25 April 2010

Two worlds

In England, a very civilised country with remarkably few active volcanoes, surging glaciers, earthquakes, poisonous snakes, and the likes, the most dangerous entities are, by my estimate, humans. Humans either encapsulated in a mass of metal called car, or just humans with a bad temper, or humans who have difficulty coping and who have access to intoxicating substances or some other detrimental phenomenon. And probably one of the environments in which it is most likely to get hurt without active involvement of other humans, or self-destructive intentions of the human we are ourselves, would perhaps be the underground realm.

In caves you can easily slip. After a while of crawling through the mud you become as slippery as an eel in a bucket of snot. And then it can become a challenge to control your movements on a sloping flowstone, for example. And yes I do speak from experience. You can also just trip, or get stuck, or get lost, or a combination of the above.

In mines you can drop through a rotten floor, you can get a collapsing ceiling on your head, your mates might trigger a small landslide that however is easily big enough to take out a human, you may overlook a flooded shaft in murky waters, you may again get lost…

The Brits have organised society such that all risk is minimised. You think that in the Netherlands this is taken too far? The Brits take it at least as far, and probably further. The kayaking club is an example. It’s no coincidence there is hardly anything on kayaking on this blog; they are so obsessed with safety it is difficult to do anything fun with them. And I have more to do, so I haven’t made it across the threshold.

Caving is, in my eyes, much more dangerous than kayaking. So how would anyone let someone like me into an English mine? That would be very anomalous. You’d expect to need a thick package of certificates, and then still fill in a load of forms before you go anywhere at all. And does it work that way?


The Caving group, or rather the entire caving society as I have gotten to know it, is an enclave of non-English pragmatism within England. If you want to join the caving group and its trips, the only thing you need is insurance. Once you have that you can go anywhere. And of course all trips must be, and are, lead by a certified cave leader, but the rest can be as wet behind the ears as they want. And that’s how I ended up dangling from a rope in a gaping hole with equipment I had never used before, after about a month of caving experience. And there are limits, I presume; there are places, mainly caves, where I think they won’t take novices along, but as most people simply don’t like doing things that are too dangerous for their level of skill, so far I have seen only self-regulation in function. And in such a world you can train with the rescue team only five months after having caved for the very first time. They know I don’t easily panic, am fairly familiar with ropes and with uneven terrain, and am in fairly good shape. And what more do you need? A pile of diplomas? No!

However. Trips need to be lead by a certified cave leader, and we have only few, so I was wondering if I could become one. And soon I found out on the British Caving Association website that you need two years of caving experience before you can enrol in a course that leads to this certificate. Two years! An eternity. At first I was disappointed.

And then relief set in. I realised that I had been working in academia for quite a while now, and that I have become familiar with the scenario that repeats itself every so many years: you start a new job working on a new topic, and you are expected to be a leading expert in that field almost instantaneously. Graduate in structural geology, and then accept a PhD job on monsoon reconstruction. That’s hard work! And then, when you’re finished, accept a postdoc job on Barents Sea ecology. From never having seen an Arctic benthic foram to publishing about them in almost no time. Exhausting. And then hop onward, now into the field of sea level reconstruction. I’m always running.

And now suddenly I have found a world where I can, no, have to, just faf around for two years before anyone expects me to know anything at all! In a way, that’s quite comfortable, actually… so caving not only is a realm where English panic does not penetrate, it s also a realm where academic demands do not penetrate! The perfect escapism, in other words…

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