Straightjacketed into Spectatorship; or, the Image of Seeing a Cave IRL
Professional climber Chris Sharma scales a delicate limestone column—formed over tens of thousands of years—in his flip-flops for this advertisement for activewear clothier prAna, without any consideration for the fragility of the ancient cave formations. The company took the ad down and issued an apology after cave conservationists complained on social media about the poor example this image set.
A film conversation between Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles
Teresa K. Miller
Thanks to Instagram and all its metastasized relations, nowhere is so far off the beaten path we can’t experience it visually. We watch high-def footage of deep-sea rifts or accompany record-seekers up El Capitan’s Dawn Wall and India’s Meru Peak, across Antarctica by sled or the Pacific by sailboat. And so it was that you, Gregory, from the comfort of our then-condo in Oakland, learned of the largest cave in the world, first fully explored in central Vietnam in 2009. At the time, I didn’t actually study the compelling, saturated National Geographic spreads you told me about. Nonetheless, we decided seeing in person the millennia-old doline—a sinkhole big enough to allow a forest to grow up from the cave’s floor—should go on our bucket list.
Social media in general fail to capture the pace and quality of real life, whether posts consist of curated self-promotion or the occasional chronicle of personal despair. Ubiquitous meal, relationship, and kid photos cause us to mistake the euphoric or awkward or funny moment for the whole. They’re necessarily selective, no matter how “unfiltered.” Even for peak-experience junkies like Tommy Caldwell or Alex Honnold, most of life is not a pinnacle but crushing monotony spreading across the unremarkable, numbing expanse between momentary success and abject failure. The Facebooked half-marathon finish line captures none of the excruciating boredom of yet another not-personal-best-paced training run with a stitch in the side and a twinge in the knee, in deflating heat, past one more aggressive dog.
Over the years, I’ve developed a kind of unconditional love for that monotony. As a kid, I crawled out of my skin when I didn’t know how much longer a hike would be, when the lactic acid crept into my calves and quads. Undifferentiated swaths of trees and step after step looking at the same dirt and rocks on the trail threatened to kill me. At some point, though, I realized my mind would give out long before my body, and if I didn’t let it, if I found some solace in the tedium and learned to pay attention to the subtle differences in the slow-motion progression along a trail, I would eventually arrive almost anywhere—without hating every minute. I ascended and descended Chirripó, walking twenty-five miles, gaining and then losing 7,500 feet in a day. I hiked an almost twenty-one-mile stretch of Mt. Rainier’s Wonderland Trail another day. If I’m willing to stop watching the clock and put one foot in front of the other for hours on end, I go places.
Co-authors Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles stand inside Hang Sơn Đoòng’s first doline.
We lose that real-life experience clicking through others’ photos and video clips, the modern-day Reader’s Digest of travel. It should go without saying that the cave you and I trekked through, Sơn Đoòng in Vietnam’s Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng national park, bore only a faint resemblance in texture, appearance, and emotion to the National Geographic snaps or even our own—but I’m not sure such a fact is obvious anymore. And the images have no sense of temporality whatsoever, every one somewhat triumphant even when it depicts us tired and dirt-streaked. There’s no hint of the cumulative effect of climbing up and down boulders for hours each day on the tendons or the knees or the arches and skin of the feet, none of the relentless stream of inner dialogue that sustains or maddens a person walking like a dressage-trained horse through a long, muddy channel not wide enough to accommodate both legs at once.
The act of wielding a camera as an amateur adventure chronicler shapes the experience itself. Porters* hefted four heavy professional light kits in rice-sack backpacks, allowing a total lighting time of a couple of hours at the most, sprinkled over the four-day trip. One of the original British cave explorers, an avid photographer, accompanied our group and knew the best—or at least most magazine-memorable—angles. He rallied the paying customers accordingly. I simultaneously felt pressure to document and the urge to put away my camera entirely. One of the best parts of the journey involved setting my off-brand GoPro on time-lapse at the first doline and walking away, simply taking in the scene with my own eyes, hands-free and undistracted over the course of a long lunch.
I simultaneously felt pressure to document and the urge to put away my camera entirely. (Image: The Descent, 0:25:45)
I imagine Werner Herzog’s sense of pressure to document Chauvet Cave as something else altogether, much as the act of writing a poem for me bears no resemblance to a reluctant writer’s resistance toward drafting a wedding toast. Still, how much of the caveness did he absorb in those six four-hour filming days for Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), in the midst of setting up shots and imagining the ingredients of his final perfect cut?
