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text Spencer Fleury: Okay, (clears throat) excuse me. My name is Spencer Fleury. I am here at the 2007 National Speleological Society meeting in Marengo, Indiana. I have with me here the WhitesDr. Will White and wife, Bette White, Dr. Bette White. And were going to be talking about their lives and experiences and the world of karst. Welcome, and thank you both for coming.
Will White: All right. Glad to be here.
SF: Well, why dont we start at the beginning? Um(laughs) Where were you both born?
WW: Well, I was born in Huntingdon, Pennsylvaniaa town right in the central part. [I] grew up on a farm ten miles south of there, way out in the brush, no electricity, no running waterthe whole primitive bit.
Bette White: I was born outside of Pittsburgh, in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvaniawith electricity and running
Todd Chavez: You were lucky!
SF: (laughs) So, I guess it sounds like you both probably had very different childhoods, very different experiences of growing up in those environments. Why dont you tell us a little bit about what you remember from your earliest years?
WW: All right, well, I went to a one-room country school, one of the last of the ones with all eight grades in one room. I guess I must have learned to read there. I learn[ed] basic arithmetic. I cant remember much else I might have learned.
And [I] went to high school, in a real high school, I guess, in the town of Huntingdon. And then went to Juniata College which is a small liberal arts school located in Huntingdon. [I] received a bachelors degree in chemistry in 1954, after which I took a job at the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research in Pittsburgh, which is how I got to be a little closer to meeting Bette. So
(long pause and laughter)
BW: I started kindergarten in the Pittsburgh schools, and then our family moved. Then I took a year off after kindergarten and then went to kindergarten in McKees Rocks. And went to Stowe High School and then went on to the University of Pittsburgh, where I studied civil engineering, and met Will in Pittsburgh, and then he and I continuedmoved to State College. I received my masters degree and my Ph.D., both in civil engineering.
TC: A lot of people have told us that we need to ask you two how you met. Tell us how you met.
WW: Well, okay, thats a story! When I was in Pittsburghcan I back my story off a little bit?
WW: We should probably talk about caving at some point, because that predates when Bette and I met. People have asked me when I got interested in caving and I have to tell them that I cannot remember when I got interested in caving, because as a child in grade school I was prowling around in the woods looking for caves. And when I went to college, I worked as a cave guide at Lincoln Caverns, a little show cave there in central Pennsylvania. And I got acquainted with other caves, real caves. Went caving, did a lot of caving when I was in college. Went to Pittsburgh, I got involved with the Pittsburgh Grotto, the Pittsburgh chapter of the NSS.
And also got into what is these days called project caving, where you have some area you keep working on and working. And one of these was a place called Swago Creek drainage basin in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. We had a number of caves that we had been surveying; you know, in order to lay out the whole pattern, we needed to connect the entrances, which are half a mile or a mile apart, so we could see how the caves interrelated.
And so what I was primarily looking for was not really a girlfriend; it was somebody who knew how to run a transit, so we could do [these surveys]. And I learned about this female civil engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh who might be interested in such a thing, and we dragged her off to the wilds of West Virginia and did a transit survey across, up this valley connecting cave entrances together. And thats how we met!
SF: Bette, did you have any interest in caving before that experience, or even thought of it?
BW: I had no idea even what a cave was!
BW: All I knew was I was going down to do this survey, and there was actually another civil engineering student who came along with us. Andwell, why dont you tell the story about Overholt Blowing Cave.
WW: Well, thats really your story. You better tell that one.
BW: They said, Lets go in the cave. The people who were experienced in caving went on ahead and this other civil engineer and I were supposed to come in afterwards. Well, we had never been in a cave, and so what we did is, we started to go in and realized we had to get wet. And so we went through this wet part, and those guys all knew how to get through the dry part. As were coming around a corner, these guys all yell. (makes yelling noise)
BW: Scared us half out of our wits!
TC: So did you get paid?
TC: Aw! (all laugh)
SF: (to Will White) So youre from Huntingdon, right? Right there in centralthats right in karst country in central Pennsylvania.
WW: Yeah, its in the limestone area of central Pennsylvania.
SF: As you mentioned, you spent some time as a child wandering through the woods trying to find caves. What do you remember most about those experiences? Did you find anything good?
WW: Well, you know, later on I discovered, learned some geology and I learned that the hills out there near my fathers farm were all underlain by shale, which is not a good place to look for caves. However, there are a few places where the land has slipped and opened up crevices even in these insoluble shale rocks. So we, in fact, did succeed in finding some caves, most of which were maybe ten yards long if we were lucky. But we were scouring around. We were looking for anything.
(SF and TC talk at the same time)
SF: No, go right ahead.
TC: Bette, why did you choose civil engineering? That was an unusual career choice for a woman at that time.
BW: When I was in tenth grade, we hired [a new teacher]. Our school was not one of the better schools in western Pennsylvania. And so they were in the process of hiring a physics teacher and a chemistry teacher and an engineering person. And this person came in and he had this [sign in front of the] class and it said, Engineering Needs Women. And I thought, Hmm, that sounds like an interesting career, and so I took all of his courses that he had and went into engineering at Pitt and found that was just my thing, and had no problems with the classes and had a wonderful time. I was in a [freshman] class of 200, which is 199 guys and me.
BW: I graduated in a class of twelve. Only twelve of us made it.
SF: Wow! So, you moved to State College from there and you were pursuing a masters at
BW: No, no, no.
SF: Did I get that wrong? Okay.
WW: Well, there wasyeah, there was a little more history in between. What had happened or what happened in thereand, lets say, we were doing a lot of extensive caving and cave mapping and beginning to shift from just cave exploring into cave science, actually.
But the job that I had at Mellon Institute was one that would be appropriate for just a bachelors degree level person. And [I] discovered that my job was being downgraded. The original thought was that these junior members of the staff were essentially graduate students and they would be working on an advanced degree at Pitt or something like that. New management came in and [they] decided that now these people were hired as technicians, and thats what theyre going to be is technicians. And I said, Okay, this is now a dead end.
