Tennessee COVID-19 Data

I am maintaining this spatial temporal dataset regarding the unfolding COVID-19 epidemic in Tennessee.

I'll be updating this dataset after 2pm daily when the state provides the numbers for each county. This is not a "live" dataset. I have to key each number manually, and I have to validate every number that isn't from my official source.

This is open data that I am sharing. Please let me know if you end up using this it for something. As always, feel free to share.

For use, please cite as follows:
Sutherland, Charles J. (2020) Tennessee COVID-19 Data. Google Sheet. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1wcNiiWWYOFbk4m2hb92A2kgVoJ2b0E77jcdxGsns1Kw


The Geology of the Twin Arches in the Big South Fork

The Twin Arches are a large pair of arches formed along a ridge just inside Scott County, Tennessee. They are topped by an erosion resistant rock now being called the Rockcastle Sandstone. Below that is the Fentress Formation, which tends to weather more rapidly. These arches both formed by a process of excavation where the cliff lines are receding on either side of a ridge towards one another. The base of the cliff weathers more rapidly than the top, creating large rock shelters. Eventually the rock shelters on either side of the ridge intersected one another creating an arch. The arch continues to grow and one day, sometime long from now, it will fail.

North Twin Arch, Big South Fork NRRA, Scott County, Tennessee South Twin Arch, Big South Fork NRRA, Scott Co, TN


March 3rd 2020 Tornado, Cookeville and Putnam County, Tennessee

Some photos from around Putnam County this morning. It's a bad situation for lots of people. Homes and lives have been lost. I feel nothing but sorrow today. These were the most painful photos I've ever taken.

If you feel moved to provide assistance, donations, or anything at all, please email helpnow@putnamcountytn.gov. They will coordinate with you. While Governor Lee's declaration of a state of emergency will help allocate funds to help those in need, it won't be a quick process. We need good neighbors to help.

Stay safe y'all.

March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 7 March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 27 March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 20 March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 18 March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 10 March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 24 March 3rd, 2020 tornado damage, Putnam County, Tennessee 29


How to do a Cleanup

Illegal dump, The Old Mill Cave Cleanup, White County, Tennessee 1 Stages of a cleanup
  • Identify an illegal dump site or graffiti ridden location
  • Secure landowner permission
  • Build your team
  • Build partnerships
  • Set a date
  • Gather volunteers
  • Resolve legal and logistic issues
  • Contact the media
  • Obtain supplies
  • Execute the cleanup
  • Conduct a post-cleanup analysis

Identify an illegal dump site or graffiti ridden location

It may be that you already know a place that needs to be cleaned. If you don't talk with local officials and folks who spend time outside. Someone can point you to a place in need.

Knowing where to clean is only part of the process though. You need to know whose property you would be working on. If you're in Tennessee, you can use the Tax Assessor webpage to explore who owns what. Alternately your friendly neighborhood GIS professional can help you get at this information.

Secure landowner permission

Bob Keats, Birdsong - Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm, Benton County, Tennessee You'll want to reach out to the landowner early on in planning to make sure they are fine with you proceeding. Keeping the landowner involved at every step is a good idea as well. Many landowners will be out there with you the day of the cleanup. You're doing them a favor. Some landowners may be concerned with liability. Look in the section titled Resolve legal and logistic issues for information on how to deal with this.

Be sure to get their permission in writing. Chances are it isn't necessary, but there seem to be a lot of people out there who flip flop. You want to make sure you're working with a stable predictable partner before proceeding.

Build your team

Ian Smith, Chuck Sutherland, Megan Atkinson, Andrea Kruszka Suggested Cleanup Team
  • Chair
  • Communications
  • Safety
  • Technical

While it doesn't have to fit the above form exactly, each of the appointed committee members play an important role.

The chair serves as an executive who leads meetings, makes duty assignments, and provides energy and motivation. Other team members may hit snags with their jobs, they should communicate issues with the chair and the chair should work to resolve issues quickly.

Communications is the one of the most important committee members. They keep track of meeting minutes, keep people informed of their action items and jobs, and manage contact with any external groups as defined by the team and chair.