If I take enough pictures, do I have to worry about consciously inhabiting and experiencing this moment? I’ll have the option of going back and remembering it later—even if mentally, I was never really there. Of course, to revisit the glut of daily images, we’d have to live two lives—one to take the pictures, and one to review them—or, as seems to be the danger, half a life.
In the immediate vicinity of the horses, there are figures of animals overlapping with each other. The striking point here is that, in cases like this, after carbon dating, there are strong indications that some overlapping figures were drawn almost 5,000 years apart. The sequence and duration of time is unimaginable for us today. We are locked in history and they were not. —Werner Herzog. (Image: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 0:04:05)
“Vietnam War” is the American title of a failed proposition to an imaginary adversary for a martial contest favoring our own economic might and imperial ambition. Surface-dwelling U.S. soldiers culled from low-income backgrounds were told to expect a conventional battlefront backed by grateful civilians. They anticipated a populace crying for help from under a fallen domino, but they were beset by profound resentment and a subterranean work ethic beyond their wildest nightmares. The Việt Cộng dissolved into the earth, biding time underground during patrols and bombardments within tight burrows painstakingly dug over years, if not decades.
Cross-sectioned models of the VC’s tunnel systems resemble elaborate ant farms, tempting western tourists today at the preserved Củ Chi encampment to mistake a resilient anti-colonial nationalist—resistant to all outside influence, Chinese and Soviet included—for some kind of communist arthropod. Dehumanization of the enemy is a basic necessity among soldiers if they expect to inure themselves to regret and self-doubt during and after the commitment of lethal actions, but in this case, dehumanization contributed more to the reinforcement of their own childlike terror of the unseen.
You could shave the jungle from the dirt with napalm and defoliants and still never defeat them, because no one ever took a hot second to understand them. This impotent frustration and stubborn inability to comprehend the conflict led directly to the atrocities of Mỹ Lai, Agent Orange, and more generally, the conservative figure of 627,000 slaughtered Vietnamese noncombatants (roughly twice the number of Vietnamese combatants—North and South—killed in the twenty years of America’s incursion). For every soldier the U.S military killed, they took two civilians in the bargain. They took their hearts, and they took their minds.
In this case, dehumanization contributed more to the reinforcement of their own childlike terror of the unseen. (Image: The Descent, 0:56:35)
Today, the pride in their soldiers’ resourcefulness is naked when you clumsily lurch through the Củ Chi tunnels outside of Hồ Chí Minh City. Forty-three years since the fall of Saigon, there is a mellowed sense of good-natured mockery that underscores the cumbersome physical properties of the hapless invader-turned-humble-tourist—as usual, technologically almighty yet personally unprepared for an impoverished people who could make durable sandals from the tire tread blown off American military vehicles destroyed by unexploded American bombs recycled and repurposed into proto-IEDs.
As a Gen-X visitor untouched by personal tragedy in connection with the American war in Vietnam, I ruefully enjoyed Củ Chi’s exhibit of various ingenious pit traps, each one deceptively covered with AstroTurf—the 1965 American invention associated with professional sports fields, miniature golf courses, and mobile home park managers’ “lawns”—to approximate what would have been disguised earth that failed the heavy step of the oblivious American soldier, collapsing into barbed jaws intended only to injure gravely and immobilize, the soldier screaming for help, transformed into a siren of sympathy, unintentionally luring his fellow soldiers into an easily dispatched gathering. Gallows humor, yes, but having needlessly taken a million Vietnamese lives in the service of a conspiracy theory about the uniformity of communist expansion, I think we as Americans can take the oddly genial tour with deference and without reproach.
A siren of sympathy. (Image: The Descent, 1:31:54)
Another Củ Chi joke at the bulky westerner’s expense is the literal hole in the ground used for quick disappearances, capped by a perfectly camouflaged lid of dead leaves. Tourists are invited to try and sink into this slot in the earth, only accessible by squatting and lifting arms above the head before complete submersion, wiggling and disappearing like a not-so-seductive Hollywood harem dancer into a snake charmer’s basket. Photos litter the internet of sheepish white people grinning, half-swallowed in the tiny warren, arms held up as if in surrender. Sample tunnels among the miles originally built have been slightly widened for “tourist comfort” yet still remain claustrophobically tight.