And so, after scouting around various places, I went to Penn State to work on a Ph.D. and figured if Im going to do anything in science, Ive got to have the necessary union cards. So, [I] went up and was working there on a degree, but then
BW: In the meantime, I graduated.
WW: Bette graduated.
BW: And I went to work in Harrisburg.
WW: She went to work as a civil engineer for the highway department in Harrisburg, designing bridges. Somewhere in this time frame we got married, and then in due course, probably something having to do with a baby being on the way, she decided to give up the job in Harrisburg and move up to State College. So, thats where weve been ever since.
SF: So you were both on the faculty at Penn State, right?
BW: I was research faculty.
SF: Okay, okay. So did youdid the two of you have any opportunity to work together, or were you more or less on your separate wings of the campus?
WW: Oh, it worked out in kind of a peculiar way, like such things [do]. I finished my Ph.D. in geochemistry in 1962, at a time when my advisor, my bossa fellow named Rustum Roydecided to build a Materials Research Laboratory at Penn State. And I was invited to stay on on the faculty, which was nice. I didnt have to go job hunting. So I stayed on. Bette, as the kids grew up a bit, decided shed better get an advanced degree, and then she started her graduate work a little bit later. But I have been a faculty member there since 1962 until I formally retired in 2002.
BW: What do you want me to talk about?
SF: So what did you like about the academics, the academic career at Penn State in particular? I mean, did youdid you actually enjoy the teaching aspect? Because I know a lot of professors look at teaching as more of a necessary evil so that they can do research. Is that the way you looked at it, or were you more teaching oriented? What were your thoughts on that?
WW: Well, in principle, I was split down the middle, in that half of me was in the department of geophysics [and geochemistry], what today [is] the department of geological sciences. The thing has changed its name two or three times along the way. And there, my responsibilities were primarily teaching, both undergraduate and graduate courses, which I very much enjoy doing. And I dont have much sympathy for people whoyou know, if you dont want to teach, why are you at a university? You know? Go work for industry, you get paid more.
But the other half of me was in this [newly] formed Materials Research Laboratory in an entirely different field from geology as material science. And a lot of which is high temperature, high pressure chemistry, condensed matter physics and a whole bunch of stuff that, you know, is fairly remote from geology, certainly remote from hydrogeology. But thats the way it worked out, and I have no problem sort of standing with one leg in each field.
SF: (to BW) And you were on the research faculty, you just said
BW: Right, well
SF: Did you have
BW: Lets back up that a little bit, too, because what I did was I decided to write a masters degree, and there was a new faculty member at Penn State and I chose him as my advisor. And he was really interested in surface water hydrology. And so I was going to do this surface water hydrology, looking at all of the watersheds in Pennsylvania. And so I got to the end of my research and I plotted up all the data and found all of the data followed a trend, except [for] these five watersheds.
And I thought, Why are these five watersheds so weird? Instead of looking like a curve, which would have been in the (using hands to show the type of shape the curve made) this kind of a shape, the limestone basins looked like this (draws in the air with hands). And so theyI discovered that those were five carbonate basins, and [I] wrote [a technical] paper. This paper has been sent all over the world and there are something like two thousand or three thousand copies of this thing all over the world. And we did some traveling after this, and realized that[when] we went to England and somebody said, Can I have an original of one of those things [reprints]?
BW: Its like [I] gave out original copies of this thing, and used that as a basis for working on my Ph.D. And essentially, that wasmy Ph.D. was an extension of that [study]. And actually then [I] applied for a highly competitive American Association of University Women scholarship and received one ofI forget the numbers. Very few [were] awarded. And that was, well, what I worked on for my Ph.D.
TC: So your findings flew in the face of conventional wisdom?
TC: In that particular case.
TC: What was the impact of the paper in terms ofbeyond the fact that it flew against in the face of conventional wisdom? What was the impact? What did it mean to the people in that area?
BW: That floods in carbonate areas are damped, meaning that the water goes into the groundwater into the sinkholes; and it is only then, if all of the sinkholes get filled, then you can get a more severe flood than you would have received had it been a non-carbonate basin.
TC: So it altered the way that people predicted flooding?
BW: Right. And so its actually [a paper] in one of Wills benchmark series bookits a paper in one of Wills benchmark papers.
SF: So you continue to do karst related research with your civil engineering background across your careers. Thats how it works?
BW: Well, sort of. Because then, when I graduated, I was looking for a job in civil engineering, and at that point in time, most of the men would not allow mewould not hire me. And I almost got one job, and the one fellows wife said she didnt want to have a woman working in their engineering company because she was afraid that some shenanigans would be going on.
BW: And so I actually lost that job. I had an opportunity to go to MIT after I graduated, but I didnt want to leave my family. But I worked inwhat I ended up doing is I had two half-time jobs: one in the department of civil engineering, where I was doing hydrology, and I worked in [the] Materials Research Lab in a completely different field in cement and concrete research. And through the cement and concrete research, then we didhad separate grants with another person, and actually had a trip to India to talk about some of the research that I had done.
TC: And did you get a chance to do any caving in India? Did you
BW: (laughs) No, no.
TC: (laughs) Okay.
SF: That explains how you got into karst, but Im not sure about(to WW) Im not sure about your story. I know that you studied geochemistry, which at least is related. How did you sort of make that transition into or develop your specialty in karst?
WW: Well, researching karstremember, were talking about the late 1950s, 1960s. And nobody who was in any way professionally respectable would work on this subject. I mean, if you wanted to get a paper rejected, the easiest way to do it was to write it and put the words cave or karst in the title. It would come back from the editor saying, Well, this isnt going to be of interest to our readers.
