Jack got excited about our July theme and wrote his stunt journalism piece for June. Read about it here.

In 1986, a construction crew in Romania stumbled upon a forgotten pocket of the world.

In looking for a site for a power plant, the workers had inadvertently discovered a cave that had been closed off from the rest of the world for millions of years. Despite hazardous gases leaking from the opening, a scientist named Cristian Lascu decided to investigate.

After descending seventy feet down a treacherous vertical shaft, Lascu navigated labyrinthine limestone tunnels by the light of his flashlight alone. Deep within the cave, he discovered a large chamber containing a lake teeming with life. His dangerous trip had unearthed something remarkable: a fully functioning ecosystem that had survived without sunlight and with barely any oxygen for millennia.

The creatures and bacteria adapted to live within these harsh conditions by gradually relying on chemosynthesis, rather than photosynthesis. That is, instead of a food chain that started with gathering energy from the sun like plants, these organisms used inorganic chemicals for nutrition.  Within the cave, Lascu discovered thirty-three new species found nowhere else on earth.

What unites these creatures, beyond their unique environment, is that they all look very frightening. (Look up “movile cave creatures” if you feel brave.) After millions of years in the dark, these water scorpions, spiders, leeches, and other creepy crawly things are pale, visionless, almost translucent. In short, they look like cave monsters from a bad horror movie.

There’s something entrancing about them, though. Maybe it’s just me, but the idea of this living time capsule, this odd artifact of shifting geology and resilient biology, just keeps coming back in my mind. Fewer than one hundred people have even set foot inside the cave, as the Romanian government has kept the cave sealed to all but a few researchers.

I keep trying to put my finger on why I think this cave is so interesting. Perhaps part of the reason is that it suggests that not all answers have been found. I know that sounds like a particularly obvious concept, but sometimes, it feels as though much of the world is either exhaustively known or ostensibly out of reach. We now can pull up satellite imagery of virtually every square inch of the world’s surface, and we’ve been to the top of Mount Everest and the bottom of the Marianas Trench, yet dreams of traveling outside our solar system seem far-fetched.

This cave reminds me that there is still mystery all around us. There are paths still unwalked, sights still unseen. Even within what we think we know, there are still secrets.

Last weekend I drove up to Sleeping Bear dunes. I thought about what it must have been like to be the first humans to walk along those dunes. To pass through the forest—woods without trails or fences. To drink from the Platte River, long before it had a name. What a sense of wonder, to stand among those dense white pines and look out on the blue of the lake.

This cave—delicate, terrifying, and secret—reminds me that the wonder of the unknown still exists.

Jack Van Allsburg

Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)

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