BlueWater Dream of the Great Below

I awoke with a start. I had fallen asleep slumped against my favorite leaning poplar a ten-minute walk from the house. I was most certainly not exactly there now. I had nodded off on a warm summer afternoon, but now I was immersed in a cool but pleasant darkness, and more floating than lying against anything at all. The half-familiar smell of being in a cave — or the dank, moist, earthy and energizing smell of a rainstorm — was intense; it came from every side of me, though I truly could not have told you — or cared at that moment — which way was up. My eyes waited for a glimmer. Maybe I’d slept into darkness under a passing shower. I was just groggy. Right?

I wasn’t afraid, exactly, but I confess some discomfort in not knowing: if I was dead; or in a coma maybe; or had I been transported across a divide into a place so utterly unfamiliar that I might never regain my bearings? Maybe I had gone mad.

I tried to stand, and somehow in the pitch-darkness had the sense that I became vertical, but I recall the odd sense of nothing under my feet — no pressure against my soles, no feeling of gravity whatsoever on my joints. Where ever I was, I was buoyant, weightless, a feather floating in… in what, I could not tell.

2

I turned full circle in the utter darkness, cautiously, at once fearful and hopeful of what I might see. Surely by now, if there was any light at all, my night vision would detect at least some starlight through the trees along the path, a hint of the way home. I had no idea how long I must have been gone. Ann would be worried.

And it was just then that I faintly saw a vertical tattered streak of faint light from above — a phosphorescent, pale and shimmering blueness, above me, around me, near at hand and in the distance. The thin shapes lacked edges as my eyes were still not fully adapted, not only to the darkness, but also and especially to this unearthly wavelength of light unlike any my eyes had ever been able to see before.

That I was not leaning against my poplar in the normal kind of night-darkness became certain. And the more I looked up, the more I was convinced that I was deep, below, under a world whose odd light was above me, but I was not under sky. From close by to far, far in the distance, a jagged web of blueness in shimmering vertical and horizontal ribbons brightened, as if an invisible hand was slowly dialing the light and color intensity higher, and higher still.

This was a dream, wasn’t I? And yet I seemed to have some role as director, actor and writer of the script of this lucid vision. And suddenly I knew where I must be: in the Great Below — that real and opaque reality that begins at the surface of soil and rocky outcrops beyond which human vision cannot penetrate. Out of sight, out of mind. In my dream-state afternoon nap, I had percolated down into the sod; down into the root zone of the poplar I leaned against; and down further still. Beam me down, Scotty! I stopped being anxious about the why and the how and let myself become fully immersed in the where of that totally odd moment.

I had apparently slept through the journey down the elevator into bedrock. I slept through it! What had I missed? Below the thin and rocky soil, below the rootzone of oaks and hickories, basswood and maple, I would have passed through the broken-up, jumbled-up layer called regolith — literally, a “stone blanket” that lies on top of the ancient turtle-shell mantle of the planet that we call bedrock.

In our particular valley, the regolith includes a deep pavement of ancient stream-deposited boulders and talus, partially eroded millions of years ago after they calved off the uplifted and almost-vertical new and unforested Appalachian crags. They were driven steeply down the stream by the powerful roaring water that carved the gorge along Nameless Creek and left us with a flat alluvial delta plain that holds our pasture today.

Over the millennia, this layer was buried, century by century, buried deeper and deeper by the dust of time. The leaves and limbs and spores and rot of a hundred million summers covered it over; rendered it invisible, and therefore not real to us. At the very top, the seed of my leaning poplar had found rich dark loam at the very surface skin of the Great Below about the year I was born.

3

So very much time passes below our feet — a true history that we cannot see, but that we can grasp, given the right lens, the right vantage point — even if it is a hallucination or a dream. Certainly, seeing it as I was seeing it at that moment versus book learning about water underground was to compare a circle to a sphere. I had known ABOUT this, but had not KNOWN it as I did at that moment.

To my amazement, all about me were the blue-radiant fractures in the bedrock of Goose Creek, seen (don’t ask me how) from within the rock itself. I moved by a kind of levitation, into and through it, at will. This was crazy, but crazy amazing! Pay attention! Focus! I might wake up any minute and become day-blind again to the wonders of this ordinary, always-under-us reality!

I estimated I must be about five hundred feet below the leaf litter along Nameless Creek and four hundred or a bit more below the bottom-most of the rock blanket — the point where bedrock begins. And that point was the uppermost and beginning source of the vertical cracks into which last week’s two inches of rain was just now flowing. From where I viewed them, these feeder fissures appeared like glowing, flowing and intersecting blue streaks and sheets of lightning,

The vertical fissures carried the water deep; the horizontal cracks carried it wide, and in this way, formed a net-work of interconnected flow, so that water perked in one creek valley could mingle with waters from the next.

