot happier back home in bed. My intention was to spend an entire twenty four hours in the cave, by myself, with little food and no objective and to see just what one of my days now felt like at its core. The first part of this project was to call into the cave for permission to enter, and then to play my way into the heart of the space, some several hundred feet distant. The universe suddenly contracted to a still small point, I think it was the light at the back of my head, and after several hesitations I entered.
I began calling in an assortment of propitiatory cries. Hearing no answer I advanced, playing my dzembe with an accelerating rhythmic dexterity that produced a noisy accumulation of sound in the chamber. I moved quite slowly, palpating the floor with my left foot and listening for the changes of reverberation that marked the progressive expansions and contractions of the space. I entered, at last, a vast open cavern at whose summit a wan, bare glimmer of light competed with one’s afterimage for attention, like in a James Turrell piece. I played for much time. I stopped, listened and heard the distant course of a stream entering from somewhere back towards the mouth, and then fragile, inexplicable sounds that seemed to arise out of white noise. These I ignored, for the moment, and headed back to secure my lodging.
I established a spot three-quarters of the way up the tunnel, believing it likely to be in total darkness during the day. I laid my ground cloth on the cold, stone ground and placed the space blanket inside it, wrapping myself in the two, and realizing, suddenly, that I had been extraordinarily stupid not to have brought a sleeping bag. I am in a damp, cold tunnel, on a stone, cold floor, and it’s getting cold and there’s a breeze blowing from somewhere and I’m beginning to get chilled and to hear sounds again that I can’t quite identify. What an idiotic idea. I try sleeping for an hour and toy with the notion, again, of just going back up to sleep at home and then I realize that my drum bag has a lovely piece of foam in it that is just the right size for my hips. I rearrange everything and lay my head on my pack with the water bottle and am both very, very happy and very, very scared. My bed is wonderfully comfortable now- I’m wearing the warm vest Angela has just given me and my woolen hat which I have thoughtfully also brought and I feel quite self-contained, but the space is really quite noisy- the constant hallucinatory hubbub of the stream is noisier by far than any of the mechanical ambience that so often irritates me at home and I’m hearing noises: small explosions, voices, music, footfalls, watercourse, burbling, sighs, cries- and everytime I start to fall asleep (it’s now about 4 in the morning) I am startled by the ominous sense of something approaching. I am listening to the voice of the tunnel, very much as one would listen for omens in pre-literate culture ( a notion I’ve been reading about in “The Spell of the Sensuous) and it is not a reassuring activity. These might be auditory hallucinations, brought on by a peculiar acoustic property by which the tunnel seems to amplify otherwise inaudible sounds from far away across the river. Cheerfully disregarding, now, the multiple evidence of my senses, I fall, at last, asleep.
Dawn brings a almost proprioceptive glow to my eyelids and I awake to glimpse a soft, vaporous light in the distance. Sunlight has leached into the space from around the curve of the corridor and I can see all too well. I decide that it is no longer feasible to continue on the initial project of an immersion in total darkness and that it would be just as well to relocate to the mouth of the cave and to spend the entire day there.
I move with a bottle of water and my cushion and am thereby ensconced. I smoke a little reefer. I watch the light in the trees, the shadows on the wall. I explore the terrain and find a ladder that I had hidden there many months before and save it for the night’s festivities. I sit. I am beginning to feel a wonderful clarity and energy- I think it’s the fasting. Birds come and feed at the water when the sun is just so. Trucks roar by in the distance and I hear tentative echoes arising in the belly of the cave. The leaves in the trees are blowing. The wind seems to be coming from the left. The stream has little bubbles in it that seem to outpace the flow of the current. There are two people who have appeared in the margins of my vision and they are descending towards me and doing something with the ground. I immediately remove my woolen hat and assume an expression that is intended to be ferocious, slightly unpredictable, perhaps a little threatening, hostile, unfriendly, and aggressive. It seems to have no effect on them for they continue moving towards me. They see me, at last, and I nod, grudgingly and there is then some question between them of going into the cave. But something, either the cave itself or my fierce mien, dissuades them and she then takes some kind of white powder out of a bag and makes a gesture near the ground. She does this three times and says something about “smell” and then they leave.
