The State of the Rag

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The State of the Rag

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 7, 2015 11:04 pm

Some good could come, I think, from a widespread consideration of this topic. I am posting the following both on Cavechat and on TAGnet. It seems that these are increasingly empty tribunals, but they are the ones I know how to use. If it seems appropriate to you, encourage active cavers and newsletter editors to have a look or give their thoughts.

It has been roughly one year since I accepted the job of reviewing grotto publications for the NSS News. I was eager to do this job, since I love to read and to learn about caves and caving around the country. It would be an easy task and an enjoyable one, I thought, to share with News readers the high points of what I expected to be a flood of quality newsletters. When I say “easy” I don’t mean that I was unprepared to work hard on the Underground Update column. What I was unprepared for was the widespread lack of support for grotto publications that has made this work, at its worst, an uninteresting chore.

Before anyone becomes offended, allow me to explain why my expectations may have been unrealistic to begin with, to suggest what should be reasonably expected, and to examine more completely what some of the problems and solutions may be.

My first exposure to grotto publications came in the winter of 2011, when a caver named Marion Smith suggested that I contact my fellow Ohioan and the founder and then-advisor of Wittenberg University Speleological Society, Horton Hobbs. Among the many helpful things Horton did for me personally was to send me a stack of issues of Pholeos, WUSS’ newsletter. I was impressed by Pholeos, by its meaningful content and its fine production. Nearly every issue contained the accounts of original explorations or surveys, original maps, scientific articles, gear or technique reviews, along with plenty of photos and stories of tourist trips by first-time cavers. Occasionally were found poetry and cartoonery. As I started to follow up on the work done by WUSS in southern Ohio, old issues of Pholeos became an indispensably valuable resource.

It would not be appropriate for me to measure all other newsletters against Pholeos, since it was the product of resources that are not shared by many other grottos. WUSS is a student grotto, and undoubtedly enjoys some measure of funding from the university. University environment and resources also encourage and enable much of the science that is such an important feature of Pholeos. Finally, WUSS was pushed into productivity by Dr. Hobbs, who was an energetic leader for 30 years. Indeed, the apparent decline in WUSS activity since his retirement reinforces my suspicion that the success of many small organizations is thanks to one or a few highly motivated individuals. All of this aside, does it not seem reasonable that, if a grotto based in the heart of cave-poor Ohio can produce a consistently excellent publication, it should be possible for most other grottos to do the same?

It is important then to define what excellence, in this setting, is. As has been hinted at already, glossy color covers and original scientific research cannot be expected of all or even many grottos. Every good newsletter though, should serve to document the meaningful activity of the grotto. The newsletter should serve as an enduring witness to what a grotto has done. What legacy are grottos currently preserving? Many contain plentiful records of interesting and productive activity. Conservation and ridgewalking and survey projects are consistently featured in several newsletters. Besides being interesting, these records have the potential to be valuable to those working the same areas in the future. Some newsletters often include excellent photographs, which is a worthy use of publication space. However, many other newsletters often contain nothing more than meeting minutes and one or two of the following: links to or excerpts from online articles that are vaguely cave-related, a list of upcoming events, a few lines about a recreational trip to a popular cave, a feeble request for more submissions, and so on. It is ok if this is all that a grotto is doing, but the fact is that the most cave-rich area of the country, TAG, produces the most insubstantial of newsletters. It seems improbable that no meaningful caving is happening. Why does it go unreported? I have some ideas. Laziness, uncertainty, and the desire to keep projects secret are among them. I welcome further explanation from TAG or other cavers who consistently fail to report their activity.

There is no rule that anyone share the details of his caving. However, understanding that good documentation will be valuable to others, and the realization that our hold on our pet projects is necessarily temporary, should motivate somewhat of a spirit of sharing among explorers.

I do not know exactly how best to improve the content of grotto publications. I do know that efforts should be made to do so. If no improvement can be made, I see no reason for several newsletters to remain in existence, at least as monthlies. This is not, in most cases, a criticism of editors. They have often inherited a rag so long stagnant that they do not recognize its inadequacy. Many work hard to produce a good-looking publication, even if there’s nothing inside. If all newsletter editors recognize the opportunity they have to create a real resource for fellow cavers, and make serious efforts to seize this opportunity, I have no doubt that the quality of many publications would improve.

A few more brief notes:

Meaningful submissions need not be long or even well-written.

Efforts should be made to record previously undocumented activity from past years and decades.

Verbal interviews can provide the basis for excellent material.