And it was really, really fairly (inaudible). So this was all work sort of under the table, in the closet. But I hadI was doing a lot of other things at the same time. And my Ph.D. thesis has nothing whatsoever to do with karst. I can tell you a lot about the high pressure-high temperature chemistry of the oxides of lead, for instance, (all laugh) which is what the thesis was about. And Ive written over the years a pretty lengthy string of papers, and probably in round numbers no more than a quarter of them deal with karst. So
SF: And yet those seem to be the most influential, at least. Well, from my perspective, of course, because Im coming from the karst
WW: Well, itsyou know, its nice the subject has become respectable. I can go to a Geological Society of America meeting and entire symposia [will be] dealing with karst. The University of South Florida has seen fit to sink a fair amount of money into doing things like the Karst Portal. Its a really booming subject at the moment, but it has really come in out of obscurity. And there is only a handful of people that ever really tried to make it their main professional activity up until maybe twenty, twenty five years ago.
Derek Ford could get away with it in Canada, because there was a tradition among the British physical geographers to do this kind of work. And one of the grand dame[s] of karst science, a woman named Marjorie Sweeting, who wrote a very influential book, back about 1972. Im not sure. So Derek was fine, he could deal with it in Canada. But south of the border, you will find, if you look, that the earlier karst workers were either people who were in schools where they werent really expected to do a whole lot of research, and so that if they did anything it helped a lot. Or they were people like me who did it but did it quietly and never made much of an issue of it. I certainly never got tenure at Penn State on the basis of karst research. (laughs)
TC: People outside of this community dont understand that problem of the marginalization of karst early on. From your perspectives, what caused that? And why has that changed?
WW: Well, lets supposelets talk about the hydrology and hydrogeology, which is where probably where the biggest transition took place. In the early years of the twentieth century, there were peoplea few peoplelooking at karst areas, including the late Clyde Malott, who was looking at the lost river system here in southern Indiana. And they talked about sinking streams and underground rivers and things like that and had a pretty reasonable understanding, in a rough qualitative way, of how these things worked.
There came, within the general area of groundwater hydrology, a major revolution in the 1940s in which the mathematical basis for the flow of water for porous media was developed by several people, but notably by M. King Hubbert, who was known in the petroleum business for Hubberts Peak and the maximum of the petroleum production. He was a towering figure in the earth sciences, and theres this incredible paper, written in 1940, in which he lays out all the mathematics of how water moves through rock.
And so people found they could drill wells, they could run pump tests on wells. They could predict yields, they could predict water supplies. And the whole subject became very quantitative, very mathematical. This is in pre-computer days, and when the computers came on scene, they turned these things into mathematical models for the thing.
Well, karst doesnt behave like that. The water is running along through conduits and pipes and you can drill a well one place and get a good supply of water out of it. You can move fifty feet away and drill a dry hole. So, it didnt really fit, and their way of dealing with it was to ignore it.
WW: And if you readI mean, this is experimentallycan be experimentally demonstrated if you just get any of the textbooks on hydrogeologywas becoming a very important science in the fifties [1950s], sixties [1960s], thereabouts. Youll find that either the subject is not mentioned at all, in some of them. Or if its mentioned, theres sort of some few pages stuck away somewhere. And it says, Oh, yeah, on limestone terrain youve got sinkholes and youve got big springs and stuff like that. But it just never enters into those [the main discussion].
So a lot of the effort that was put forth, probably in about the 1960s time frame, was trying to convince the professional hydrologists that there was some point to looking at karst from this perspective of actually determining flow paths, exploring the caves, making quantitative measurements on springs, things like that. I mean, I wrote a paper with a fellow at the University of Pittsburgh in about 1966, the purpose of which was to demonstrate most of the water was running through a big pipe. I mean, it seems so incredibly self-evident, and yet at the timegee, you know; you mean you really mean its going, running through a pipe? Yeah.
BW: Even my advisor, whohe was my advisor for my masters degree and my Ph.D. And he said, What does this look like? and he was drawing a photograph, drawing pictures of the karst conduit, and he had a little hole in here and a little hole over here and he didnt realize that they were connected.
WW: Well, if were putting this here, Ill give you the stories as we go along. These are the ones Id like to have recorded anyway. Because I got abused by no less a personage than M. King Hubbert himself, in that I gave a talk at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union about 1965, in which I was laying out this idea, how does water move and the flow rates, and some of the semi-quantitative aspects of the subject. And there is Hubbert, getting fairly elderly by that time, sitting in the front row glaring at me, and as soon as I finished, he leaped to his feet and turned around. He didnt address me; he addressed the audience and announced that everything I said was nonsense. (all laugh)
TC: And that makes it hard to respond.
WW: It does make it hard to respond.
SF: So these stories are coming from the days when karst was first starting to establish itself as more of an independent, stand alone discipline?
WW: Yeah, thereslets see. I would have sort of dividedthe evolution of the science in North America and the story in Europe is a little different. The story in Russia and the story in China are also different. But there was a period along about the late 1800s, early 1900s, when people were accepting cave streams and things more or less for what they were. Okay, and it wasnt quantitative, but it was descriptive.
In the time frame of about 1930 to about 1942, there was a series of papers written: a very famous one by the father of geomorphology, William Morris Davis, that essentially used this developing theory of groundwater flow and porous media to apply to the origin of caves. The caves are very old objects. Theyre related to deep groundwater circulation beneath old erosion surfaces that the ages date well back into geologic time. And what we see today are just fragments, remnants ofas erosion has exposed these things and there they are. And there was a big debate about whether caves form deep below the water table or somewhere near the water table, or even occasional voices that said, Maybe they form above the water table.
And this argument went on, and I think the rest of the geological community simply got bored. Best explanation I can think of, at any rate. And the textbooks repeated it, so the next twenty or thirty years, when the textbooks would talk about caves, theyd quote these old papers and this old water table argument. And in a couple of paragraphs, the subject was, you know, youd taken care of it.
