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Tom Chaney: Images of Mammoth Cave

Of Writers and their Books, Images of Mammoth Cave is a review of Raymond Klass' Mammoth Cave National Park: Reflections. This review first appeared 4 December 2005
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Tom Chaney: Hard Pressed: Typos and Weather

By Tom Chaney

Images of Mammoth Cave

I spied a treasure of photography at the Kentucky Book Fair a few weeks back. The book by Raymond Klass is Mammoth Cave National Park: Reflections. It is published by The University Press of Kentucky just this year. Ron Switzer, former superintendent of Mammoth Cave National Park, provides the foreword.

The best photography is poetry. This work fits that definition. Robert Penn Warren once wrote that the poet is a seer, one who helps us see a portion of the world through new eyes -- with a fresh vision.

That is exactly what Klass does with his photographs. We live with this region both above and below ground. We have seen the seasons change in the woods from the death of winter, through the budding new life of spring, the exuberant foliage of summer, to the dying colors of fall with promise of leaf mold and rest.

But Klass takes us further into our native land than a superficial change of scenery. He sees the land with a crystal vision and captures that vision with the eye of the camera. In seven weeks he was artist-in-residence in the park. In those seven weeks he set out to capture what we intuitively know, but cannot phrase.

The book is divided into five sections: 'First Impressions'; 'Exploring Deeper and Deeper'; 'Sitting Quietly'; 'The Whole of the Forest'; 'The Miracle of Water.' Our first impressions are two pictures of white snakeroot amongst cedars in springtime. We see fern and butternut. My favorite photograph in the book is of an acorn. When I saw it, I was ecstatic! It sold me the book. Before my encounter with Klass' acorn, the fruit of the oak was just a roughness underfoot or something a gnome might wear as a hat. Now it is a miracle!

And let there be light! I was caught early in the book by sunlight in early morning along the Green River Ferry Road. Each mote shimmers. Another sunrise shot head-on through oak and hickory on the Mammoth Dome Sink Trail strikes me as confronting the eye of god of a sudden in the morning.

Water is the creator of the cave as well as the woods. Now ripples, now mist redefine Green River. Cascade and waterfall shimmer with light and texture -- First Creek -- Buffalo Creek -- Echo River.

And then the cave: "Caves are inhospitable places," he writes, "with unforgiving terrain, tight spaces, slippery slopes, high ledges, and bone chilling temperatures." The cave is an "almost incomprehensible. . . . dizzying labyrinth of tunnels, collapses, and pits." Its natural color is stygian blackness; its natural sound is silence.

Yet Klass captures with light and shadow the texture of ancient water courses. Accepting with regret the smudges of candle-writing of early tourists; their bid for immortality vies feebly with eons old ripples.

To leaf through this book again and again is akin to reading the work of another artist at work in Mammoth Cave. I am drawn back to Davis McCombs' poetry. I think of his vision of Stephen Bishop, that early slave guide discovering his identity as he writes his name on the ancient ceiling -- a candle as his pen.

And I recall other photographers who have shown us this wonder in other days. The cave photography of Bill Austin and Ran Cochran in Flint Ridge has a worthy successor in the work of Raymond Klass in Mammoth Cave.

If you would know yourself by the world in which you move, seize the chance in this book.

If you wish to tell others about the essence of the land which shapes you, here is the perfect gift.

Raymond Klass Photography

Images from Mammoth Cave National Park: Reflections

Davis McCombs' poem Candlewriting

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-12-02 06:49:48
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