While caving techniques and gear have matured to the point that no great breakthroughs should be expected, new ideas and adjustments continue to be of interest.

While it was the Underground Update assignment that made me aware of the state of grotto publications across the U.S., my primary concern is not the success of that column. Instead, I mourn the loss of information, the loss of history, which this negligence will result in and is resulting in. I welcome the prospect of my little job for the News becoming more interesting, for myself and for readers, but more than that I hope for a future in which cavers can look to the archives with a purpose, and act with an understanding and appreciation of the past.

Finally, I feel that some newsletters are worthy of special recognition for their current excellence. However, in an effort to avoid controversy, I will not name names. Let it be known that I and other readers recognize the diligence on the part of editors and contributors that have made certain publications a real asset.

This topic has gotten away from me a little, and what I have written is not exactly what I set out to write. Take it with good humor, please. Ignore it if you want to. But if there is any merit in these observations, try to act on them if you can. I welcome productive comment from anyone, and look forward to observing the various evolutions of the scores of grotto publications I am honored to receive and review.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby driggs » Jun 8, 2015 4:42 pm

I'd like to answer you with yet another set of rhetorical questions:

Why do you post trip reports on this 12+ page CaveChat thread rather than submitting bi-monthly reports to a dead-tree local newsletter? Why would you post this very query to TAG-Net while simultaneously expressing surprise that the TAG newsletters are lacking.

Please don't interpret this in the least as an accusation of hypocrisy! Rather, I think that if you really consider the why behind even your own actions, you may perhaps start to feel that other mediums are simply preferred for what they offer over a stapled stack of paper in the mailbox. The newspaper industry is suffering the same decline.


I'm with you, however, in that I believe our longterm historical interests are worse off because of this trend. The fact that the NSS recently killed SpeleoDigest makes a troubling situation critical.

Analogously, did you know there was an "NSS database" before CaveChat*? That generation's collective consciousness has blinked out of existence, just as CaveChat's may some day, just as the ephemeral conversations on dozens of disjointed Facebook groups and personal pages are gone even before they're even forgotten by those involved. Say what you will about a stack of dead paper, but I have more faith that I'll be able to research that media in a decade's time than any current digital form.

*This was before my time. I've seen it referenced in some old CaveChat posts, but don't know much about it myself.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 8, 2015 10:32 pm

By calling your questions rhetorical, I'm afraid you're telling me not to bother with an answer. I'm also sure that you know better. :big grin:

driggs wrote: Why would you post this very query to TAG-Net while simultaneously expressing surprise that the TAG newsletters are lacking?

I supposed that I might learn something about the culture that has resulted in current realities. I'm a stranger here really, and not as perceptive as I wish, and so don't want to rely too much on assumption. The point I guess you're making, though, is that TAG-NET is a superior medium for reaching large audiences, and that the popular era of newsletters has passed.

driggs wrote:Why do you post trip reports on this 12+ page CaveChat thread rather than submitting bi-monthly reports to a dead-tree local newsletter?

This one is harder. I'm not a member of any grotto, and haven't considered the ramblings I've posted here to be of any practical or historical value. Cheaply entertaining to a few maybe, but that's never been, in my opinion, the main purpose of a newsletter. My posting of those trip reports has been a selfish indulgence, and they were probably better left in the notepads they were composed on. The point I guess you're making, though, is that Cavechat is a superior medium for reaching large audiences, and that the popular era of newsletters has passed.

A question is, what do other mediums offer over a stapled stack of paper in the mailbox? I think the obvious answer is; more attention from a wider audience. That is sometimes good. 'Tis often good for the ego. The disadvantage is that, as you have already said, this scattered information is impossible to archive, difficult to reference, and easily and inevitably lost. Probably half of the newsletters I receive are digital copies, and I suspect that before long 80 or more percent of grotto pubs will be. This is fine, since it still preserves information in an organized, recoverable way. I suppose I'm trying to convince some that even in this age, newsletters serve a real purpose that other mediums cannot or at least currently do not.

driggs wrote:Please don't interpret this in the least as an accusation of hypocrisy!

Even if it were, I would have somewhat of a defense (don't I always :roll: ). I have tried to document (in a more concrete way) whatever of my own activity may be of future value. The bulk of my Ohio stuff is down in print in an NSS-produced publication. Several other of my articles on original exploration in Ohio have been published in the Greater Cincinnati Grotto and Cleveland Grotto pubs. How to approach the stuff in other states has been unclear to me. It feels somewhat foolish to publish, as an unknown in a state like VA, accounts of my extremely modest efforts when so many who are doing "real" projects are silent. As much as I know it looks like it, I'm not only after attention, and I fear that pushing a mass of articles into the light will portray me as a sort of person I certainly don't want to be. But maybe I should ask grotto editors if it's ok, quit worrying about it, and send the stuff in. Indeed, perhaps I have been a hypocrite, and you have jostled me as I have hoped to jostle others.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby UnderGroundEarth » Jun 9, 2015 10:40 am

As the former Reviewer, I feel your pain.

