The True Depth of a Cave | Rachel Kushner | Granta

The True Depth of a Cave

Rachel Kushner

Bruno had always known the caves were there, he wrote to Pascal and the Moulinards, but the depth of them, their spatial complexity, had stunned him.

We never expect the true depth of a cave, he said, on account of our indoctrination, our enslavement to the aboveground, which is scaled to us and above us, scaled to trees, to high-rise buildings, to the industrial dreams of twentieth-century man, and to his military imagination, scaled to fighter jets, and to heaven, to our need to claim something in the blue beyond, a thing we might call ‘blessed’.

This vertical arrow aiming from ground to sky constitutes modern man’s entire spatial reality, Bruno wrote. It excludes the other direction, he wrote, the down-into-the-earth. This is an incredible blind spot, he said, and he himself had not understood how blind, until he one day squeezed himself into his own cave, on his own little property in the Guyenne.

When he had purchased the land, in the early 1970s, the previous owner had shown him the cave as a curiosity. That owner had kept a board over its entrance. Beyond the board was an opening, a cavern five feet shallow, at the end of which two rocks angled together into a narrow crevice. For years, the board remained there. One day, in the period after he’d left the farmhouse, and the barn, and was sleeping in his little stone hut, Bruno removed the board and went in. He put his hand through the crevice in the rocks and felt wind. He understood that beyond the crevice there must be a large open space. He returned with ropes and a headlamp and pushed through the crevice and lowered himself. He did not hit bottom for quite a while. When he did, he was in an enormous room, its ceiling perhaps three meters high. He found multiple openings off this main room leading in different directions.

One particularly magnificent discovery was a chamber that was flocked white like a snowy landscape. Is this a dream? he wondered. It was not a dream. The walls were coated with magnesium crystals. They were blanketed in sparkling white, a natural geologic phenomenon. Some call this moon milk, Bruno wrote. It coated the floor. In that moon-milk floor were indentations that he believed were records of human presence, and in particular, shapes that looked, and felt, like the footprints of a child. There were regions of the underground network where water ran through, he said. The water was very cold. In some places it was neck-high, he said, and in the water lived strange crustaceans with translucent shells that seemed to thrive in absolute darkness.

This entire valley, he said, was laced with underground springs and rivers and lakes. Because Bruno’s adult son studied hydrology and currently worked in that field, he had helped Bruno to better understand the caverns and the water table and especially how to remain safe, because in winter, he said, caves could fill and quickly.

One day my son took me to a lavoir fed by a spring, Bruno said. The water is clear, my son pointed out. When the water is cloudy, he said, you know that someone has been in the cave whose spring fills this washbasin. The underground waterway, my son explained, has thick silt in its bed. When it is disturbed by footsteps, silt is kicked up.


The cave in which Bruno slept was dry year-round, if a good deal cooler in temperature than a modern Frenchman might prefer.

He planned to stay in the home he had made for himself underground. Although he did exit the caves regularly, as he indicated in the emails. He got fresh air. He tended to his permaculture, having renounced modern farming techniques. He took walks on shaded forest paths. And he wrote to Pascal Balmy and the Moulinards at a computer terminal that belonged to his adult daughter, in the kitchen of the old stone farmhouse. Bruno’s son had pointed out to him that the French government had more than clouded the waters of the communal washbasins. They had desecrated the entire subterranean world of southern France with tunnels for their high-speed trains.

I can hear the Paris–Toulouse from down there, Bruno said. I sense its vibrations. I feel the faintest touch of its wind.

Bruno’s son was of the opinion that the state’s mad plan to leach out all the groundwater and shunt it into industrial bays would wreck the ecological balance of the Guyenne.

When the digging work began for the Tayssac megabasin, Bruno said he was convinced he heard the sound of the excavators. He felt a level of disturbance that seemed to come from multiple directions, and from which there might be no escape. One day, the sound stopped, he said. The subterranean world was quiet, left in peace. But peace was temporary. These days, he said, I hear again the distant groan of machines clawing downward.

And just when I thought we were at last arriving at the main subject – sabotage of trains and of earth-moving equipment – Bruno went off the rails.


He’d been in these caves twelve years now, he said, and still he had not gotten to any definable ‘end’, the caverns’ design instead calling into question the whole concept of an end.

I hear people, he said, whose voices are eternal in this underground world, which is all planes of time on a single plane.

Here on earth is another earth, he said. A different reality, no less real. It has different rules.

You won’t understand any of this from me telling you about it, Bruno said. You might even dismiss what I say. The little I myself understand has taken patience, he said, and rigorous deprogramming.

