28 April 2014

Sharing Poems and Exploring Mammoth Cave

The Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave
Descending into the dark and cold Mammoth Cave with 80 fifth-grade students, I couldn't help but think about all the writers and explorers before us who also entered at the cave at the Historic Entrance. In the weeks leading up to our visit, I read  Ultima Thule by Davis McCombs for my book of the week, and then I re-read the poems aloud to my ten-year-old son, a few poems each evening the week before our trip. Isaac and I have been to Mammoth Cave previously on a family trip, and I accompanied his older brother two years ago on his school trip, but this was the first time we read literature specifically associated with the cave prior to visiting.

With Poem in Your Pocket Day occurring the day before our trip, Isaac chose McCombs' poem Brush Fire to carry and share with his classmates at school. When we entered the cave the next day, we made our first stop in the cave dome that sits directly below the Mammoth Cave Hotel.  This stop reminded us of Brush Fire where we read of forty acres burning and the Hotel surviving while a group below is explores, oblivious of the fire raging above them.
Isaac carries Brush Fire for his #PocketPoem

The persona poems in Ultima Thule fed our shared interest in history, especially since the first few poems are persona poems told from the voice of former slave guide Stephen Bishop. Bishop was a slave owned by Dr. John Croghan, the owner of Mammoth Cave between 1839 and 1849. When not leading guided tours, Bishop explored the depths of the cave and found hundreds of miles of passageways including what he called The Bottomless Pit.
                    Before I crossed it on a cedar pole, legs
                    dangling into blackness, here the tours....

"Now, when I turn off the lights you have to promise not to scream." Our park ranger and tour guide calmly prepared us for the portion of our tour that would lead us over a steel grate looking down into The Bottomless Pit. However, before leading us into Dante's Pass and over the pit, we stopped in front of the Giant's Coffin (a large rock formation) and he turned off all the lights, so we could experience a pitch black darkness possible only this deep within the earth. Isaac says the Giant's Coffin stop was one of his favorite on the tour because he enjoyed the park ranger's stories and the momentary experience of complete darkness and silence.
Inside Mammoth Cave

The next sections of our hike required more stooping and crawling through narrow passageways as we descended into the fourth of five levels of the cave before again ascending some of the 500 steps we climbed on this moderate intensity historic tour. We saw names and letters on rocks and considered the people who came before us and recorded their visit with candles.
Candlewriting at Mammoth Cave

After two hours of exploring cave passages and learning about the rich human history of Mammoth Cave, we exited the cave feeling full of new knowledge gained through experience and enhanced because of our study of poetry.
Exiting Mammoth Cave

Spring 2014 at Mammoth Cave, Kentucky