Safety's job is to make sure all precautions are met prior to the cleanup. This includes checking people in, making sure liability waivers are signed, observing the cleanup and preventing people from being hurt. This person may have to tell people to stop doing things which are unsafe so choosing someone with a commanding personality is important.

Technical team members are responsible for any rigging, implementation of haul lines, or any other technical engineering that needs to be done to execute the cleanup. Not every cleanup needs technical members.

Build partnerships

Cleanup crew at lunchtime, Copeland Cave Cleanup, Cookeville, TN You can't do a cleanup alone. You'll need a team of people close to you that you trust to get things done quickly and accurately. Ideally these people come from different walks of life and are able to bring the diverse skills necessary to successfully execute a cleanup.

Partnerships may be the organizations your team members belong to, or who they have good working relationships with. Ideally you'll want partnerships in local government at a few levels, state government in conservation organizations, NGOs whose mission overlaps with yours, and other community volunteer organizations that can provide support and manpower.

Organizationally local governments can all be quite different, so there is no catch all for who you need to work with. You'll need to know someone who can help you haul off and dispose of the trash and tires. Some governments have clean commissions, all governments have solid waste departments. Sometimes you'll want to talk to the mayor yourself, other times you'll want to deal with lower ranking officials. Generally when governments learn you're doing a cleanup they'll bend over backwards to assist you. Everyone wants a cleaner more beautiful landscape, especially those seeking re-election.

Every state has a water resources department. In my experience they are always willing to throw their support behind a cleanup since illegal dumps affect water quality. Other state level organizations which may be relevant to at least talk to would be division of natural resources or whatever state fishery and wildlife exists.

NGOs, or non-government organizations, are specialized in their approach, mission, and values. Lots of conservation NGOs love to throw their weight behind a good cleanup. It's likely you can partner with several of these organizations for increased effectiveness. By no means is this a complete list, but I've had good luck working with these organizations in the past:
The Nature Conservancy
The Sierra Club
Boy Scouts of America

Community volunteer organizations worth reaching out to could include student organizations at your local college. They often require a number of volunteer hours yearly in order to maintain their charter. Fraternities, sororities, departmental clubs, and professional organizations are all looking for volunteer opportunities. Local hiking groups, local churches, the Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, and other similar organizations are all worth talking to about partnership opportunities or identifying other partners and volunteers for your cleanup.

As a final note, if one of your organizations has 501(c)3 tax free status, you'll want to take advantage of them purchasing supplies. You'll want to be able to have them take earmarked donations and get them to purchase supplies later.

Set a date

The most intimidating part of the process is setting a date. You may be inclined to overthink this - do not. Here's what you need to consider and here's how you should proceed.

Cleanups are best in cold weather. Late Fall, Winter, early Spring are ideal times since vegetation, snakes, ticks, insects, and poison ivy will be less of a concern. Vegetation is the most notable problem with cleanups since plants will envelope trash making it difficult to impossible to remove, and also hiding it.

You'll want to schedule two dates for a cleanup. A primary date, and a backup. Weather happens and we have no control over it. A backup date gives you some stability towards executing the cleanup in the event of rain, snow, or some other freak weather event.

Gather volunteers

Trog Sink Cleanup, Cookeville, Tennessee 6 Your partners should help you with this process. Ideally they each have their own unique network of volunteers that they can reach out to. Look back at who your partners are and see how they can each best build a pool of reliable volunteers.

Facebook is a good tool for building public awareness and momentum for a cleanup. Create a public event page and invite all your friends who would be interested and would be able to participate. Have your partners do the same.

Resolve legal and logistic issues

Dirt Cave Cleanup, Jackson County, Tennessee Everyone's concerned about liability. Know your state's liability laws. This may mean you consult with a lawyer. If you do, make sure that they know this is for the purpose of making the community a better place and try to save yourself a legal fee.

