I tried to ignore the tons of rock which seemed poised to drop onto me as I squeezed through the narrow crevice, covering myself with the wet clay of the cave. I had never known any symptoms of claustrophobia before I had entered this small cave in search of some elusive Collembola. It was mid-January in Northeastern Iowa and the snow was deep and the temperature was in the single digits outside the cave. Inside the cave it was cool and damp with puddles of water upon which one could find these new types of Springtails which so excited my guide. All I could see of him at the moment was his feet ahead of me as he scrambled unconcernedly through the narrow passages and crevices.
Finally we reached a wider place in the passage which contained a small pool of water. We were on our bellies with the ceiling pressing into our backs and my claustrophobia had increased.
“Here!” he shouted excitedly and took out a small brush and a vial of alcohol.
Looking closer in the weak yellow beam of his flashlight I could see extremely small hopping insects on the surface film of the water. This is what we were after–new species of Collembola, commonly called Springtails. Back in those simple days of 1974 these curious creatures were considered insects, but now with sophisticated means of genetic analysis, we are able to divide and subdivide, clump and unclump taxa based upon DNA esoterica which has provided taxonomic “splitters” with a dream tool. They now (for the moment) appear to be put into a class of their own along with other apparently unrelated Arthropods that have internal mouth parts (Entognatha).
As he gently caught the creatures on the tip of his camel hair brush and dipped them into their final bath of alcohol, I could see his hands shake, his breath puffing forth in dense clouds of vapor in the cool air. He was almost beside himself with excitement. He had found and described these creatures which through isolation and eons had differentiated into distinct species. Since this was in one of those “islands” which had not been covered by the lastest glaciation (Wisconsin), they may have been isolated longer than we realized. Even though he was just an undergraduate at nearby Luther College, he had already accomplished much. Caught up by his excitement, I forgot the pressure on my back, the chill and the wet and became absorbed in these tiny creatures that lived in the utter darkness of this cave.
Sometimes I think back on this young man with his incredible enthusiasm for a small insignificant group of animals. Most people had never heard of these creatures, and if they did, they probably would be amazed that anybody would pay any attention to them. However, in the dim chill of that wet cave, with the sense of imminent doom from the rock pressing on my back, I caught a part of his fire and felt myself becoming excited in turn. I carry a part of this fire still. And this is the lesson that I learned from him:
Life should be full of such enthusiasms. We should search out and cultivate these passions! We should open ourself to this incredible universe and catch something of the mysterious fire that lies at its root. I love and admire anybody with overpowering passion and enthusiasms which fill them with a holy fire which can illuminate and fill all those who come in contact with them. And it can be anything! Springtails or painting, music or archery…can you feel it?