Sights and sounds from a 'cave dweller'

The Nature Call: Comparing Maquoketa Caves to Orchestra Iowa

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Editor’s note: John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D., of Marion teaches U.S. history with an emphasis on environmental issues at Linn-Mar High School and sits on the Linn County Conservation Board.

Troglodyte.

As an ignorant youth I heard and used that fancy word as a put-down. With enlightenment, that slur now holds a higher place in my vocabulary. Troglodyte means “cave dweller” and “backwards,” but to me it’s now cheery.

With the orchestra in full note, the choir sang “Et in terra pax, hominibus bonae voluntatis (And on earth, peace to men of good will).”

It hit me while sitting in the Paramount Theatre, reveling in Bach’s epic B Minor Mass: I’m in another cave.

The performance space is large and enclosing, people rightly call it cavernous, that is, like a cave. The music and joy filling the modern cave connected me to the jubilation in which I participated in a place not so long ago or far away.

Dancehall Cave is, well, cavernous. A sunny holiday weekend brought out merrymakers to the subterranean masterpieces of Maquoketa Caves State Park. Regular drips from the ceiling provided the beat and the multitudes of voices, particularly from children, bouncing off the walls were the melody, rhythm and arias combined.

The park lies just about an hour east of Cedar Rapids but the ancient geology allows one to travel further.

Exploring these accessible caves was fun. I stepped back into my boyhood self as I splashed and scurried with my children. No one can celebrate a little mud like kids. The fussy should only look, but you don’t need to be too adventurous to explore caves of all ability levels.

The featured cave, Dancehall, generations ago hosted wedding parties. It must have been spectacular. Though the bride had to accept the star was the geology, not her or the groom.

The many labyrinths and overhangs certainly sheltered ancient peoples, the first men and the first women as they colonized the continent. Thousands of years of awe and respite. You can stand there, too, you can share in that awe, maybe respite if the weather turns hostile.

For the truly cerebral, one might push themselves back further, beyond humanity itself. Water plus time in the karst formations yielded fissures and then caves, built stalagmites and stalactites. Alas, for me and my spelunking companions modern time demanded another hour to return to our appointed lives.

Bach’s passionate masterwork, so earnestly performed by Orchestra Iowa with Chorale Midwest, ended with words perfect for the caves of man as well as the caves of God, “Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace).”

Looking up, looking ahead and keeping my pencil sharp.

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