Your volunteers will need to sign liability waivers, and your landowner will want the best legal protection in place to protect them from litigation should something go awry. To this end, you should think about having a "Safety officer" for the cleanup. Whatever this person says, goes. You'll need to make decisions to mitigate any legal problems up front. For example if children are at a cleanup, do not put them on a steep hill with metal and glass. Kids are good for working the road near the cleanup, unless it's a busy road.

Contact the county roads department early in your planning process and request them to put up signs the before the cleanup encouraging automobile traffic to slow down.

You'll need to plan for a prepare the landscape for your cleanup. If there are steep hills or cliffs then you'll need rope and the people who know how to best use it. If there is lots of vegetation (even dead) then have chainsaws and folks who know how to use it. If there is graffiti, spot clean it in a few places to see what works and what doesn't. Sometimes this step requires some creativity, so this is a good time to bring your team together to creatively solve problems in advance of the cleanup. Try to anticipate problems and address each one individually. Talk through solutions because one person doesn't have all the answers.

Make sure you have solved where the trash is going, who is taking it there, and how they are taking it there. Make sure you know where the tires are going. Often household trash and furniture / construction materials need to be separated. Have plans for this. If you are using earmarked money or working with a grant make sure you've addressed all the needs and concerns of whatever is funding you.

Contact the media

Upper Cumberland Grotto, TTU Cave Cleanup, Putnam County, Tennessee 1 This step may sound self-aggrandizing, but I feel it's one of the most important steps. If we are to make permanent change in the world then we do so by education. Educating people and shifting their values is arguably the most important thing a cleanup does since you're potentially shifting public opinion on matters of conservation. Most people agree that we should keep the land free of trash and graffiti. If they are on the fence and see overwhelming public support for it, they are likely to shift their attitudes

Make sure your local media representatives know the date, time, and location of your cleanup. Have someone appointed to deal with them directly who can eloquently explain the importance of doing cleanups. Provide them with necessary media, like before and after photos, and photos of the cleanup process.

Obtain supplies

Inventory in advance of the cleanup the tools you need and who will be bringing them. If you're a 501(c)3 tax except organization, or you're partners with one, get them to make the purchases.

Every cleanup needs: gardening gloves, leather work gloves, loppers, hand shears, drinking water, and snacks.

At larger cleanups you may want to serve lunch. Maybe you can find a local pizza place that will cut you a deal? Maybe a local restaurant or caterer will want their name on your sponsors? Lunch can usually be worked out if you invest some time looking. Sometimes a partner may already have a plan for this.

Larger cleanups will also require a more complex assortment of tools. Rope, ropework tools, chainsaws, shovels, pickaxes, wenches, and haul systems may be needed. Tables and chairs for eating and planning also may be required.

Execute the cleanup

The day of the cleanup comes. Like anything important, prepare as much as you can in the days before, and arrive there early. Someone's job should be making sure volunteers are signed in and have all their liability forms in place. Someone should address the group and explain what the objective is, introduce the safety officer and explain their position, as well as set times for breaks, lunches, and finishing. They should communicate safety and logistical issues to the group to prepare them for the day's work. The person dealing with the media should be taking photographs. It is a good idea to make this person in charge of communicating with the group because it is likely they will get spread out throughout the course of the cleanup. They should have a backpack with gloves, trash bags, and small tools because people will be needing these throughout the day.

Stage trash alongside roads for quick pickup at the end of the day. Designate a team of people to do a sweep at the end of the cleanup to make sure no one leaves any personal belongings, tools, or trash behind.

Conduct a post-cleanup analysis

As a final step, set a meeting within a few days after you've completed the cleanup that should be attended by your team and maybe a few of the volunteers. You'll want to discuss what worked, what didn't work, and what could be improved. Write it all down and keep that record somewhere. Sometimes the space between cleanups can be a while and it's easy to forget what we've learned along the way.

Last, but certainly not least, Maureen Handler made available some planning spreadsheets used by the SERA Karst Task Force.


So You're Curious About Caving?