As far as TAG goes... If you visit the NSS Library and take a look at older TAG publications, you will find them filled full of stories of exploration and mapping. Some of these used to be available online thru the Karst Information Portal but there was a recent uproar and those have been removed. Unfortunately, the mapping/exploration age has slowed down A LOT and caves are not being found as often as they once were in this region. This would explain mostly why many cavers are not writing about it (it's already been written). On another note, a lot of us who are currently mapping are not revealing or publishing our secret projects because honestly TAG is filled full of scoopers who want nothing more than to scoop virgin cave and do not care about the hard work and effort that the surveyors are putting in. Nowadays, people are congratulating and rejoicing the scoopers for running thru a cave and only estimating it's depth and lengths and not documenting it with surveying.

The Sewanee Mountain Grotto is a newly re-formed grotto in the last decade. I created our publication T.A.G. Caver about 5 years ago. I can honestly say that being an editor of a caving publication is HARD WORK. You have to do a lot of soliciting to find material, sometimes even coming up with ideas for articles and pitching those ideas to people to write. It's not an easy job and because that hay day of finding caves and surveying them is mostly gone all that is mostly left is trip reports. I took all of this into consideration when creating our publication and decided to only publish it quarterly in order to maintain quality.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 9, 2015 1:43 pm

UnderGroundEarth wrote: I took all of this into consideration when creating our publication and decided to only publish it quarterly in order to maintain quality.


I think that this is an idea that several other grottos should consider. If there isn't anything to report, having a faithfully produced monthly newsletter isn't really much to brag about.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby LukeM » Jun 10, 2015 7:38 am

UnderGroundEarth wrote:On another note, a lot of us who are currently mapping are not revealing or publishing our secret projects because honestly TAG is filled full of scoopers who want nothing more than to scoop virgin cave and do not care about the hard work and effort that the surveyors are putting in.


There have been one or two recent bigger discoveries in the northeast whose locations, because of sensitive ownership situations, have not been revealed to anyone outside of the core exploration group. There have been great articles detailing the exploration and survey efforts but other than what happens within the cave all that is ever revealed is a name, and a general regional location. Is this not a possibility for the TAG projects you're referring to? I would think that even without specifics any caving story of original exploration is interesting and worth sharing.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 10, 2015 10:39 am

LukeM wrote:
UnderGroundEarth wrote:On another note, a lot of us who are currently mapping are not revealing or publishing our secret projects because honestly TAG is filled full of scoopers who want nothing more than to scoop virgin cave and do not care about the hard work and effort that the surveyors are putting in.


There have been one or two recent bigger discoveries in the northeast whose locations, because of sensitive ownership situations, have not been revealed to anyone outside of the core exploration group. There have been great articles detailing the exploration and survey efforts but other than what happens within the cave all that is ever revealed is a name, and a general regional location. Is this not a possibility for the TAG projects you're referring to? I would think that even without specifics any caving story of original exploration is interesting and worth sharing. (emphasis mine -JK)


True, as long as there is at least a name included. However, I think that things in TAG are a bit more competitive than in the NE. Evidently, there are some who hunt quite aggressively for leads to "scoop" and have the knowledge to hunt down some caves with very few clues. Also, there are some surely some discoveries being made within known caves, and publicizing the name could enable the hordes of scoopers.

This problem could be dealt with, though, by submitting your report, with map, when the survey is finished. Or if you aren't surveying your own new find, submit your report, with descriptions and photos anyway, when you're finished scooping. Is this being done in TAG? Nope. Maybe all of the new finds of the last couple of years are so massive that they are still under survey/exploration?
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 10, 2015 10:52 am

Edit: Shouldn't have said "Nope." There are some things being occasionally published, including by Hardy Smallwood & Co. But the fact that there is more news out of Vermont than TN shows that somebody ain't talking.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby UnderGroundEarth » Jun 10, 2015 12:39 pm

There are several BIG projects that are going on in TAG right now, mostly in Tennessee. There are new caves that have been found that are being mapped and one in particular has been mapped to over 6 miles in length! I know these surveyors and I am sure they will be publishing once their project is complete. Jason and I also have several big projects going on and do plan to publish once the project is complete. Once, we had a scooper actually show up in a virgin cave while we were there surveying. The scooper knew we were there and didn't care about all the hard work we were putting into surveying the cave, he only wanted to fulfill his need to scoop. Until you experience this feeling for yourself you may not understand why some keep secrets!
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby LukeM » Jun 10, 2015 2:03 pm

GroundquestMSA wrote:Evidently, there are some who hunt quite aggressively for leads to "scoop" and have the knowledge to hunt down some caves with very few clues.