The broken structure of the Deep Below under the Blue Ridge Mountains was something of a shock. I’d always imagined it to be the fixed and immovable object upon which our above-ground forests and freeways and so-called civilized world was laid down — -a house built upon a rock. But it was a very broken rock. I had to guess that the unimaginable forces in the collision of continental plates hundreds of millions of years ago had fractured even as it uplifted to form those craggy high mountains now softened by age and the fuzz of forests. And thank goodness for this, or where would we find water for human needs over this vast region if bedrock underneath us was totally solid and impervious?

The longer I gazed near me and as far into (and through) the distant rock as I could see, the more I was impressed by the sheer number of blue-watered aqueducts of all possible sizes, intersected far more often than not, at right angles. I got the notion of so many jam-packed and interlocked ladders — the verticals beginning at the regolith, the rungs — some very short and thin, some quite long and thick — as the horizontals. And this whole water-ladder system covered many hundreds of square miles, unseen, unappreciated but its volume and its quality so vital to our existence and health of surface-living beings, plant and animal alike. Together, fluid webs like this held the promise of water for every deep-well straw drawing from this source across the Blue Ridge plateau.

Rainwater from last week had splatted down through the canopy to topsoil to rootzone to regolith. It was finally filling up and making visible a web of empty linear spaces in the rock near the top — a sign that our bedrock had not yet been at full capacity, even though we’d had a wet summer. How much volume it can store, nobody knows. Sadly, we do know it does not take many months of drought for it to be depleted and for hundreds of wells to go dry. We should care for every drop.

4

In my first moments I so smitten by this new reality around and above me that I “stood” slack-jawed and suspended in place for some while before I realized I could actually move within this underground space. My mobility, it turned out, was fluid — no pun intended — as if I were weightless and the quartz and granite were insubstantial and no impediment to my wandering about in the Great Below. I could flow anywhere I wanted over the vast expanse of it.

By now, my subterranean eyes had fully adapted to the light that came from the water alone in this perpetual nighttime. Or maybe not. Some might think of this realm as hell, but so far to me, there was no evil here. I imagined more than once, that, out of the corner of my eye that I had the floating, bioluminescent comb jellies that were the “butterflies” of Pandora. The mind can play tricks on top of tricks! I will tell you truly that I am certain I was able to hear in this netherworld of trickling, gurgling, dripping — where the rains of years moved ever deeper in the upper mantle of the Water Planet. But saying more about the sounds all around us that we don’t hear remains for another time.

High overhead, above the rock blanket, flowed a few stout and horizontal lights of a weaker shade of blue; these were far bolder than the lines of the water-ladder, and apparently this was a surface feature — colored more like sky than the pale indigo fissures and water-filled cracks underground. This, I concluded, must be surface water running at the interface of soil and the air above. We call such aggregates of drops creeks, and I chose to explore up and down Goose Creek from underneath it, to see what I might learn.

I quickly traced the creek a short distance west and upgradient, towards the higher ground along Daniels Run. Its flow grew smaller and smaller as I moved in this direction, and then disappeared entirely almost two miles upstream. This point was the “headwaters” — the source waters of Goose Creek. I turned to follow its course downstream from my vantage point far below, and it became apparent how a creek starts as a single trickle, and before meeting its confluence with another stream, ends as a jump-across creek or bigger. All of our creeks have just such a beginning.

Mountain streams seem to be perpetual motion machines, flowing every hour, day and night, for weeks and months. Even after a long while since rain, their cold, clear waters flow as if from a limitless container rather than from the sky. From my vantage point far under the Deep Rock, I understood the magic: I could clearly see that some horizontal fissures that twig off the vertical storage cracks under mountains move laterally for some distance, the waters often with sufficient pressure of gravity to sustain a gradient, creating a directional flow.

Where those particular horizontal fractures encounter an inclined slope (soil and rock eroded away over eons by surface waters to create a hillside) that blue water oozes slowly onto the surface as a seep (that may be just a wet place in the soil) or a spring (in some places a burbling gallon-a-minute hemorrhage from cold darkness into the light of day. Some springs bubble up from under the creek bed, while others might flow hundreds of yards downhill, tumbling from rocky pool to rocky pool, down a boulder-strewn Rhododendron-covered mountain flank, before merging with the whelming creek waters.

And each horizontal contribution adds to the babble and gurgle of a building system of a surface watershed. Once the cold subterranean water reaches the air, some will evaporate; some will be lapped up by wildlife; some will be pulled out by pumps to water fields along the course of the rivers that confluent creeks create together. But most of our surface waters go to oceans.

5

It thundered, not far away — powerful enough to shake the ground and wake me out of my altered state. The winds picked up, lifting leaves and branches towards the east as the storm approached. It smelled of rain.

Rain. We all know where it comes from. Now, I know where it goes.