And my date for the beginning of the modern period of karst science is about 1957 when there were a couple papers [that] appeared that attempted to address the flow of water through carbonate rocks, quantitatively, and [attempted to] figure out, okay, how long does it take a cave to form? How fast can you really dissolve this stuff? And a couple more papers that said, wait a minute, theres good geologic evidence that says that most of the caves, and were talking about eastern United States here, are really related to contemporary drainage basins. They evolve with the drainage basin. And its a whole different mindset and a whole different perspective on this subject, and that has developed more or less continuously since then.
So really, I think it was probably hydrology that was the science that carried it along. Weve added other things as time has gone on, and its a fairly complicated subject and a very diverse subject today. But
TC: One of the things that, as a person from a library perspective looking in to your community, is the interdisciplinary nature of what you all do, and it justit seems almost impossible that to pursue any karst subject without having multiple disciplines of expertise. Do you find that to be the case?
WW: It is. The French, in particular, back inall the way back in the 1800sdecided that there was a science that they called speleology, which was the science of caves, and it included everything: you know, the water, the minerals, the biota, archeological remains found in caves. It just covered the entire subject. And then scientifically it started to say, wait a minute, you know, what these things all have in common is they involve caves, but maybe they dont. And so the subject kind of split apart, and now its been reassembled again. And weve discovered that, particularly, a missing component of the whole business had been the microbiologists and microbial processes that go on underground, which turned out to be much more important than anybody would have guessed as little as ten years ago.
SF: So, Bette, whats your take on the interdisciplinary nature of the discipline? Youve certainlyyoure certainly an example of that, coming from civil engineering.
BW: Well, what Will and I have done is, I think, were one of the first to tie surface water hydrology and groundwater hydrology together. And actually, some of the early conduit flow hydraulics in civil engineering was applied to groundwater flow, and I think we
WW: Well, this is where some of our early work came from, you know. Theres a back [story]. You also have to realize that geology itself has evolved over the same forty or fifty year timeframe. And there was a time, about the time I was moving from chemistry into geology and merging these things together, that, you know, if you cant handle the math and you cant handle the quantitative concepts and if you cant handle the physics and if you cant handle the chemistry, be a geologist when you dont have to know any of those things.
BW: And actually, remember, I did my Ph.D. thesis, which was on the sixty-two carbonate basins in the Appalachians. Will was my field assistant.
BW: And so
WW: She got even, you see! (all laugh)
BW: So I was looking at flood flow and low flow. Well, the low flows were really controlled by whats going on in the groundwater system, and the peak flows were controlled by really whats going on on the surface. And so he and I then published a lot more papers about the interrelationships between these two criteria.
TC: Tell us about some of your students that youve had over time.
WW: I presume you want to know about the students who [worked]
BW: In karst.
WW: In karst.
WW: Okay. Well, we can kind of chug down the line. Theres been an assortment of people.
One of the first karst Ph.D. students, I guess, is a fellow named Henry Rauch, who is presently on the faculty at West Virginia University in Morgantown. I put Henry to work trying to figure out whether development of solution cavities and caves really prefers certain paths through the rock, certain rocks. It looked superficially like looking at the caves atthe caves pick out certain rocks that they dissolve more readily than others.
So, we put Henry to work going through all the caves in central Pennsylvania and estimating their volume, which is much more difficult than estimating their length, and also figuring out which carbonate rock unitweve got a very complicated series of carbonate rocks there, and theyre all broken up into little groups and names by the stratigraphersand figure out which rock it was in and work out the results. And the result of this was a bar graph which shows that predominantly all the caves in the valley, in spite of equal access to the rocks, picked out about two rock types out of that. He spent a lot more time trying to figure out what was unique about those rocks than just distinguishing the others; but it was a study of that particular figure in his paper [that] has been borrowed by a lot of people since then.
And [there was] a masters student by the name of Evan Shuster, who went on to go to work for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in their mining program, actually. But we decided to look at the chemistry of the springs there in central Pennsylvania, and he had a collection there of about fourteen springs in one direction and another dozen or fourteen in the other direction, and he would go by about every two weeks and measure the sample of water and analyze it. And we discovered that the springs fell into two neat groups. There were those where the chemistry bounced around all over the place, and there were those in which the chemistry was essentially constant, which later turned out to be springs that are fed by conduits, by cave systemseven though theres no evidence of a cave system; its just water coming out of the groundand springs that are fed predominantly by fractures.
[Evan and] I wrote a lengthy paper. Poor Evan: coursework was not his strong suit, unfortunately, because his masters thesis would have earned him a Ph.D. in a number of places. It was really an outstanding piece of work, and the paper that was written from it is still being cited thirty-five years later, and Ive always felt kind of bad about that. I mean, he did far more work than would really have been expected from a masters student. But
TC: Did you expect your textbook to have the effect that it did?
WW: You know, I really dont know. I struggled along for a long time trying to write that book and I eventually got it done, and we sort of floated it out there, and what amazes me is that the bloody thing is still in print! I mean, you cant say that about many books published in 1988.
TC: Well, you know, when I was trying to learn a little bit about karst to be more effective at this project, I asked Len Vacher at University of South Florida, you know, Len, give me a couple of books that I can go and read, and he gave me yoursI think there were three, and yours was the first one he mentioned. He said, You got to read Will Whites book.
TC: So I said, Okay. I will tell you that the math is above my level, but Im working my way through it. (all laugh)
SF: That was the first one that I read, actually. My advisor had said, You need to read Whites book from 1988, and you need to get Ford and Williams as well. And of course, the Ford and Williams book was only available in hardcover for about three hundred dollars every place I looked; and yours was a comparative bargain, for about seventy or eighty.
WW: (laughs) Thats because the bigger publishers keep ratcheting up the price all the time. But it was written as a textbook; it was intended toand I had thought about it as mythe audienceand Im sitting there at the keyboard looking out and imagining people sitting out there would have been seniors and beginning graduate students at about that level, which is why theres some chemistry and a little bit of mathematics. Not very much, actually. (laughs)
TC: Well, librarians are not known for mathematical acumen.
WW: But trying to write it in such a way that would be useful to these sorts of folks, and I guess it must have been; but I dont make any pretense that I can predict things like that.
