Printed from:

Welcome to Columbia Magazine  

Tom Chaney: Beyond the Light of Day

Of Writers And Their Books: "Beyond the Light of Day." Tom reviews Red Watson's 1978 novel of caving, Under Ploughman's Floor, which begins wtih thirty years of following the rules and ends with violating the most important one: never cave alone. This column first appeared 10 August 2008.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: The Man Standing Next To Us

By Tom Chaney

"Beyond the Light of Day"

Richard A. (Red) Watson knows cave country in a way that most of us natives can only dream of. He and his wife, Dr. Patty Jo Watson, have made parallel careers for themselves in our neck of the woods. In fact they have made our hills, valleys, and what's beneath much clearer for those of us willing to listen.

Dr. Patty Jo's study of the archaeology of this region helps us understand the human history of the caves above which we live. An anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, she pioneered in the studies which connected pre-industrial people to archaeological data.

Red Watson, whom she wed in 1955, is a philosopher at the same university and an explorer of our caves without equal.

Each focused their professional life on the Mammoth Cave region to our eternal benefit.

I have just finished reading Red Watson's 1978 novel of caving, Under Ploughman's Floor [Zephyrus Press].

Along about this time, Watson was involved in the exploratory push which made the connection between the Flint Ridge cave system and that of Mammoth Cave. He and Roger Brucker share that experience with us in their book The Longest Cave. Few moments in literature compare with their description of the lead expedition party plunging into the chilly waters deep in Flint Ridge beneath the valley and emerging on the other side to the gleam of a lantern beam reflecting off a metal railing on an abandoned tourist trail in Mammoth -- connecting the two systems.

Under Ploughman's Floor takes exploration a couple of steps further.

Watson's hero Fred gets his initiation to cave exploration shortly after his return to civilian life following World War II. We watch his development from his initiation to his status as an expert caver.

Like many in the actual life of exploration in these parts, Fred is a Detroit caver -- a member of the speleological grotto of that city. A caving weekend means an eight-hour drive before adventure on 1950's two-lane highways, and another eight hours after -- and back to sorting mail.

To understand the plot of Under Ploughman's Floor one must know that the Flint Ridge caves lie upstream on Green River from Mammoth Cave. The connection has been made between those systems.

Watson posits a third system which he calls Onyx Ridge, which does exist, down river from Mammoth. Fred participates in connecting those two.

Beyond the third there is a valley known to Fred as Ploughman's Floor. There are caves in the Pine Ridge beyond that valley. Fred's dream is to connect the caves of those two ridges beneath Ploughman's Floor.

After thirty years of caving -- following the rules -- Fred sets out violating the most important ones: never cave alone; let others know where you are.

Fred is kin to the boy in William Faulkner's The Bear. The bear can be confronted only when the trappings of civilization are laid aside -- in Faulkner's case, the compass, the gun. Only then does the bear appear, rear up, dwarfing the boy, acknowledging his bravery, turning away into the wilderness.

For four years Fred pursues his goal in secret -- in joy and exultation, in exhaustion, and finally in the calm death following the realization of the dream.

Why climb the mountain? Why confront the bear? Why crawl in the depths of the earth? Red Watson gives us a glimpse of the answer -- that there is no answer except to the one who does it. It is there.

I have never been a caver. I lack the courage -- to say nothing of the physique. But I have known cavers. One night I sat on the edge of a storytelling session safe in the living room of a friend.

I saw the gleam in his eye as he told of an adventure twelve hours deep in a cave in Flint Ridge. As he and his fellow caver passed from a dry to a wet passage they found sandals; torch remnants; fecal remains. Research dated those artifacts. They had gone where no man had gone for two millennia!

That is why one explores the unknown!

And having seen the bear, to lie down for a final drink beside a crystal spring in the old cave.

For after [Fred's] death, Dave had written . . . in large block letters with a carbide flame, on the flat ceiling of the room where Fred had died":




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 2013-08-11 01:58:56
Printable: this page is now automatically formatted for printing.
Have comments or corrections for this story? Use our contact form and let us know.


Quick Links to Popular Features

Looking for a story or picture?
Try our Photo Archive or our Stories Archive for all the information that's appeared on


Contact us: Columbia Magazine and are published by Linda Waggener and Pen Waggener, PO Box 906, Columbia, KY 42728.
Phone: 270.403.0017

Please use our contact page, or send questions about technical issues with this site to All logos and trademarks used on this site are property of their respective owners. All comments remain the property and responsibility of their posters, all articles and photos remain the property of their creators, and all the rest is copyright 1995-Present by Columbia Magazine. Privacy policy: use of this site requires no sharing of information. Voluntarily shared information may be published and made available to the public on this site and/or stored electronically. Anonymous submissions will be subject to additional verification. Cookies are not required to use our site. However, if you have cookies enabled in your web browser, some of our advertisers may use cookies for interest-based advertising across multiple domains. For more information about third-party advertising, visit the NAI web privacy site.