A cave is a delicate thing. You wouldn’t think it. They’re dark and damp--and the cold of a cave is a cold that makes your bones feel wet, your skin clammy and your breath rise from your body in tendrils of steam. Inherently inhospitable, creatures that learn to endure a life spent in caves have a savage thirst for survival. Organisms discovered there are often lifeforms found nowhere else on earth. Glowworms are not romantic creatures--they're larva that have reached pupa stage and hang from the cave walls on tiny hammocks of their own silk. From their nest they send as many as 70 silken threads below them. Their peaceful glow, or bioluminescence, attracts midges, mayflies and other insects to their mucus snares.
In New Zeland, despite being 7,000 miles away from home, once again I found myself landlocked in a valley surrounded by mountains and a halo of golden fog. Yet, unlike Colorado where I was a thousand miles from the coast, at Poronui I was only 120 kilometers at most from the sea. On my first weekend off, I decided to head to Raglan because I craved water, the ocean and wanted desperately to learn how to surf. My boss suggested that on my way, I stop by the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. At first, I was reluctant. I’m not one for tourist attractions and from the looks of it, that’s exactly what the caves were. But she told me they were not to be missed.
When I arrived I felt slightly nauseous. It’s the type of personal nausea I experience when I witness commercialization of something natural. The caves were replete with staircases, lights inside caverns, and tours of thirty people every fifteen minutes. As we all barreled down into the belly of the caves I couldn’t help but look at the stalactites and stalagmites—engaged in a millennia-long pursuit just to meet each other. Simply the oil on your fingertips can erode thousands of years worth of progress. These dripping features, like slick candlewax, are the result of complicated and elaborate work. And all this growth is created by the seemingly inanimate. Caves are the perfect illustration that time and the simplest materials, when given space and privacy, can create magic.
As we descended into caverns more ancient than I have the capacity to understand, on human structures and metal scaffolding, I felt deeply immoral. What right did I have to these sights? What right did a company have to make a profit on this wonder? What was my responsibility as a natural voyeur?
The caves were discovered by Maori tribes long before their official exploration in 1887 by Maori Chief Tane Tinorau and English surveyor, Fred Mace. Therefore, it is particularly unsettling, that while some profits of the caves go to Maori Trusts, they are owned by Tourism Ltd., a New Zealand tourism company. It begs the question, at what point does land belong to anyone? How is it possible that these caves, so familiar to Maori tribes, could ever belong to another culture? And yet, what about the time before Maori civilization—when New Zealand belonged to no one but the Kererū and the eels? When does land have the right to speak for itself?
All of this rattled in my mind until we entered the final cave and were asked to sit on rafts in perfect darkness. As we rode the underground river, no one spoke. Water droplets echoed in a swirl of sound.
As we floated further and further towards the center of the cave, light came into view. Subtle at first. Just a simple haze. And then, suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of blue, twinkling orbs. Constellations of light refracted on the water below us and bounced around the walls of the cave creating an ethereal aura. I felt swallowed by light.
The glowing ceiling floated outwards, enveloped me until I felt like light myself. I’m notorious for being (outwardly) less emotional than most and yet, sitting there on the water, I was overcome.
The contradiction left me confused and disconcerted. On one level, the commercialization of the caves felt deeply and wholly wrong. The fact that Maori tribes lost primary possession of their own land, their own experience, wounded me. And that feeling was compounded by my own complicity and the understanding that despite great care, these caves were being shaped and eroded by our human presence. And yet, for someone who describes themselves as secular, the entire experience within the glowworm caves was truly spiritual.
Sometimes, you witness something that can’t be released. A sight, a moment that eats away at you, needles you, until you find a way to express what the experience really means. An hour after the caves, I arrived in Raglan and immediately went for a run on their black sand beaches. I ran and ran until the poem was inside me. I repeated the words, the rhythms, the images over and over again with each step until it was fully formed. When I was back at the hostel and had paper and pen--the poem was still there.
I’ve been thinking about the Waitomo Caves a lot recently because of the recent news of Bears Ears. The belief that land can belong to any one person, or a government, is a concept I’m still reconciling in my mind. Especially land that belonged to Tribal Nations long before western settlers even dreamed of such a place.
While I’m still working on the rhetoric behind property and belonging this much I know is true:
This earth has the power to wring magic from our bones—to whittle away the inauthentic, the mirage of modern life and show us what is real. And this magic, this transcendence, is something that should never be stolen.
Nobody has that right.