SF: (to BW) I know thatI heard from someplace that you wrote a book on optics, was it?
SF: No, that wasnt you? Okay. Then Lee Floreas lying to me.
BW: Oh. (all laugh)
SF: He told me I should ask you about your optics book. So much for that. But youve you have written books, though, havent you?
BW: No, Ive just co-edited books with Will.
WW: We have one joint book on karst hydrology of the Mammoth Cave area that Bette and I put together.
SF: Right, okay. So, I know that youve worked in various places throughout the United States. I know that youve workedyou did some exploration of Crystal Cave. I know that you workedyou did some work at the central Kentucky karst; I know that because I have cited that paper in my own dissertation. So wherewhat were your most interesting locations for research in caves with karst?
WW: I get asked that question.
SF: Do you?
WW: And I dont have an answer because, you know, Ive never seen a cave I didnt like and Ive never seen a karst area I didnt like. Some people will dopredominantly will do field work and thats their thing; and some folks work in the lab and thats their thing. And I do both. And some people have certain field areas. They say its their favorite place and they go there summer after summer after summer. Ive always said, Well, where are the field areas that could teach us something new?
So, we looked at, obviously, the limestone valleys of central Pennsylvania. Theyre right outside the door. Theres been a mention of Evan Shusters thesis. There was another masters thesis on nitrate contamination in groundwater, and theres Rauchs thesiswell, the field part was. Okay, thats convenient, thats okay, but [I] was interested in Kentucky because its the Mammoth Cave area. Its the longest cave in the world, and I put a lot of time ourselvesBette and I were down there extensively and weve written a fair amount about it, including the book that I mentioned.
And there was a graduate student named Jack Hess, who did his Ph.D. thesis doing quantitative chemistry and things like that; and I was closely involved with another student. Another person was the advisor, but the other person was only there once. [It was] on the structural controls on cave development and so on. Hess, incidentally, is currently the executive director of the Geological Society of America. So, I guess having a karst background didnt do much [to harm] his career. Thats sort of the evolving state of things.
But I was interested in tropical areas, and so I sent a student off to Puerto Rico to work on the Rio Camuy drainage system. He never came back. He really liked Puerto Rico and did his degree, but he got a job at the USGS in Puerto Rico and was there for
BW: Jamaica and Isla de Mona
WW: George Veni did his thesis out in the hill country of Texas, because thats where he wanted to work. That was his country. He said, Cant we do that? (response) Okay, we can, where do you want to work? We can work up something thatwe can do something.
Did a little bit in the Black Hills with the mineralogy at Wind Cave andI dont know. Here, a lot in the worka lot of work up and down through the Appalachians. A student named Ira Sasowsky did his Ph.D. thesis in the Obey River gorge in the Cumberland River drainage in Tennessee.
BW: One of my watersheds.
SF: One of your watersheds?
WW: Oh, yeah, she owns personally the watersheds she worked on for her thesis.
WW: She decided theyre her personal property. She keeps track of them. (laughs)
TC: The best way to preserve it is to take it.
WW: But, no, so it was always a question of going where there was something interesting to be done. It wasnt dictated by much of anything else.
TC: You said that you never met a cave you didnt like. Explain that to people. What is it that you see, both of you, what is it that you see when you see a cave?
WW: You know, thats this unanswerable question. Its like theres a little kid out there wandering around in the woods looking for caves. You know, why in the heck would I do that? All the other kids were playing baseball or something, and I go in a cave. I like show caves. Ill happily walk through a show cave and look at it. Ive gone through some caves that are beaten up and trashed that have been used by, you know, local kids for years and years and years and are busted up, and you know, graffiti all over the walls and trash strewn all over the floors. I look at that and I still find the cave very interesting. But I cant explain it; I cant give you an explanation for it.
TC: Bette, what is it for you?
BW: Well, theres two things. One is that I think theyre beautiful. Theyve got such beautiful formations andbut also, weve found that theyre really an interesting phenomenon of, why is there breakdown in the cave? And so we have done a lot of research on the strength of the limestone and why is this limestone stronger than this one. In fact, in Isla de Mona, the limestones are not the same as they are in the United States. In Isla de Mona, theyre tough rather thanwhats the other word?
WW: Limestones around here are strong, but brittle.
BW: Right, strong and brittle, and the other ones are tough and non-brittle. And weve written a couple of papers on that. Theyre mostly just interesting and fascinating.
SF: So, I mentioned Crystal Cave. I saw something on the Internet about you having explored Crystal Cave, and from what I understand, thats no longer open to the general public anymore.
WW: Which Crystal Cave are we
SF: In Wisconsin.
SF: No, it wasnt you? Okay.
WW: [Youve] got to watch what you get off the Internet.
SF: Yeah, well, thatsI was going to ask you for some details of
WW: Thats in the same category with her book on optics.
SF: Yeah, apparently so.
BW: Crystal Cave in Kentucky.
SF: In Kentucky? Okay. I might be confusing
WW: Every state has got a Crystal Cave, but
BW: At Glacier.
WW: The Mammoth Cave, as it is known today, is actually from stringing together about five or six big caves, one of which, one of the first ones, was Floyd Collinss crystal cave, which is north of Mammoth Cave. And for a long time the caves under Mammoth Cave Ridge and the caves under Flint Ridge, the next ridge to the north, were completely independent, but there were Great Salts [Cave], Colossal [Cave], and Crystal [Cave]. The three big caves on Flint Ridge were strung together back in the sixties [1960s] into a single integrated system, and often it was referred to as Crystal Cave in a lot of the work that we did in Kentucky in the sixties [1960s], that may be where the Crystal Cave came from.
SF: That could be.
WW: But it wasnt Wisconsin.
SF: Okay. But tied to that same storyand again, its online, so the veracity is naturally in question until you can confirm it. But there was a story about you exploring this cave and something about a haunted telephone.