All of which is to say: What were Americans thinking in 1955, at the outset of war, or in 1964, during the bogus Gulf of Tonkin incident that precipitated troop increases? What Scientology fairy tale prompted us to drop millions more tons of bombs on 128,000 square miles than were dropped on the almost 4 million square miles of Europe during World War II?
One of those bombs fell like a lost orphan into a doline of the largest cave in the world, Sơn Đoòng, in the wasp waist of Vietnam. At the time, probably close to 1970, not a soul knew a cave was there; it didn’t have a name. The bomb fell in a giant hole around the year of my birth and blew up in oblivion; it might as well have been sucked into a void. The two dolines along Hang Sơn Đoòng’s immense length have existed for millennia, long enough to fill one skylighted area with thick jungle. Fragments of the bomb still lie in one titanic sinkhole, a testament to American desperation, the asymptotic option of recursive violence, rehearsed endlessly as an exhibition of phony fortitude when actual progress is impossible.
The entrance to the cave was discovered by Hồ Khanh in the early ’90s, while the entire cave was finally explored and charted by British speleologists in 2009. Ten years later—February 2019—you and I trek through it, two of the first few thousand permitted to travel there since the Vietnamese government opened the cave to guided explorations. It’s an expensive trip, managed carefully by conservationists, and while we were privileged to see it, some negative human impact is inevitable no matter the caution taken by experts and local porters. Recently, the Vietnamese government has pushed to build a tram into its pristine depths, a project that would enable more tourists to get there with less money and less physical exertion.
There are other Vietnamese caves easily accessed by tourists that serve as cautionary tales. Thiên Cung cave, on Đầu Gỗ island in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hạ Long Bay, features a paved pathway, moody colorful lighting you might see in a Mario Bava horror film, garbage tossed beyond the railings, beautiful columns of limestone worn and smudged at shoulder height by countless grubby hands, an impatient guide cheekily observing a stalagmite’s resemblance to a circumcised penis, and a flowstone formation resembling a dragon, cheesily reinforced by the tour operators’ placement of red light bulbs where the dragon’s “eyes” would be. (I almost expected the lights to blink in time with a tinny recording of a roar, perhaps with a fog machine belching smoke from the “mouth.”) During our visit, we noticed a woman squatting between rock formations, surreptitiously urinating—the place was crowded, the facilities were scant, and she couldn’t wait!—all in all, a formerly beautiful cave sacrificed to the tourist’s appetite for kitsch and the unnatural picturesque, repurposed into Dead Man’s Grotto at Disneyland.
Thiên Cung cave sports moody colorful lighting you might see in a Mario Bava horror film.
And Hang Sơn Đoòng, with the addition of a tram, would become a cathedral-sized version of this degradation. Cave pearls, formed by the slow accretion of calcium salts around a seed pebble, lie untouched in neat beds. Inevitably, these would be pilfered by tram-riding tourists, stolen like handicrafts from the spot where they had rested and grown undisturbed for thousands of years. The limestone-glazed deer skeleton, perfectly preserved near the exit of the cave—a deer that grazed before the appearance on this planet of modern man and woman—would be dismantled over time by thieves, bone by bone, and dispersed into human homes around the world, one small ceramic-looking femur perhaps placed on the mantle next to a gold-framed photograph of a good-natured Ohio family gathered in a parking lot near the rim of the Grand Canyon, wearing baseball caps and T-shirts with silk-screened Navajo designs.
Subterranean Vietnam is a place we have no business illuminating if we intend to preserve our most exhilarating, salutary fears that guide us toward personal safety, the sovereignty of nations, the preservation of fragile mineral histories, the fleeting experiences of stark beauty—the enduring luster of sublime terror that galvanizes an otherwise perfunctory human life.
Professed anti-ironist and co-author Giles smirks beside a T-shirt sold by a Hanoi shopkeeper, commemorating the 2019 North Korea–U.S. summit. The sincere wish by some Vietnamese for a rapprochement between North Korea and the United States is only exceeded in futile wishful thinking by the eagerness on Giles’s part to commission a Facebook-ready joke photo at the expense of the actual tragedy of aspiring dictators performing near the site of Hồ Chí Minh’s mausoleum.
