Cave Poet: Art Holley
Art Holley -- photo by Suzanne Hurt
The Sierra Nevada foothills hide hundreds of caves. One of those taking part in the growing sport of caving is Art Holley. Holley is a cave poet, and he’s considered by some to be one of the best in the country.
Tuesday, February 8, 2005
Art Holley is leading a tour of California Cavern, a show cave in the Sierra foothills. The cave is muddy and damp from winter rain. California Cavern is a two-mile underground network of chambers, tunnels and fantastically shaped formations. This trip covers half a mile. At some point, Holley asks his cavers to douse their headlamps and see what dark really is. If they're lucky, that's when the poetry starts.
The 42-year-old Holley is tall and lean, with chestnut brown hair, a quiet intensity and an infectious laugh. He's been exploring caves for 17 years and has gathered vast knowledge of the underworld, which he happily shares with those on the tour. "All the stalactites, if you look at all the bigger formations hanging down, they all start off as those little, delicate tubes that you see over here hanging down. And the little tubes known as a soda straw... I was trying to explain the difference. A lot of people think, well, they call it soda straw because they look like soda straws. I said, ‘No, those are the REAL soda straws.’ Soda straws we drink soda out of are actually named after the ones in the cave, not the other way around."
Caving is a slowly growing sport. It’s not for everyone. Those who go spelunking have learned to control their fear in tight spots. Holley is a rare combination – a hardcore caver with a poetic soul. Out of at least 12-thousand cavers in the US, only a few dozen write poetry. Some in the caving world consider Holley to be one of the best.
Holley has written about 200 cave poems. He’s never made an effort to get them published. One reason he started writing cave poetry was to set his tours apart. The poems also allow him to express his connection to caves, and explain that he goes caving to see things few others will ever see. “It just sort of, like, lets you in on a secret with Mother Earth” he says. “It's like, she knows you're there and nobody else does, and no one else will probably ever be there or care. But it was the point that you were there first, and no one else had ever seen that. It’s like, the first eyes is the best eyes."
Holley likes to say he's never been stuck in a cave – only “detained.” He admits caving can be scary. Yet Holley says he's not afraid to get lost. "I'm looking forward to that experience. Like I always tell people, when I find myself lost in a cave, especially in this area up here, I know I found the big one. The gettin' lost would never be my concern. My concern is it's gonna end before I have a chance to get lost. I don't never get to go far enough."
The hardest part of the tour for Holley is the end when he must emerge from the cave. Wet and covered in mud, he takes part of the cave with him.