WW: Oh, boy! Yes, that was Crystal Cave in Kentucky.
WW: It really was.
SF: Okay, what can you tell us about that? Id like to hear that story. (laughs)
WW: I dont know wherelets see, this is supposed to be a historical record, isnt it? That tale has really gotten passed around. Its inColleen Olson, [who] works at Mammoth Cave National Park, wrote a little book about scary stories in Mammoth Cave and shes got it in there; and somebody else wrote a book on, you know, supernatural phenomena in national parks, and I got a phone call from this guy one night wanting to know about it.
Okay, well, why not? Crystal Cave is an old show cave. It was discovered by Floyd Collins himself back in 1917 and opened up as a show cave to compete with Mammoth Cave. I mean, the Collins family were poverty ridden central Kentuckians living on this scrubby farm back on the ridge, on Flint Ridge. And to go in the cave, the old show cave, you walked through the entrance and there was a nice long very tubular passage, nice comfortable walking height passage, and for a couplemaybe a hundred and fifty yards or so, and then it came intersected with a big canyon and you drop down this hill. The trail just zigzagged down, dropped about a hundred feet in elevation to the bottom of the canyon, and there was a big cross passage at the bottom of the canyon.
Okay, so Floyd Collins died in Sand Cave in 1925thats another long complex story. But at any rate, in the early sixties [1960s], Floyd was interred in a coffin sitting there at this intersection between this big canyon and the cross passage at the bottom. And I always thought putting a granite tombstone in a limestone cave was kind of weird, but at any rate
WW: Theres his tombstone. Theres his coffin, and the tourist trail went right by it, and then the tourist trail went across and went up the other side of the canyon to one part of the cave. But the trail forked, and at the fork there was a passage. [It] went up the big bottom lower passage off to the right, and that was the one that went fairly deep down into the cave system.
So when they were doing this thing as a show cave, they had an old army telephone laying there just on a ledge, about a yard from the coffin, just on the other side of the trail. And they wouldthe guide would take tourists in, and then they would ring up the ticket office and theyd say, Well, okay, were going to send a couple more people down to go on this much longer walk back through the cave. And it was still laying there. The cave had been closed, but in 19oh, I have that exact date some place in my notebook. But at any rate, around 1962, the phone was still laying there, although the cave was no longer a show cave. It had been bought out, bought by the park several years earlier, and was now part of Mammoth Cave National Park.
So, we were going into the cave with the idea of going down to the lower levels to do some geological work. Theres the grad student I mentioned who was working on the cave, a guy named George Deike. He and I walk on in there and we start down this windy trail down into the canyon, and we hear this ringing noise. Okay?
I look at George, George looks at me. You know, okay. And while were doing that, it rings again, and its very definitely coming from the bottom of the hill down there. So, its one of those things you gotta know. So we both took off at a dead run down the trail. Youve got to find out whats going on. And so we get down to this trail junction. Heres the coffin on one side of the trail. Theres the telephone on the ledge, and the phone rings for a third time. It was the phone, it wasnt the coffin. That we considered good.
So I pick up the phone, an old army telephone, [with a] little butterfly switch on it. You know, you can listen and you can talk but not at the same time. Youve got to click the switch. So I click the switch and I sayand the phones alive, I can hear. I say, Hello. Is somebody trying to call Crystal Cave? And I hear thisyou know, if youve ever listened on a phone and somebody that youre talking to has laid the phone down and gone off somewhere but theres people in the room, you kind of hear voices in the background. You cant quite make it out, but theres kind of background babble going. Thats what I could hear.
So then I hear some noise that sounds like somebody has picked up the phone, a phone, somewhere. And so I say again, Hello. Is somebody trying to call Crystal Cave? and theres this startled gasp and the line goes dead.
TC: And thats it?
WW: And thats it. Okay. I put the phone down. George and I continued, went down, worked our way down to the water levels, did whatever it was we were doing. Coming back out of the cave, you know, four or five hours later, we were approaching this junction with a certain amount of trepidation, but everything is quiet. And we walk on, and we climb up out of the canyon and walk out the upper passage and out the entrance. But were tracing the phone wires as we go, and we get to the surface and were going up the trail to the old ticket office, and we found the phone wires dangling from the pole where theyd been cut. (laughs) Thats the story.
TC: No explanation?
WW: No explanation for it at all.
SF: (laughs) Very unusual.
WW: But that was the story, and thatsessentially, what I just told you has been published twice by somebody or another. So, you can have it in the record here.
SF: Well, we set the record straight, at the very least.
SF: Okay, well, Id like to talk a little bit aboutI guess more [about] how you see the relationship between professional karst scientists and the amateur or recreational caving community. Id like you to offer your perspective as well, Bette. How do you see those two groups relating to each other or interacting with each other? What do you think thats
WW: Well, you know, youve got to understand that I was one, right. I came out of that particular community, and so Imyou know, I feel very good towards all this gang thats around here. These are all, in some sense, friends of mine.
WW: But from a professional point of view, the cavers are absolutely indispensable. I mean, leaving aside the fact that, you know, I empathize with them very well. Because theres no way that any individual research type could possibly map, explore, map, and collect the amount of detail on caves that these folks have generated.
And the quality of the maps that are being made these days are just incredible. Whichyou can just simply walk through the map salon upstairs in the gym there, you know. And those things have takensome of those maps have taken thousands of man hours, person hours, to do. And theres all this data, and its there. And IveBette and I have written a couple of papers where weve just taken cave data and, you know, basically measured off things and plotted it up and found out relationships about caves. And theres no way we could have done it without the database.
And I think one of the reasons why the old timers of the 1930s, very famous guys like William Morris Davis and J. Harlan Bretz [and] so on, got so far off the rails was [that] they didnt have any real data! The cave maps of the day were very, very crude and not very accurate, and I think they misled them. So, yeah.
SF: Bette, would you agree? How do you see it?
