A journey into the dark places of the earth

Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms By Michael Taylor National Geographic 216 pp., $35

'The skin of the world hides many caves," writes Michael Taylor. "Caves are to a surface landscape as veins and capillaries are to a human face - the hidden structure."

Taylor's new book, "Caves: Exploring Hidden Realms," was written in conjunction with a soon-to-be-released IMAX film about earth's deepest secret places. Both the book and film follow two experienced cavers, Hazel Barton and Nancy Aulenbach, as they explore the world's most stunning internal landscapes.

"Caves" features over 200 pages of eerie and lovely photographs that may tempt armchair enthusiasts to abandon their day jobs for holes in the ground. Even readers who tense up near storm drains and rabbit holes will find that the book beautifully illustrates thrills they'll be just as happy to pass by.

Either way, "Caves" isn't just a splashy coffee-table book. In the text, Taylor interweaves stories of long-ago caving expeditions with the discoveries of his modern-day subjects.

Explorer Peter Freuchen had to regularly defrost his whiskers on a 1910 expedition to Greenland. Caver Nancy Aulenbach's husband proposed to her as they hung suspended, side by side, over a 180-foot pit called "Neversink." In Taylor's hands, these scenes are part of the same story: explorers who, time out of mind, have been drawn underground.

Taylor also marshals scientific evidence to argue that caves are historical and environmental treasures that deserve to be taken seriously - not contaminated with electric lighting, hotdog vendors, and gift shops. Twenty-five percent of the US's fresh water is stored in subterranean caves - along with bacterial and geological evidence that may revolutionize the way scientists understand our planet's past.

In the book's introduction, Ronal Kerbo, senior cave specialist of the US National Parks Service, writes, "I have heard the drumming of my heart while surrounded by solid stone.... I have felt the pull of the darkness from the lip of a great open pit beneath the earth, and wondered just for a moment why there are people who will never take the first step - from which all great journeys begin."

Even if the pull of the darkness only takes you as far as your local bookstore or IMAX theater, "Caves" promises a great journey.

Mary Wiltenburg is on the Monitor staff. E-mail wiltenburgm@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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