Laurel Abernathy, Kelli Lewis, Blue Spring Cave, White County, Tennessee

You're curious about caving? It's easy to understand why! Maybe you've seen photographs of caves and you're curious to see these places with your own eyes. Maybe you heard about a friend's excellent adventure through a local cave system and how challenging and rewarding it was for them. Maybe you're looking for the next extreme sport to master or maybe you're interested in learning about history, or a science that's practiced in caves. Whatever your reason, there's a great group of folks who are here to help you on the next leg of your adventure.

Ashley Williams, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 1 The National Speleological Society (NSS) is the organization I belong to that is about caves and caving. There are local chapters called grottos. I am a member of a few of these across Tennessee, but the first grotto I belonged to, and the one where I focus most of my energy is the Upper Cumberland Grotto. We are based out of Cookeville, Tennessee.

Grottos duties are to intercept would-be cavers and help introduce them to the world of caving. There are different rules for safety and conservation down there, and you're not born knowing them, so we try to handle that education. We develop landowner relations, we do community outreach and education, we do cleanups, we like to eat food and drink beer, but most importantly we go caving.

Depending on where you live you may or may not be nearby to caves or a grotto, which is usually based out of a city. You can check at Caves.org. look for the link that says "find a caving club near you". Or you can look at this handy map I made which shows the nearest grotto to where you live (note that it's not always accurate to say that a grotto is located somewhere).

Regardless of your proximity to my club, let me extend a formal invitation to come join us at an Upper Cumberland Grotto meeting sometime. We alternate meetings between business and socials. At business meetings we have presentations and usually a handful of us go out for beer and food afterwards. We meet at a restaurant, or maybe the bowling alley, and we hang out and have fun. This is where a lot of caving trips get organized. If you have any questions you're welcome to reach out to me, or the grotto officials that you locate through the above links. We always love to hear from new cavers.

The NSS produces brochures which cover information about the caving community, responsible caving, and more. This is a great place to get started learning about caving.

Below are some selected readings about caving. These are generally written with a novice caver in mind, so don't expect to be overwhelmed.

Dirt Cave Cleanup, Jackson County, Tennessee

Gear for Caving in Tennessee

Why We Don't Share Cave Locations

Vandalism, Dirt Cave, Jackson County, Tennessee 1
Anne Elmore doing a Change-over, Halloween Grotto Party at Jay Green's House, Putnam Co, Cookeville, TN

The Role of Grottos in the Caving Community

The Role of Grottos in the Outside Community

Cleanup, Pilot Knob Cave, Jackson County, Tennessee


Tornadoes of the Upper Cumberland

Possible tornado, Ken McDonald, Putnam County, Tennessee

With tornadoes touchdowns in my neighborhood this last week, I am reminded of this very nice dataset regarding tornadoes. I thought that a focused regional analysis may be appreciated. Below you can see tracks of tornadoes from 1950 - 2017 that are displayed by EF rank (tornado intensity). The tracks are approximations based on a start and end point, which is why they all appear perfectly strait. Note that the path of most of the points is from south-west to north-east. This follows the prevailing winds of the region.

Tornadoes of the Upper Cumberland: 1950 - 2017

Many of the following charts I show will have some minor errors in them that result from data smoothing. Please take these with a grain of salt. The first three charts show temporal trends in tornado behavior in the UC.

Yearly Tornado Activity

From this chart one can see that there have been more lately, but it is hard to draw long term conclusions from this data. The data tapers towards our current date as a result of the smoothing process. Other considerations towards the apparent rise is recent tornadic activity may be accounted for by sampling bias. Increasing population make the likelihood of observing a tornado, as well as a report being made about a tornado is more likely to be done in a more interconnected communication oriented society.

Daily Tornado Activity Throughout the Year (by Julian day)

The most distinct peak occurs around Julian day 90, which approximately is the end of March and beginning of April.

Hourly Tornado Activity

Peak tornado hour is shown to be 4pm by this data.