BW: Oh, no, I just agree. Theres no way even nowthe caving thats being done is these horrendous trips into caves where they have, you know, four inches of air space, and they go for miles and [they are] really difficult caves, and theres no way that Will and I could ever do any of that. And so now, they are publishing all of this data and were using it.
SF: Do you think this relationship has changed or evolved over the course of your time spent working in karst areas?
BW: What people are doing now is far more difficult than what they did many years ago.
WW: Yeah, that part has changed. The standards have changed. The cavers have now had this map as you go sort of philosophy. [When] you discover a new cave, you dont just go romping off down to see where it goes. You pull out your tape and compass and start surveying your way down the passage; and its considered kind of in bad taste to do what they call scooping, which is just sort of running off through the cave without first making a map of it.
But in terms of the professional relationships, I think, you know, the modern era of karst science really did sort of evolve from the cavers. If you look at the people who have done most of the work, you find that, whether in the closet or not, they were cavers somewhere along the line. And professionals had, you know, no interest whatsoever in caves, thought caves were completely irrelevant to what they were doing, have come around. And theyre saying, Hey! You know, this is particularly true with one of the current hot topics in the subject, which is caves as paleoclimatic archives. Where, you know, wow! Theres this thing that used to be a stalagmite to show to the tourists in a show cave, maybe. Turns out theres a nice climatic record, if you can figure out how to read it.
And so theyits all gotten blurred, now. You know, we dontwe cant really say theres the caver related and theres the others. The boundarys disappearing.
BW: And also, take for instance whats going on in Hawaii, where Will has been asked, Youve got to come to Hawaii, for years and years, you know, youve got to see the minerals in the Hawaiian Caves, and its all the amateur cavers who are saying, Come see this, and tell us what it is. So
TC: So you need to make a trip!
BW and WW: (both speaking at once) We did!
TC: Oh, okay.
WW: Oh, and, uh, weve got an article on lava tube mineralogy, which is coming through the pipeline.
TC: Okay, okay.
TC: So, well be able to read it.
WW: Yeah, yeah.
TC: What is theas we are dealing with this issue of climate change, whatdo you think this is going to help raise the profile of karst
TC: research and karst science?
WW: Yeah, it
WW: It already has. And thats got a certain amount of downside to it, too, in the sense that a lot of people who are interested in paleoclimate say, Okay, theres ayou know, we can get a record from a stalagmite, with no notion about what caves are, no notion of conservation ethics. And theres a certain amount of concern about some of these folks who are coming in from the outside. Not that I object to them coming in from the outside, but Ive got a certain objection, a very large objection, to them coming in and just sort ofWell, you know, we dont know which one of these were going to use, so lets bust out all twelve of them and take them back to the lab and then well pick and choose, and that kind of thing. And so there needs to be some cross education, which is what some folks are trying to do at the moment.
But no, as far as caves as objects, you know, interesting objects to study, theres noits spreading, all through the community. And you can also document that if you look at the programs of the Geological Society of America, which is probably, you know, the largest gathering of geologists in the country and go back twenty years. And you might find, oh, three or four talks being given on some karst subject, maybe. And, you know, by that time they would have been accepted for the program, but there werent very many of them. Now, if you look at the programs of, say, the last five years, youll find that every year, theres anywhere from one or two to four or five complete symposia dealing with aspects of karst related thinking.
One of the things Ive been meaning, if I go back through, if I had the time to do it, is just to plot this up. I think we would find ourselves with an exponential growth curve of the sort that you see in many other fields.
TC: Tell us a little bit about your relationships with international groups and individuals.
BW: (to WW) Talk about our invitation to go to China.
WW: Well, theresyeah, let me get to that. They, uh
TC: Do you want to take a break?
TC: You okay?
WW: Im okay. You okay?
TC: Okay, thats fine.
BW: Id like standing, though.
TC: Okay, thats fine.
(all speaking at once)
WW: The main international contact has been with thethrough the International Union of Speleology and the International Speleological Congresses. And as far as contributing to the CongressesI think the first one was clear back in 1961, but [I] wasnt able to go to the Congresses. They were held in Europe, basically; I couldnt afford it. But I sent papers and had papers read at the meetings and prepared [published] in the Congress proceedings and so on like that.
So, the 1981 Congress was in the United States and Bette and I attended that, and after that, weve gone to most of them since then, the most recent one being one held in Greece, in 2005. Weve also had a certain number of people from overseas who come to work at Penn State and work with me, people fromwell, Julia James from Australia; and, well, Bogdan Onac, one of your own guys there, got in because he came in on a Fulbright and spent six months at Penn State.
BW: Michael Hauns
WW: Yeah, a grad studentthe laboratory [a colleague university] of Neuchtel in Switzerland sent one of their grad students over to, you know, hang out with my grad students for a while; And so, yeah, theres been a fair amount of contact. When I think over the last ten or fifteen years, its been pretty extensive.
And Bette was mentioning China. The Chinese are developing what they call geoparks around some of their very spectacular karst features, and they would like to have thesetheyd like to have them better known, they would like to have them listed as a World Heritage Site. Basically, its a matterat least to the politicians, its a matter of drumming up trade. And Professor Zhu at the Karst Institute in Guilin came up with this scheme, convincing the provincial governments and several of the karst provinces in China to ante up the money to bring in an international team of experts to look over these features and offer their considered opinion from a more world point of viewwhether these things are as great as they think they are and, you know, the rest.
And we were invited, and Art Palmer and his wife were invited. We were the two American sets of delegates to that thing, and we spent a couple weeks being treated as VIPs and touring around China and being shown all kinds of things. We had a fellow from the Ukraine and we had our friend Julia James from Australia, and we had a couple of Brits. [We had] a couple from Slovenia. It really was an international group, and I can say that we were mightily impressed by what we saw.