The Descent (2005) opens with a group of twenty-something women whitewater rafting. The rapids appear occasionally challenging, and the women have enough experience to navigate the boat themselves—they’re not on a guided tour. But the location is not remote, as a husband and daughter stand cheering on the banks. It’s a good photo op, showing a moderate feat of strength while remaining thoroughly safe. In those introductory moments, we see the protagonist, Sarah, has it all: She’s a mom who loves her adoring daughter while still adventuring with friends. Her life is full and unconstrained. #GirlPower #LeanIn
The women reach the shore, and Sarah’s husband, Paul, helps Juno onto dry land, holding her a little too long as she looks into his eyes. So trouble lies beneath the surface, and the one nonwhite character is a homewrecker. As the superficially happy family drives away, the cheating husband appears distracted, presumably by thoughts of his mistress. When Sarah asks him if he’s OK, he startles and veers across the center line, hitting a vehicle carrying metal poles and becoming impaled by one.
Sarah wakes up in the hospital from a vision in which her daughter has blown out birthday candles one by one, leaving the two in the dark. The frantic mother rips the IVs and sensors from her skin, causing the related machines to flatline, and runs down the hallway, each section of lights turning off just behind her. She’s chased by darkness. Her daughter and husband are dead, and her traitorous friend Juno runs away without consoling her. (Already, the film is on my bad side—car accidents, like substance abuse, as a trope to create a tortured backstory long ago entered the ranks of cliché, with the added insult that they’re almost never rendered believably.)
Her life is full and unconstrained. (Image: The Descent, 0:01:49)
The Descent hit theaters five years before Herzog’s 3-D feature, yet it has a few coincidental echoes of the documentary footage. When the women first descend through the entrance, Sarah sees a red smudge on the wall, what viewers can already surmise is a bloody handprint. In France’s Chauvet Cave, Herzog captured panels of handprints left in red paint by a single person with an injured pinky. Their original entrance blocked by a collapse, the women use up a precious flare to illuminate cave paintings in what appears to be a prehistoric style, somehow gaining enough information from the two openings on the rudimentary image to rush forth with confidence in search of an exit. Herzog’s film lingers over the impeccably preserved paintings of bison, horses, lions, and cave bears in colors reminiscent of The Descent’s forgeries, though radiocarbon dating and examination of calcified layers have confirmed they’re real.
Not every story needs a moral, but what is the logic of The Descent’s world? Adventurous women suffer. Even strong ones betray each other over men. Even those who could shinny through underground tunnels barely wider than their shoulders, hang above unexplored abysses from a single rope, remove the pickaxe splinted to a corpse’s leg to use as a weapon against humanoid monsters, and hide from them in an underground pool of blood and offal without panicking or vomiting will disintegrate into self-sabotaging, vengeful hysteria over a man, despite facing mortal danger.
Hiding from humanoid monsters in an underground pool of blood and offal. (Image: The Descent, 1:18:09)
Sure, Sarah did not want to learn the dead husband she’d been mourning had strayed, let alone with one of her best friends, nor that his Hallmarkism she quoted—love each day—was inscribed on the back of said treasonous friend’s conspicuous necklace. Still, every sign points to the women having a better chance of getting out by banding together than by turning against one another. The affair aside, Juno is undeniably a badass, having dispatched multiple monsters at once, on her own. (Of course, she also accidentally stabbed their friend Beth in the throat in the process and left her to die, which seems to me more like a trauma response than a sign of sociopathy.)
In the end, Juno and Sarah switch places. Juno’s conduct ran counter to the codes of ethics and friendship, but she wants to redeem herself and feels committed to saving her friends, particularly Sarah. Sarah succumbs to revenge and dooms them both. In the U.S./rated version, she escapes the cave but then either really sees or hallucinates Juno’s ghost; in the U.K./unrated version, she appears to escape, until we find she was dreaming while knocked unconscious. When she comes to, she’s still underground, alone, her would-be killers closing in.
His Hallmarkism inscribed on the back of her treasonous friend’s conspicuous necklace. (Image: The Descent, 1:15:33)
The credits roll over the group photo the women took before setting out on their ill-fated journey. In that moment posing for posterity, none of them worried their descent to find themselves would yield only emptiness.
