Good Life

Lens grabs art of caves: Photographer sheds light on microorganisms

“ ... The idea of going into an area of total darkness to take part in an art that is dependent on light was very intriguing,” said cave photographer Melissa Horn.
“ ... The idea of going into an area of total darkness to take part in an art that is dependent on light was very intriguing,” said cave photographer Melissa Horn. Photo provided

Penn’s Cave in Centre Hall is America’s only all-water cavern and wildlife park. A tour of the water cavern by boat gives visitors a glimpse of glittering stalactites and stalagmites, often in mysteriously familiar shapes, including the The Statue of Liberty and the Nittany Lion.

But what people can’t see are the organisms that dwell within the cracks and crevices and the natural processes that have sculpted the magnificent limestone curtains, cascades, draperies, pillars and columns. In recent years, these small wonders have been captured by Melissa Horn, a freelance photographer and geology student at Lock Haven University.

Currently a sophomore majoring in geology at Lock Haven University, Horn moved back to the area a year ago after spending three years visiting and photographing caves around North America with her fiancé and Penn’s Cave manager, David Brumbaugh.

“I have always loved caves and geology,” Horn said. “Our experience inspired me to return to school and major in geology with the idea that I can turn my hobby into a career.”

Horn said she has been experimenting with photography for many years and has primarily focused on nature. But after taking her camera into a cave for the first time, she said she became obsessed with the subjects underground. .

“The textures, the beauty of back-lighting translucent crystal formations, and the idea of going into an area of total darkness to take part in an art that is dependent on light was very intriguing,” she said. “I began focusing on macro-cave photography and sought to photograph such things as the crystalline structure within a droplet of water hanging from a speleothem (a secondary mineral deposit) and the biological life found underground that may otherwise go unnoticed.”

Upon doing so, she said she began taking notice of things such as human hair and lint brought in by cavers. This led Horn to focus her attention on what she refers to as “impact photography.” Cave impact is typically unintentional damage that results after cave exploration.

“The point of impact photography is to highlight trace amounts of unintentional impact with the message being that there is no such thing as ‘zero impact caving,’ ” she said. “Even breathing inside of a cave is doing minute amounts of damage.”

According to the Hair Foundation, on average, humans between 50 and 100 hairs per day. These are foreign bodies and therefore contaminates in areas such as caves. Lint is by far the largest contributor to cave contamination, and many large show caves organize lint-cleaning projects to keep the contamination down to a minimum.

“Focusing on these things in macro-photography really helps to drive home the message of the importance of conservation and caving responsibly so as to minimize impact to the best of our ability,” Horn said. “Caving carefully and respectfully can help to preserve the valuable life within caves. I am happy to say that (her photography) has helped to create a platform in many instances for discussion about the topic of conservation.”

Caves are extremely delicate areas, due not only to the formations found within but also the often microscopic life that make their homes underground.. In areas that are seemingly baron and lifeless, there are vast ecosystems at work composed of specialized creatures called extremophiles. Scientists are just now starting to understand these forms of life and realizing their value in not only producing antibiotics but also in the fields of astrobiology and evolutionary biology.

“Life forms existing in extreme places, such as caves, are likely similar to the types of life that could be found on other planets and can therefore give insight into what can be expected to be found during space exploration,” Horn said. “These simple, single-cell organisms are also very similar to the bacteria that are widely believed to be the first form of life on our own planet and can therefore also offer insight into biological history.”

Horn said she was always a nature-lover. She said she was always familiar with caves but didn’t have much experience or knowledge about them until she met Brumbaugh , in 2006. On their second date, Horn said he took her to a hole in the ground, expecting her to climb into it. Though reluctant, she relented and entered her first wild cave.

“I was frightened and felt claustrophobic but couldn’t help being intrigued by my surroundings,” she said. “David was very knowledgeable about speleology (the study of caves) and shared this knowledge with me. I was able to see the cave in a new light. By the end of the trip, I had a newfound appreciation and admiration for both David and caves.”

Caves were once considered to be a burden to people, particularly in Pennsylvania farming communities, where caves often were viewed as hazardous to livestock and children. They were, in many cases, filled in with concrete or used as garbage dumping grounds. Dating back to when the land was solely inhabited by American Indians , caves have been considered scary and tied to dark forces or as a gateway to the underworld.

“There is such a stigma attached to going underground,” Horn said. “It is an honor to be able to share my experiences and photography with people in an attempt to break down the fear of the dangerous dark abysses beneath. We’ve come a long way since then and efforts to clear up these oversights have become a priority.”

Because caves are still often not well understood, they tend to be underappreciated when in actuality they are a spectacular geologic phenomenon. A single speleothem, such as a foot-long stalactite growing in a cave, can become more enriching and humbling when accompanied with the understanding of the delicate balance necessary between biology, rocks, water and chemistry to make the growth process possible.

“On average, a stalactite formation will only grow one inch every 300 to 500 years. This becomes so much more than a beautiful network of crystals dangling from the ceiling; it becomes a timeline of our Earth’s history,” Horn said. “That same single formation can also be used to determine information about past climates, chemistry and aquatic life forms on earth throughout history.”

In recent years, caves have steadily been getting attention in the scientific community. This is primarily due to the search for new antibiotics and as well as the ways in which cave dwelling creatures can be used in the field of astrobiology to understand life on other planets.

Currently Horn’s main focus is school, but ultimately she intends to incorporate her photography in research projects she hopes to conduct in the future.

“I’ve been using these photos as a platform to open up dialogue regarding cave conservation and responsibility,” she said. “I strive to obtain a profession that will allow me to continue to explore and study caves, so cave photography will undoubtedly remain a passion of mine.”