Length of Tornado Tracks in Miles

Width of Tornado Swath in Yards

Histogram of EF Scales

Software: ArcMap 10.7, Excel, Orange


2020/02/06 - Rock Island State Park Flooding

February 6th, 2020 the Upper Cumberland received a lot of rain. So much so, that it was worth a few minutes to whip up a map to help visualize how much. White and Cumberland Counties got the lion's share with 4.30 and 4.21 inches of rain on average across each county, respectively. A more detailed breakdown of the rain is below, along with some dramatic images and videos taken mostly at Rock Island State Park in Warren and White Counties.

Using lidar to estimate normal and flood stage conditions witnessed yesterday, I suspect the water was nearly 30' above its normal stage. Normal stage is approximately 651' FASL, and the cliff edges being nearly inundated are at 681' FASL.
Upper Cumberland Precipitation 02/06/2020

Hydroelectric plant, Caney Fork River, Rock Island State Park, White County, Tennessee 1

Caney Fork River, Rock Island State Park, Warren County, Tennessee 1

Twin Falls, Caney Fork River, Rock Island State Park, Warren County, Tennessee

All Flickr Photo and Videos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/chucksutherland/albums/72157713005510572


Missing People Map

Sometime around middle to late November of 2019, I started getting tagged in posts on Reddit and Facebook where a map purported to show a correlation between missing person cases and caves. The two maps in question were of terrible quality in both content and image quality (so very much JPG compression). Somehow these maps managed to capture the public's attention for several weeks. In fact, more than two months later I am still being asked questions about the map.

What follows is a critical analysis of the maps from both a cartographer's perspective, as well as a caver's.


Where did each image come from that comprised the map?

The top image is titled "North America Cluster Map" and is produced by the Canam Missing Project / Missing 411. I cannot comment on the methods used to produce the map since they aren't stated. For this reason I am immediately suspect that this is conveying real information. I'll touch on why the form of this map isn't correct later in Cartographic Analysis. Link to a higher resolution map here.

The bottom image was seemingly produced by Texas Parks and Wildlife as a support image for the webpage here. Some of their methods can be inferred by the documentation on the associated website. However, there are still design flaws that I will cover later.

What was the person thinking that put the two images together?

The meme originally seemed to pick up credibility when on October 28th it was posted to the Reddit forum r/Missing411 here: Do these images look similar? The top is a map of Missing 411 cases. The bottom is a map of America’s cave systems. Caves seem to play an interesting roll in some of these disappearances. The Mammoth Cave system in particular had caught my interest.

It was posted to r/MapPorn on November 15th here: Since I love true crime and cole cases- wow! where it picked up more credibility.

(You've got to love the titles of Reddit posts. Reddit user michaeljoemcc cleverly comments, "Slaw and Order: Cole Cases.")

This wasn't the first appearance of the meme however. In the comments of the r/MapPorn post Reddit user plural_of_nemesis identifies the original post with this comment, as well as points out some problems with the map:

Notice we can't see the key on the top map?
The missing people are represented by the large orange dots in the top map, and it only includes people that have gone missing from national parks.
Edit: I found the original source of that top map. Black dots are literally just the location of caves. That's why they correlate so perfectly with the location of caves in the second map.
(link marked "b" in this thread) https://www.reddit.com/r/reptiliandata/comments/4ecdxs/maps_do_map_of_vaccine_makers_tv_stations_caves
Source: u/plural_of_nemesis
Further commentary by u/BRENNEJM notes that "The original top map doesn’t even have the black parts on it." This certainly hints that the top map was modified with data from the bottom map. With the top map lacking a key anyone could be expected to assume every black dot on the top map is a missing person case, when in fact, it's cave locations from the bottom map.

Cartographic Analysis

Mixing elements without a key or proper labels is a pretty serious flaw in the map design. This is just another strong example of why people shouldn't get information from memes.

If a student turned this map into me as a project they had worked on, I would reject it entirely for the following reasons:

1) Too much JPG. The image format JPG is a lossy data format. What that means is that you can compress the image for a minor loss in quality. As I process photographs I can choose to make the file size smaller by increasing compression, and for the most part no one will ever notice the difference. However, repeatedly opening and re-saving a JPG will result in increasing JPG artifacts.

Here is a funny example of too much JPG compression.