I fully endorse your insights into the implications of The Descent’s dubious girl-power politics, a spot-on takedown of a horror film I have always enjoyed on repeat viewings, remaining blithely indifferent to everything except a personally beloved subterranean setting, the relative novelty of an all-female cast of badasses, and the tightly shot scares and thrills. As a goofy kid with a love for old movies, I would watch and re-watch G.W. Pabst’s 1931 coal-mining thriller Kameradschaft on VHS, adoring the set-bound constructed replicas of bituminous, jet walls glistening in black-and-white-photographed caverns propped with unstable timbers, beams of lantern light nearly solid with motes of dust. Caves—human-bored or natural—are tailor-made for evocative photography and tight narratives (not unlike trains), exhilarating, perhaps, because of the Oulipian, arbitrary challenge of confinement, forcing invention in a space that refuses digression.
The Oulipian, arbitrary challenge of confinement forces invention in a space that refuses digression. (Image: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 0:10:20)
Setting a film in a natural cave foregrounds the theme of perilous human intrusions into undisturbed environments, even as it panders to my love of the haunted diorama: What we gape at in astonishment is dependent on unnatural light, a sort of cheat into what spends most of its epochal time in abject darkness, its melting limestone surfaces felt only by the groping of tiny albino crabs and the echolocations of bats. Flares, night vision, and helmet lamps are the diegetic sources of light in The Descent that wreak havoc in a place that would normally be pitch dark; we had moments in our cave trek experimenting with utter darkness—all lights out—and I would sooner jab my retina with an index finger than see it. The humanoid monsters in The Descent are appropriately blind, a long-shot bubble of isolated evolution, like Darwin’s variously beaked finches being selected by nature over millennia for island micro-environments separated by only a few miles of seawater. The less-than-likelihood of this adaptation is nonetheless potently symbolic of the hubris of human exploration, the meaningless presumption of being somewhere “first,” a somewhere that had a life of its own apart from humanity—one, in fact, that might dumbly resist notions of manifest destiny.
When Hồ Khanh discovered Hang Sơn Đoòng’s entrance—misty tendrils of fog drifting from its mouth—he simply saw it and left, more invested in making a living as an illegal logger than risking his life in an unexplored cave. Emblematic of the quandary of human livelihood competing with environmental preservation in the developing world, he likely had few options to subsist at that time aside from poaching lumber in the jungle. Given a choice, he probably would have preferred some other form of employment, and in fact now works for the sustainable tourism company that organized our trek. But who’s to say that his new employment is any more protective of the fragile parkland, given that the cave’s discovery and exploration have led directly to the threat of a government tram project?
One Vietnamese participant in the trek now leads an impassioned “Save Sơn Đoòng” campaign resisting the government’s reckless plans to exploit the cave, so there are Vietnamese players on both sides of the issue, and the tram is by no means a foregone conclusion. But the original disturbance of the cave has led to this fight over its role in Vietnamese lives, as if any human being could have a truly meaningful part in its condition on this planet over hundreds of thousands of years, aside from staging its transformation into a resource amenable to human use.
If Sơn Đoòng, by virtue of being a tourist attraction within the borders of Vietnam, can be considered a natural resource offering an economic windfall to local, corporate, or national coffers, much like an oil deposit trapped between layers of rock, then we can compare the threat by human discovery to the newly accessible sands disclosed by the melting ice sheets on Greenland, a valuable resource to a human civilization in dire need of sand for construction and flood abatement (in response to the very floods along coastlines that are increased by Greenland’s melting ice). We continue to accelerate a process of destruction by compounding it with otherwise neutral discoveries beneath the surface. Human awareness of our underworld is inevitably an invitation to destroy that world—knowledge at the cost of existence. No doubt similar depleting uses will be discovered with the mapping of the ocean floor, for example; we will pioneer approaches to it, we will chart its contours, we will enrich our knowledge of it, we will discover its economic value, and then we will consume it. The science that could preserve and the science that will exhaust are neatly twisted together.
Hồ Khanh would never have bothered following up on the location of Hang Sơn Đoòng’s entrance—in fact, he lost track of it—except British cavers contacted him nearly twenty years later, encouraging him to help them rediscover it. Sơn Đoòng has been sacrificed to the science of speleology and the foreign currencies of tourism that will help develop Vietnam. We will know more about caves, and we will enrich the local economy of Quảng Bình Province, but perhaps better than that is the likelihood that there are thousands of equally impressive caves throughout the world that we have never found. And I hope we never find them.
Ian “Watto” Watson, at left, is a member of the original team of British cavers who first explored Sơn Đoòng. In this photo, he and co-author Giles give their best shit-eating grins and say in unison, “Don’t be an ass!” after photographer and co-author Miller gave them that instruction for some now-forgotten but no doubt richly deserved reason.