This is a mocking hallucination, I fear. Is this some challenge to me to leave my perch and to investigate? Who were these people? What were they doing here? I will not run after them to ask but will luxuriate in this curious moment of unknowability, in the riddle that has been so teasingly presented. Time passes. I doze off and then awake, have another sip of water. I climb down off the ledge and go over to investigate. She has made a cross on the ground and it smells like cornstarch. There are other markings, further uphill, that lead back to where I’ve come from and I am now convinced, with great dismay, that others are to follow this trail at some point in the near future and that my solitude is likely to be seriously compromised. I decide to erase the trail if nobody has come by nightfall- I will not facilitate the interruption of our ceremonies. I return to the cave.
The sun shifts again, is now behind the hill above the cave. The wind has shifted direction. The sky is now a bright blue and I judge that it is midafternoon. Time has passed quickly. Long moments are spent agonizing over various occupational difficulties and I realize how transient these concerns will turn out to be and how enduring will be the sheer force of duration of these moments. All of a sudden, fifteen well-muscled, athletic-looking young people of mixed sexes come bounding up over the opposing hill, calling to each other in incomprehensible cries, exploring the terrain with great gusto and intensity, and looking, obviously, for someone or something. Two of them come bounding up over the ledge I had carefully climbed and look into the cave. “No, they’d have to have some balls to put it in there”, they say, oblivious to my nearby scowling, and bound back down and back to the others. I am dumbstruck. It looks like some kind of manic professional scavenger hunt, or a bizarre fraternity initiation, or perhaps some corporate week-end get-together to build group cohesion. No explanation is given, except that it is obvious that the marks made in cornstarch have led them here and that they are now gone, if such an apparition can ever be said to have gone, for now every shift of light, every transient sound is the approach of yet another group of marauding idiots. Everything is now in a different register.
Time passes. Two young boys appear near sunset. They are about nine or ten and dare each other to enter ithe cave. I am astounded by their insouciance. I am sitting right there and they seem altogether indifferent, incurious, and unafraid. They seem like nice kids and I am concerned that they would be so careless as to allow themselves to be trapped in such a serious cave by a fellow looking such as myself. I consider lecturing them on the dangers of strange men, but decide the whole thing might become way too complex and disturbing and decide, instead, to show them the drum. They are quite impressed and I begin a conversation with one of them. I learn that he has camped at the back of the cave with his father who, in turn, has been coming down to the tunnel since he was a lad. The boy tells me about the way the tunnel looks in flood, about rope ladders that had been constructed in various locations, and about the times his father had gotten drunk in there. We talk about the sounds one hears. I’m getting a glimpse of history and it’s quite fascinating. They leave.
Time now moves very slowly. I am awaiting the arrival of my tunnel buddies, a small group of initiates with whom I’ve drummed and cavorted on other occasions in here and it’s taking an awful long time for it to be ten o’clock. I go back into the cave to my resting spot and doze for a bit. Much, much later, near midnight it seems, I hear howling. Shrieks, cries, flutes, and exhortations are moving down the opposing hill. It is, at last, the party.
They all arrive: John Phillips- a sound artist, bicyclist, and student of cognitive philosophy; Carolyn Healey- his wife, a sculptor and lighting designer; Andy Stone- my close friend, a shrink, a student of philosophy and the mind-altering arts, a fellow drummer and tunnel afficionado; Angela Arnold- my dear wife and indulgent ceremonialist, who has organized the whole business and serves as the grounding rod for our enterprise; Warren Angle- another sculptor, neighbor, performance artist, and ceremonialist; Karl Staven- my colleague in animation, a drummer, smoker, and handy fellow with whom I’ve happily adventured. We’ve all been in here before, during one of the solstice or equinox rituals we’ve been staging in here for five years, so we’ve got it down. First the ceremonial whisky, then the ceremonial joint, then some more of the ceremonial whisky and then some more of the joint and then we select our instruments and conduct ourselves into the darkness, making joyful music in varying states of blindness and abandon. We do this for hours, sometimes playing in one spot for considerable time, until the rhythms kick into synchrony and we’re in the groove, and sometimes arrayed up and down the tunnel so that it is less an experience of rhythm than of spatial dispersion and interference and acoustics. We light torches and move them about in time to the music while performing unprovoked acts of mime and stagecraft with the ladder that are quite hilarious. We sing in contrachords in the darkness. We explore every option of sound and light and gesture and are most pleased and satisfied with these our ritual exertions.
And then we pack up our instruments, my bedding, the water and (uneaten) food and head up the hill and down through the small tunnel and below the overpass and over the bridge to the parked cars that take us back to my house where we have a fabulous meal and talk and laugh until late in the morning of the next day.
Now that’s a birthday party.