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Bottomless Pit

Bottomless Pit
   

Cave Wind

Cave Wind
 
     Davis McCombs reads his poem “Bottomless Pit” against a backdrop of footage from Mammoth Cave National Park. “Bottomless Pit” is from the book Ultima Thule ,published by Yale University Press. Used with permission.           Davis McCombs reads his poem “Cave Wind” against a backdrop of footage from Mammoth Cave National Park. “Cave Wind” is from the book Ultima Thule, published by Yale University Press. Used with permission.     

Background Essay: Inspired by Mammoth Cave

Ultima Thule, Davis McCombs' book of poetry about Mammoth Cave, is part of a long line of artistic works celebrating this World Heritage Site.

Even before Mammoth Cave became part of the National Park System and a World Heritage Site, writers, painters, and musicians were drawn to it. Some of the earliest writings about Mammoth Cave were the published letters of well-to-do tourists who visited the site in the early 19th century. Early travel writers described both the grandeur of the cave, likening it to a sacred cathedral, and the eerie feeling of being deep in the earth, which evoked comparisons to the Underworld. Whether the names were invented by visitors or by tour guides, rock formations and features of Mammoth Cave acquired names like “the haunted chamber” and “Wilkin's armed chair,” superimposing human analogies on the natural surroundings. In 1860, noted American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote both an essay and a poem entitled “Illusions,” in which he used the features of Mammoth Cave as an extended metaphor for his views on society.

From over-promotion to national park

One early owner of the cave, John Croghan, deliberately promoted the cave as an elite tourism destination by hosting writers, artists, and scientists in the hopes that they would bring more fame to the cave and more tourists to his inn—which is exactly what happened. He particularly cultivated popular celebrities. A Norwegian violinist named Ole Bull, who was wildly popular in America, visited the cave on his first concert tour of the United States in the 1840s and reputedly performed in the chamber that still bears his name. Jenny Lind, a Swedish soprano, also made Mammoth Cave a part of her U.S. tour, supposedly singing while seated in the formation known as “Wilkin's armed chair” (which was promptly renamed “Jenny Lind’s armchair”).

Such efforts to promote tourism were actually too successful, and the adverse impacts of over-commercialization eventually led to the recognition that Mammoth Cave needed and merited the status of a national park. Mammoth Cave National Park was authorized in 1926, although it was not granted full national park status until 1941. In 1981, it was designated a World Heritage Site, and in 1990, it was named an International Biosphere Reserve.

As a national park, Mammoth Cave continues to draw creative souls. Mammoth Cave National Park is one of 29 national parks that participate in the park system Artist-in-Residence program, which offers opportunities for two-dimensional visual artists, photographers, sculptors, performers, writers, composers, and craft artists to live and work in the parks.

The ranger poet

Davis McCombs, who wrote Ultima Thule, spent far more than a few weeks as an artist-in-residence getting to know Mammoth Cave. He grew up in Hart County, near the cave, and first visited Mammoth Cave on a school field trip when he was seven. He was hooked and began exploring caves. He became a park ranger at Mammoth Cave in 1991. For the next nine years, he led tours into Mammoth Cave, and this experience gave him an intimate knowledge not only of the cave, but of the experience of being a guide.

McCombs’ mind turned to the most famous former guide of Mammoth Cave, Stephen Bishop. As McCombs states in the preface to the first section of Ultima Thule, “Stephen Bishop was the slave of Dr. John Croghan, owner of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave from 1839-1849. Bishop served as a guide at the cave from 1839 until 1857. His daring explorations, which led to the discovery of miles of cave passageways, were covered in newspapers and books. His fame drew visitors from all over the world. By smoking their names onto the walls of the cave, he learned to read and write. Stephen Bishop died in 1857 at the age of 37. Oddly, the cause of his death was not recorded and remains unknown.”

McCombs organized Ultima Thule in three sections. “The book begins with the slave Stephen Bishop’s imagined experiences as a guide at Mammoth Cave in the 1830s and `40s and it ends with my experiences as a guide there in the 1990s. I suppose writing from SB's perspective allowed me to get at my own experiences,” McCombs says.

The Stephen Bishop sonnets were written in the spring of 1997, a time McCombs describes as “magical.” “Bishop was a great subject to invent around because he is, it occurred to me later, the exact opposite of almost every other historical figure. By this I mean that there are moments in the travel narratives written about Mammoth Cave during his time there when Bishop comes perfectly into focus. For example, we know that on a particular day in a particular year (I forget the dates) he was leading a tour, had a toothache and, because of the pain, was forced to turn the group over to another guide. We know something that specific about him, yet we don’t know when or where he was born, who his parents were, how he died, etc.,—the things that we usually know about historical figures.”

McCombs’ poems explore the realms of nature above and below ground and the layers of time, geological and human that echo through the underground labyrinth. The title Ultima Thule is derived from the name of a location in the Mammoth Cave system that was once thought to be end of the passage known as the Main Cave before discoveries in 1908 led to further accessible regions. Ancient geographers used the term Ultima Thule to refer to the northernmost land in the inhabited world or any distant spot beyond the borders of the known world.

 

Links

Davis McCombs and His Poetry

Other Poems About Mammoth Cave

About Mammoth Cave and Its Cultural Impact

* The Project Muse website includes an article from the Journal Southeastern Geographer entitled “Mammoth Cave and the Making of Place,” describing the eminence of Mammoth Cave in popular culture of the 1800s and 1900s. (note: this is a .pdf file)

* The Kentucky Explorer web site includes an article “Early Writers at Mammoth Cave”

Information About Stephen Bishop