2) Cannot be read. None of the data labels, none of the legend items, nothing on the map can be read. What even are the colors on the top map trying to show us? How much information do you think anything can share if you cannot read what it is attempting to say? This is the result of the previously mentioned JPG compression, but is itself an entirely different flaw.

3) Improper Symbolization. Point data should only be used to symbolize infrequent data. In other words, hundreds of points on a map doesn't correctly convey density. Compare and contrast the following two maps I have made.

This map of Tennessee Caves uses a heat map to show densities of features. This is advantageous for a few reasons. At this scale a map of caves would look like a mess of points and would obscure most other map elements. Many points would be overlapping to the point where it generally seemed like a large blob. Points are inappropriate here and either a heat map or a choropleth map would work.

Tennessee Cave Distribution Map, data 2018 (11x17)

This map shows locations of Comb Graves. At the request of the author we left the point data in tact, despite my objections. Note that at the scale the map is produced at there are plenty of overlapping points and the overall design is very busy. Compare with the above map. Which better conveys information?

The Tennessee Comb Grave Tradition - Figure 1 color variant

4) Where did they even get the data? As someone who has been caving for more than a decade and making state level density maps for a a few years, I would really like to know where their cave data came from. I have high level contacts across the United States and am generally a respected caver and I had to plea, debate, beg, sign contracts, and kiss butt to get the data for the handful of states I've managed to map (read more here: The Origins of Data, and the Future of State Cave Surveys).

The data on the bottom map doesn't match old public datasets on caves, like the GNIS data (which has since retired collecting cave entrance location data). It vaguely matches my data (which is likely the most complete cave entrance location collection within the USA). It best seems to match polygon data of karst areas provided by the USGS. But again I wonder where the points came from?

5) Where is the analysis? There are tools in modern GIS packages to compare datasets. Why can we not make an empirical analysis of the data and provide that?

6) Methods? The data on methods from the original post are suspect. The best guess I can make is they used Photoshop to layer the data.

7) Conclusions. Given the vast number of flaws found in this meme it is clear that it doesn't represent what it claims to represent. Can we stop sharing it now?


The Patient

We cavers get pretty emotional about rescues. The kind of emotional that finds a group of 40 people from at least three different states happily atop a windy and frigid mountain in White County at night in the dead of winter. We are busy with tasks. Rope must be rigged. Paths must be cleared. We must be trained on how to use a haul system.

Inside the cave people are shaving rocks to widen the passage. Cavers are placing bolts to assist with moving the patient. A medic has rappelled and climbed to him and administers medication to ease the pain. Hand warmers are placed on him. He is cold from having been underground, and unable to move for so long. He hurts and is weary, but he holds a deep strength that all here know and admire.

Here is a place where normal people become heroes. Normal people learn the complex art of cave and cliff rescue and apply that to help their fellow humans. Normal people volunteer their time to their local rescue group.

We wait for the order “Slow haul!” and hand over hand two teams pull the lines a man’s life hangs by. It is a process, with many steps to bring an injured person to the surface. We work and we wait. People within the cave are communicating messages to us about what we need to do.

Sometime around 3:30am the patient emerges from the cave. He is pale, but doing well despite the ordeal he has endured. I shout "We love you!" from above and see him crack a smile. Soon he is on the back of a side-by-side and on his way down the mountain. Cold and tired we pack up and find our way down to our cars. There must be a hundred people here.

Humans are capable of such beauty and wonder. If you ever doubt your fellow man, come to a cave rescue. Tonight a team of humans saved a life. I can’t think of anything more amazing than that.

Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee Cave Rescue, WH349, White County, Tennessee


Waterfalls Maps of Tennessee

Waterfalls of Tennessee - Density

This density map is more revealing in the pattern of waterfalls on the landscape then the next map. This seems to reveal considerable sampling bias with major hotspots associated with public lands like the Big South Fork NRRA and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While this is to be expected, any dataset should be looking at itself closely and considering where its weaknesses are. Many folks contribute to the webpage Tennessee Landforms, myself included. I know my own personal bias tends towards the Upper Cumberland region where I live and work. Other waterfall hounds have their favored stomping grounds as well. Perhaps this should just be a reminder to occasionally get out of your comfort zone.