I guess I'm having trouble picturing the kind of information that could be used to locate a cave without a location, or pictures/descriptions of the surrounding area. Hell, don't even give it a name, even if you're in a known cave. Just say "our latest project" and talk about the interesting stuff you're doing. I feel that this would hold more water if it weren't for TAG cavers posting photos and comments about their discoveries on Facebook, Flickr, etc. If the information is safe on these basically public forums then surely it can be included in a caver newsletter. Granted, I don't have much access to TAG publications but from what I'm hearing it sounds like very little project caving write-ups are published.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby GroundquestMSA » Jun 10, 2015 2:27 pm

LukeM wrote:
GroundquestMSA wrote:Evidently, there are some who hunt quite aggressively for leads to "scoop" and have the knowledge to hunt down some caves with very few clues.


I guess I'm having trouble picturing the kind of information that could be used to locate a cave without a location, or pictures/descriptions of the surrounding area. Hell, don't even give it a name, even if you're in a known cave. Just say "our latest project" and talk about the interesting stuff you're doing. I feel that this would hold more water if it weren't for TAG cavers posting photos and comments about their discoveries on Facebook, Flickr, etc. If the information is safe on these basically public forums then surely it can be included in a caver newsletter. Granted, I don't have much access to TAG publications but from what I'm hearing it sounds like very little project caving write-ups are published.


I agree. I don't know if all of the TAG paranoia is warranted or not. It exists though. There must be, eventually, a name put with each report or else the newsletter is only cheap entertainment at best, not documentation. I don't use Facebook, Flickr, etc. but if the news of discoveries etc. (not just tourist caving) is being posted there, someone should either ask the cavers involved, specifically and directly, to contribute like information to their grotto publication, or else editors should copy the information to the newsletter themselves, with or without asking. As you point out, there is no "security" reason to avoid publication in a newsletter IF you are posting online. At that point it's a matter of laziness.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby chac » Jun 10, 2015 3:24 pm

LukeM wrote:

"I guess I'm having trouble picturing the kind of information that could be used to locate a cave without a location..."

The publication draws attention to the team's activities, especially if the publication mentions "going borehole with huge stals and blowing wind". :laughing: If an uninvited guest happens to know the team members and mappers, well...

You may find that a few explorers have removed both bat and caving stickers from their caving vehicle. Some are very careful where they park their car, when they exit or enter a main highway in an area where "there are no caves", or just how visible they are when driving around areas where there are "no caves". Some folks change their vehicles regularly (car pooling) when working on a private project. Being familiar with other cavers' vehicles is just one way to spot new project activity.

Yes this may sound paranoid, but as Kelly mentioned she had someone show up while they were surveying. Perhaps the scooper knew the vehicle Kelly was driving and decided to check out the area. It's an unfortunate situation when folks decide to help you with your project without being invited. :sad:

Given the amount of work and landowner trust needed to explore in "traditional cave areas", I think some of the desire to keep exploration projects below the visible horizon is why some explorers won't write about their discoveries until after the cave is explored and mapped. Most explorers however do write something up about a project when it is completed.

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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby LukeM » Jun 11, 2015 9:54 am

Yeah I guess it's just a different culture down in TAG. I appreciate the enlightening anecdotes. Because of how small and close-knit the caving community is up north, if someone were to, say, scoop someone else's virgin cave, or show up uninvited to a project day, their reputation would take a hit and there would be real consequences for how you're seen by others. This is usually enough to preserve the sanctity of new finds. There's also just less chance of one caver happening upon another out on the open road.
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby leeboop » Jun 14, 2015 1:17 pm

Less people are writing trip reports/newsletter submissions because it's easier to create a Facebook post. Why compose an article if your accomplishment already has several likes on Facebook?
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Re: The State of the Rag

Postby Caving Guru » Jun 14, 2015 4:48 pm

I agree Lee Boop. Other social medias such as Facebook are also part of the reason that Cave Chat is in decline, I believe.
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