A Modern Cave Man

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Commentator Andrei Codrescu explores the caves of Missouri and Arkansas, which gets him thinking about the role of caves in human history. He says painting on the walls of caves is better than watching TV.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Commentator Andrei Codrescu explores the caves of Missouri and Arkansas, and that gets him thinking about the role of caves in human history. He says painting on the walls of caves is better than watching TV.

ANDREI CODRESCU:

I heard that some Tibetan monks meditate in caves for years and when they are ready, they stop eating and pass away quietly, leaving behind their mummified forms in the lotus position. Sounds good to me.

I've been looking at caves in Arkansas and Missouri, the cave states, and found restaurants in caves, drive-through caves, show caves and doomsday waiting caves. The weary proprietor of one show cave near Mountain Home, Arkansas, offered to sell me her show cave, in use by the Osage natives before Columbus, with the gift store, the whole historic village surrounding it and the two tour guides, a chain-smoking middle-aged former waitress and a hundred-year-old Native American who parked his mule at the cave entrance.

In its human history, which was but a flicker in the immensity of its geological history, the cave had served as a hideout for Confederate soldiers, a moonshine factory and a wedding chapel. In one of the rooms a former owner had built a crystal altar behind which shivering vows were enunciated. The owner wanted a half million for the whole shebang, but failing that, a hundred thousand might do. `I have $10,000 in postcards alone,' she pleaded.

The gift store was jam-packed with kitsch and the post cards featured scenes of local satire such as old women boiling clothes in cauldrons labeled `Ozark washing machines.' $10,000 worth of that kind of merchandise amounted to a lot of humor, let me tell you.

In addition to caves used for mercantile purposes there are caver enthusiasts, ranging in ages from six to 90, whose goal in life is to find a non-discovered cave.

Some of these caves say this place is a refuge for followers of doomsday prophets who lay in supplies for as long as it might take for Satan to do his thing on the surface, which might be a thousand years. One thousand years' worth of ramen and Spam can take a lot of room, but these underground worlds reach far, and they may even be connected under North and South America and under the oceans. There may even be a whole population living down there from the last ice age. An intrepid art lover might go from Mountain Home, Arkansas, to Lascaux in France and bridge the pictographs of Native Americans with Paleolithic cave drawings. Anyway, why speculate when all you need is a cave to evanesce in and maybe a little DSL and disco lights before you go.

As a student of caves, I have to stop myself from overflowing with cavern lore, which is as old as humans and as ubiquitous as karst. My cave passion was in remission for a couple of decades while the stock market and the superficial world outside seemed to be doing OK. But lately my mind's been a-caving again. The world on the surface seems prone to being blown and washed away by wind, mud, water, fire and plagues. People feel temporary and threatened, and it's natural to consider caves.

A cave, the work of billions of years, is a comforting thought to humans whose historic or even genetic memory has caves in it. We invented art and literature in caves while the hooves of horsemen passed overhead. Staring into a fire curing meat, painting your knowledge on the wall and dying in the lotus position is more congenial to the species than watching TV, shopping in a frozen food aisle and commuting to work. So don't blame me for being in the avant-garde. I found my cave and it didn't have any postcards in it. I'll also be teaching a course in hints for choosing your cave when NOSI, the New Orleans School for the Imagination, reopens next week at the Gold Mine Saloon.

NORRIS: Andrei Codrescu is a poet. He teaches at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

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