Waterfalls of Tennessee - Height

The data of this map is notably more difficult to interpret. I was attempting to see if spatial patterns for waterfall height were obvious. The first problem is figuring out how tall a waterfall is. By my measurement one may be 100' and by yours it may only be 30'. There are plenty of ways to see how this may lead to a dataset with inconsistent data. Further, there are waterfalls with no height data. This map captures mean height, the standard deviation of height (small dots show little variability, large dots a lot), and finally the number of waterfalls without height data, all by the same unit, a 500 square mile hexagon.


Secret Cave

Secret Cave lies on the Albert and Ethel Ogden Nature Preserve. It is owned by the National Speleological Society, and managed by a team of members including myself.

Ashley Williams, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 1 Megan Atkinson, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2 Ashley Williams, Warren Wyatt, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2 Rami Ayoub, Clinton Elmore, Secret Cave, Putnam Co, TN Laura Casey, Secret Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2


Capshaw Cave

Evan Hart, Capshaw Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 2

Much of Capshaw Cave looks like the above image; subway tunnel passages following meanders of a cold underground river. The floor of the cave is generally gravel, sometimes clean washed and scalloped limestone, sometimes tires and trash. The urban nature of the cave has left it largely devoid of the kind of life one would expect to find in a wet cave of this size. You will find no cave crayfish, no southern cave fish, and no bat species that call Capshaw Cave home.

Today I am assisting TTU geology professor Evan Hart with data collection in the cave. Banks of sediment left behind from floods tell stories to those who listen. Evan's tools include a shovel, plastic siding, toilet paper, and tape. With the "U" shaped plastic siding he removes cross sections of sediment. Looking at the cut he dug with the shovel it's clear there is a story. Finely laminated alternating beds of sand and silt seem to show periods of higher energy and lower energy. The bigger story will require more work.

Evan Hart, Capshaw Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 3

"More," Evan says as I hand him another wad of toilet paper. He packs it atop the soil sample to preserve its structure. When we've packed it in, it then gets wrapped in tape, labeled, and stored in his backpack to be taken from the cave. The technique of preserving stratigraphic sections was something he learned from a recent correspondence with archaeologist Sarah Sherwood at the University of the South. She applies it towards rock shelters that Native Americans once inhabited. Here, we are looking at the history of water in this part of Cookeville.

While Evan works on preparing his samples, I take my photography team and wander a short distance to take a few photos. I know I can take a photo, turn 180 degrees and take another photo and for my audience it may as well be miles apart from the previous shot. It's a truth that all caves look the same, but caves all also look different. I don't know if I can explain that, sometimes it is best to let the photos do the talking.

Annabelle Dempsey, Capshaw Cave, Putnam County, Tennessee 1

We are moving again. I'm trying to keep up with long-legged Evan whose strides seem to cut the water. My boots, while being great at protecting my feet in a cave environment, are both naturally heavy, and are currently filled with water. One of us is a dancer, the other is a snow plow. We never go far between places to take photos or samples though.

In moments I'm barking orders to my photo team. "Luke, grab two flashes." "Annabelle, stand over by my finger's shadow" as I wiggle a finger in front of my headlamp to show her where to go. Communication is difficult in cave photography. Lots of things need to happen, and if they don't happen quickly morale fails and folks get bored of working with me. In a wet cave this issue is compounded. Every moment we're stopped we're not generating heat to offset the cooling effect of the 55 degree water we're standing in. Despite this, I coax Luke into wading chest deep into the creek for a photo. A flash fired down into the water produces an pleasing blue glow around the subject. "That looks great. Pack it up," I say. Sometimes I'll make "wow" sounds and invite them over to see the finished product. Generally I let it ride. In a few days they will see themselves on Facebook.

A few more sites for sediment and photo collection and we find ourselves making the free climb through a waterfall, and then out of the cave. We emerge, wet and cold into the frigid winter air.