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.