For nine-tenths of human time on earth people went underground. Their symbolic world was formed in part by their activities in caves, by modalities and visions that darkness promised. Then, this all ceased. The underground world was lost to us. The industrial uses of the earth, the digging, fracking, tunneling, are mere plunder and do not count, Bruno said. Modern people who build bomb shelters, planning to survive some version of apocalypse, also do not count, he said. Yes, they go underground, but not in mind of a human continuum, a community. They think, I’ll be the clever one, the one who survives mass death. But why would you want to survive mass death? What would be the purpose of life, if life were reduced to a handful of armed pessimists hoarding canned foods and fearing each other? In a bunker, you cannot hear the human community in the earth, the deep cistern of voices, the lake of our creation.

In my cave, he said, under my cave, welling up from deeper passages, I hear so many things. Not just the drip of water.

I hear voices. People talking. Sometimes it’s in French, sometimes Occitan, or older tongues of the Languedoc, many languages I do not recognize, sounds of which I cannot understand a word, but I know that what I hear is humans, it is human talk.

Did we always have language? We don’t know the answer to this.

Linguists try to chart what they call ‘glotto-chronologies’. They picture language like a tree, with a trunk. The first language, at the base of the trunk, being simple and common, what some call ‘nostratic’. This is a fantasy. But who can refute them? They cannot escape the chains of their telos, the sad idea that they are the logical outcome, the advanced form of human speech, and that what came before must have been simple and crude.

They never imagine that if language is a tree, they must look not at its trunk, but at its roots, which, like a tree’s roots, might form an upside-down chandelier of extravagant complexity, reaching and spreading deep into the dark beyond. But most people are unable to grasp how far down the physical world goes. And they would not know that voices are stored in its depths, unless they were to hear those voices.

It is hard to explain, he said. You would have to have lived as I live, done what I have done, learned what I have learned, in order to hear what I hear. You would need a different consciousness, he said.

When you live underground, among the things you discover is that you are not alone. You’re in a world richly peopled. Occupied by legions.

Homo erectus, who stood up and cooked, Bruno said, he is here.

Homo neanderthalensis, who huddled modestly and dreamed expansively: here.

Homo sapiens, gone into caves to paint, to render his capture with extra legs, extra horns, so that these beasts canted and ran over cave walls, or butted heads, clashed and fought, all in the light of a torch, H. sapiens’s underground cinema house: that resourceful and ruinous forebear of ours, he is here.

Cathars and other heretics, the few not slaughtered, gone deep, living in darkness: yes, present.

Cagots, after the war of 1594, hiding to survive. Surviving in secret.


Cavers, nineteenth-century men and boys, killed by curiosity, fallen in, unable to make their way out: here.

The partisans, men of my own boyhood, who retreated underground to hide from rampaging Germans: they, too, are here.

For a long time, he said, you cannot tune in. Then, you might sense a current or buzz of telluric energy. This sound transforms, the more time you spend in caves. It becomes voices. You hear these voices but are unable to isolate them. It takes years to learn how to listen, to differentiate, to adjust your inner tuner to a position on the atemporal bandwidth of the underground world.

Remember shortwave transmission? he asked them. Probably you don’t, he answered. Tuning into shortwave programming used to be an art, Bruno said. Depending on the bandwidth, it worked best at night, on account of how radio waves travel back from the ionosphere. There was a book, he said, that listed programs by calendar schedule and megahertz. Some of the programs came in stronger than others. You learned to listen for where to put the shortwave dial, between two points of static, and how to position your antenna, in order to hear a Bulgarian choir or news from Senegal or Venezuela’s Radio Juventud.

Shortwave is real, of course, he said. It is also a metaphor. I bring it up not to reminisce over dead technologies, but to help you understand. Cave frequencies, he said, are not three to thirty megahertz. Cave bandwidth crosses moments, eras, epochs, eons. You have to learn to get inside the monophony, to tease it apart. Eventually, you encounter an extraordinary polyphony. You begin to sort, to filter. You hear whispers, laughter, murmurs, pleas. There’s a feeling that everyone is here. A wonderful feeling, I should add. Because suddenly you realize how alone we have been, how isolated, to be trapped, stuck in calendar time, and cut off from everyone who came before us.

I never want to be that alone again, he said.


Photography © Max Ferguson, Cave in the Lot Valley, France


This is an extract from Creation Lake by Rachel Kushner, published by Jonathan Cape on 5th September 2024.

Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner is the author of the novels The Mars RoomThe FlamethrowersTelex from Cuba, a book of essays on art, politics and culture, The Hard Crowd, and a story collection, The Strange Case of Rachel K. Her new novel, Creation Lake, will be published in September 2024.  

Image © Chloe Aftel

More about the author →