The bank vault of Chauvet Cave, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a token of our wild desperation to preserve the faintest signals from our ancient selves. Perhaps a handful of people have been permitted to see its drawings in person; the entrance otherwise remains sealed with a massive steel door fixed in cement. Similar cave paintings in Altamira and Lascaux have developed mold from the humid exhalations of millions of human tourists, so Chauvet will be permanently enclosed and guarded. The three-dimensional gift of Herzog’s documentary should be enough for us, and the care we take with human relics should be matched by the care we take with natural sites, which, after all, are only remarkable because of our deeming them as such.
The drab Nevada desert visible for hundreds of miles driving along Interstate 80 is no less vital but lacks the picturesque that accords it status with UNESCO. What are we choosing to preserve and why? I can deal with the bathos of you and I sitting in a small room wearing awkwardly fitting 3-D glasses and watching the illusory contours of the Chauvet artist’s handprints on a television screen, a manifestation unimaginable to the creator with the crooked finger. Writers like Wendell Berry have envisioned us being caged off from nature, like zoo animals brooding over a world without us, straitjacketed into spectatorship. I am not a practicing phenomenologist; I am happy to feel my bonds and see the world distantly mediated from my own destructive tendencies.
A manifestation unimaginable to the creator with the crooked finger. (Image: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 0:38:20)
My first year teaching in Oakland Unified School District, a fellow Washingtonian was in my cohort, and we met up for drinks over winter break in Seattle. He’d been out Christmas shopping with his family that day and showed off his present: an iPhone, the first version ever having just been released. Unlike our flip and slide phones, it had apps. He showed us how one of them could pick up snippets of songs at the bar and identify them. I wasn’t awed—it seemed like a gimmicky waste of money I’d never want. A decade later, though my phone is probably still less of a moment-by-moment mediator in my life than that of the average American, I’m almost never without it.
Even before smartphones came on the scene, I was no stranger to the siren song of chronicling. My father’s mother died of pancreatic cancer when I was four, and the grief launched him into genealogical research, an obsession that shaped the rest of his also prematurely ended life, many a vacation marked by long hours spent at specialized research libraries and rambles through cemeteries. And then I majored in history, writing a senior thesis that involved reading every single issue of a monthly San Francisco–based lesbian newsletter published between 1956 and 1972, among other primary sources.
The contemporary historian’s mindset, family or otherwise, tends to view every record, photo, and artefact as an equally valuable primary source. The stance means we learn about the lives of more than just dead white men and the victorious pillagers of war. But the negative for the researcher, I’ve found, is mental overwhelm. If every scrap could shed more light on the past, constructing or deepening narratives of our arrival here, then what do I pore over first, what do I keep, and when do I inhabit this culminating moment and this one and this one? The anxiety makes me teeter between renouncing the material memory of the world and hoarding.
The contemporary historian’s mindset tends to view every record, photo, and artefact as an equally valuable primary source. (Image: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, 0:20:16)
My preoccupation has a personal motive. My father meticulously cared for family artefacts, but he was killed by vehicular homicide thirteen years ago. My mother, facing the accumulated objects of multiple family members now gone, has a phobia-level aversion to dealing with their lingering traces. Certain memories of my father, my grandparents, and even my great-grandparents, whom I never met, seem to exist within objects now lost, so the stories feel lost, too. It’s not tenable to live my life as someone else’s legacy, yet I’m also terrified of forgetting.
Underground, the landscape telescopes time into a wholly different dimension from our digital world. Forming a few centimeters of a stalactite or stalagmite takes millennia, spanning more generations with more stories than history can record. Walking into a Sơn Đoòng chamber big enough to accommodate a 747, with formations large as houses, lurches the mind so far beyond comprehension as to become nonsensical. A preserved deer skeleton near the cave’s exit looks as if it could mark a death from the previous year, but it’s a calcified memory thousands of years old, adhered to the rock.
Who will remember us? In the absence of any discernible biological clock, sometimes my only draw toward having a child seems to be as a repository for accumulated memories, to avoid being forgotten. What a terrible way to relate to an autonomous life in the world. Yet I have parent-friends who didn’t feel called by the process of child-rearing, either, only the fear of what life would be like without adult children in old age. And even in the absence of guilt about burdening a child, the strategy breaks down—I think of my early experiences with my grandparents now and then, but I’ve lived my adult life without them. Their parents are just stories, their parents’ parents just names on a genealogical chart.