So yeah, theres been aId say that over the last ten or twenty years, and this, I think, is probably true with most of the karst researchers in the United States, the international connections are pretty well sewed in place. Theres[in] the very early days, again, as we move from the 1957 time frame forward, the people working in the U.S. tend[ed] to be pretty isolated, because they were mostly, after all, at that time mostly young grad students, faculty members. [They were] people that didnt have a whole lot in the way of resources [so] that they couldnt go stomping off to meetings in Europe and things like that. So
TC: As you look at the karst terrains as you travel, what is the condition of these terrains? Whats going on from your perspective over the time that youve been working in this area?
WW: Well, like most of the rest of the planet, its getting overrun with people, and this has been true in the south central Kentucky karst. Theres an area that at one time was mostly rural and mostly farming communities, and caves and sinkholes and things like this that [were] kind of a nuisance to farmers, but they just leave the sinkholes grow up in a clump of trees and, you know, farm around it, and its not a big deal. But whenever a developer comes in and decides to put in a housing project in this same terrain, the fact that the basements are sagging and falling in and sinkholes flood and all the rest of it, well, its a major problem and it causes a lot of trouble. And thewhat the people refer to as geo-hazards in karst areas, a lot of attention being given to that subject these days. But people are certainly aware of it, but [its] not at all obvious what you can do about it.
WW: Except go somewhere else.
BW: In one of the most expensive places to live in State College, where we lived up until a few years ago, there was a sinkhole, and thats where they dumped the old refrigerators and everything that they could think of, and they just lined it sort of with trees. (all laugh) And this is The Greenbrier, which is, you know, the place to live.
TC: We visited Lost River Cave on the way upI drove up from Floridaand they pointed out that that was a dumping zone for many, many years.
WW: The one there near Bowling Green, yeah. Bowling Green, Kentucky, is the poster child for just about every karst problem you can imagine. We dont have quite the sinkhole problem of Florida.
WW: The sinkhole [problems go] up through the Appalachians, through the interior low lands. Those generally dont eat entire houses or take big chunks out of shopping malls or something, but they also do some things.
SF: BMW dealerships. Ive seen that happen.
TC: Oh, yeah.
SF: (laughs) So you mentionedyou talked a little bit about paleoclimatology and caves and how that can be one of the future, I guess, productive future avenue of research in karst science. What other directions do you see karst science taking in the future that might turn out to be particularly productive?
WW: Id better answer that question carefully, because the Karst Waters Institute sponsored a meeting out in San Antonio in early May in which the whole purpose of the meeting was to talk about frontiers in karst research and where is the field going and what kind of advice could we collectivelyabout a hundred people who showed up for this workshopwhat advice could we give to people at the National Science Foundation and the EPA and other agencies as to what was worth spending money on and what wasnt.
So, yeah, hydrology is in there, nobody was going to throw it out; and paleoclimate is in there big time, and microbiology. It turns out caves are of considerable interest these days as the habitat for extremophiles, and so we have NASA, of all the unlikely people, putting money into cave related research, particularly by the microbiologists. Penny Boston at New Mexico Tech comes immediately to mind, because theyre looking for environments which might mimic the prototypes or give some insight into environments that you might find on other planetson Mars, or maybe youre going to drill into that, under the ice lake on Europa or whatever it is theyve got in mind doing.
And so, all of a sudden, caves have come up again, in an entirely different scientific context. And its because of the microorganism; in fact, the little buggers seem to be just about everywhere, and living in environments where you would guess that nothing would be able to live. The biologists like caves because theyretheyve been used for years as laboratories for studying evolution, because youve got much simpler populations and much less complicated interrelationships between the organisms that live in caves. And so, studying biodiversity and such is another of the topics that was flagged out by the biologists as something of interest.
And one of the third biological topics, since I can only speak as an observer from the sidelines, is thatwhat they call lineages. You know, [this topic includes] when species are splitting into new species and whats the timescale of which this kind of thing happens, and the cave as a habitat for one isolated population and when did it become isolated and how does it relate to some adjacent cave, whether it may be a different species of the same organism. So thats considered something of considerable value to biology at large, not just the very specialized subject of the biology of caves.
Lets see, other than that, we of course saidwell, theres the whole subject of applied issues: geo-hazards, sinkholes, floods, soil piping failures, waste disposal, [and] water supply. You can make a long list of ways in which humans and karst interact, and trying to understand this with more scientific precision than we have at the moment, something definitely were doing.
So thats a synopsis of the report that Im in the process of trying to edit, rightas soon as I get back from this meeting. (all laugh)
SF: Okay, thats all I got.
TC: All right. Is there anything youd like to add? Any stories that you feel like we need to document? Theyre in your head.
WW: (laughs) Yeah. I dont know, what all are you trying to capture with these interviews? I mean, I was
TC: Let me go ahead and Ill turn it off and then
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White, Elizabeth L.
Bette White, Will White
h [electronic resource] /
interviewed by Spencer Fleury and Todd Chavez.
Tampa, Fla. :
University of South Florida Tampa Library,
1 sound file (74 min.) :
digital, MPEG4 file +
e 1 transcript (digital, PDF file)
Karst oral history project
Interview conducted July 23, 2007 at the National Speleological Society convention in Margeno, Indiana.
The Drs. White take turns discussing how they became interested in karst science. They reflect on the days when public opinion marginalized karst science and offer what they perceive as the historical factors which have allowed it to become established as a stand-alone scientific discipline. They then discuss students who have worked with them on various karst projects. Dr. Will White tells the story of the haunted telephone from Crystal Cave in Kentucky. The interviewees then discuss the relationship between professional karst scientists and the amateur, recreational caving community. They also discuss the future of karst science specifically with relation to hydrology, microbiology, paleoclimatology, and geo-hazards. Dr. Will White emphasizes the need to instill an ethic of conservation into newcomers to karst science. The interview concludes with a discussion of their involvement with international groups and individuals.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
White, William B.
q (William Blaine),
White, Elizabeth L.
x Effect of human beings on.
Ghost stories, American
Floyd Collins' Crystal Cave (Ky.)
White, William B.
University of South Florida Libraries.
Florida Studies Center.
Oral History Program.
University of South Florida.
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