When I was seven or eight, my parents sent me to Albuquerque to stay with my dad’s first cousin and his family for a week. The daughter, a year and a half older than me, had already passed whole summers at sleepaway camps and had come to stay with us for a week the previous year without angst. I, on the other hand, spent most of my week away homesick and sobbing. One layer of my malaise involved a purple plastic camera my mom had given me before putting me on a plane by myself, while she and my father headed to the Mormon-run Family History Library in Salt Lake City. She told me to find something interesting to take a picture of each day, and I could show her what I picked when I got back.
The camera took twelve photos to a roll and had a clip-in strip of flashbulbs. My supply of film and flashes was limited, and it never occurred to me I could ask my cousins to buy more if I messed up or ran out. Each picture cost something, and there was no way of knowing if it was good or bad, blurry or clear, blocked by a stray finger or the victim of some other cruel fate until long after, when the roll was developed. As it turned out, several of the pictures captured the inside of my backpack, because only through trial and error did I realize I shouldn’t wind the film to the next exposure until I wanted to take another shot.
In the new photography the camera itself serves as electronic repository of memory from which a past, a simulacrum of any past, can be called up and programmatically shaped. —Alan Trachtenberg. (Image: The Descent, 1:04:51)
Now, there’s no substantive barrier to taking and storing an almost infinite number of photos, with real-time feedback as to whether they turned out as desired. My original laptop’s hard drive had far less storage than the cheapest, smallest flash drive available today. We could take a photo every minute of our lives and not go broke, in bursts of many per second to get just the right one. The flash is built-in and reusable for the life of the phone—or, for the hardcore and nostalgic among us, the standalone digital camera.
Yale Professor Alan Trachtenberg writes, “In the old photography the camera is an instrument of memory; in the new photography the camera itself serves as electronic repository of memory from which a past, a simulacrum of any past, can be called up and programmatically shaped.” All this change happened in my lifetime, and I’m a dreaded millennial.
I don’t know where the pictures from that Southwest trip went. I only remember one of them clearly, taken in a corral where we rode horses. I don’t recall the actual riding, just the unremarkable, now-lost photo. Other moments I did not try to photograph—my cousin’s mother eating a bell pepper like an apple, which scandalized me, and then squatting in front of the car on the side of the dusty highway to pee, which did not.
Only after I tapped into the anxiety of recording the trip did I conjure its primary purpose these decades later: to drive to Carlsbad Caverns, so we could walk through a cave as a family. The tour guide told us one giant, hunched stalagmite, which looked something like Jabba the Hutt wearing a sparkling robe, had appeared in a film whose name meant nothing to me. I tried to take a picture, which turned out gray, grainy, and indecipherable, just a record of my flash in the darkness.
Co-author Miller, helmet lamp shining, ascends Sơn Đoòng’s Great Wall, the last climb before the cave’s exit. (Photo credit: Ian “Watto” Watson)
Screenshots, taken from Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) and The Descent (2005), are included here under principles of fair use for the purpose of commentary. Other images have source links or credits noted in the captions if applicable.
*International travel in and of itself represents a level of privilege only a sliver of the world enjoys, but this trip brought the disparity into sharpest relief. Any other trek I’ve done has been self-organized and involved carrying all my own supplies and cooking my own dehydrated beans. In an effort to conserve the cave, though, the Vietnamese government allows visitors only under the supervision of a single local tour company, so we traveled in unfamiliar style. Thankfully, the company’s owner grew up in the village, and the money generated goes back to local people—the porters make a good enough living to build their families two-story houses with concrete foundations, and employees spend a portion of their time constructing schools and weather-resistant houses in local communities. Still, there are limits to economic uplift against the national backdrop. Like me, our tour guide holds a master’s in teaching. To make good use of it, she aspires to go to the U.S. But whereas we secured tourist visas to Vietnam online in forty-eight hours for twenty-five dollars each, she faces an uphill battle to get a visa of any kind, given that preference goes to people who pose a minimal flight risk, i.e., wealthy individuals with families and property tethering them to Vietnam.
About the Authors:
This piece is the tenth in a series Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles have jointly written for Berfrois to date, on films with environmental, food, and social justice themes—most recently on horror film treatments of melting permafrost for Berfrois: The Book (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019). They graduated from the Mills College MFA and MA English programs, respectively, and live near Portland, Oregon. @TeresaKMiller @gcgiles