Why I’m self publishing

Fern Cave BookThis week has so far included talking to the best graphic designer I know about a layout and book cover for the Fern Cave book I’m working on. She came up with a cover concept that is one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen that will incorporate a great selection of historic and recent photos. We also talked to the print shop I’m going to use about updating the printing quote to provide a larger layout for the book to better highlight the numerous photos throughout the book. Unfortunately, there is really no way I’ll be able to afford a hardback option or include color photos. Those things are expensive, especially on orders of under 1,000 copies! But I think everyone is absolutely going to love the cover.

As I’ve posted more information about the book online, some people have asked me why I’m self publishing. Although many first-time authors have a really hard time finding a publisher for a book, I could very easily publish this book through the National Speleological Society (NSS), and I initially considered that. But there are a couple of things that I definitely want to do with this book that the NSS doesn’t currently support. The first thing is offering ebook options. I am personally a huge fan of ebooks and I want to offer this book in Kindle and Nook formats. The second consideration is what I do with the money I earn from book sales. Now, it might turn out that I just break even on my printing, editing and layout costs and don’t have anything left over. But if I sell more pre-orders than I think I will, and potentially sell more later, I want to split a percentage of the profits evenly between the NSS Library and the Southeastern Cave Conservancy (SCCi). This is really important to me. Without the NSS Library, this project would have been absolutely impossible. The Library has every single old newsletter issue from the entire history of the Huntsville Grotto, plus all sorts of other publications I referred to. I found the vast majority of my primary source materials in the NSS Library. Also, the SCCi owns the Surprise Pit entrance to Fern, and that organization does a great job caring for all its caves, including Fern.

If I published through the NSS, I wouldn’t be able to donate any of the proceeds to the SCCi. But if I just print the book myself, I’ll have control over any profits. Both of those organizations mean a lot to me, and since the point of this book isn’t really to make money for myself, self publishing seemed like a good way to go. This is the first time I’ve ever done this, so hopefully it will all go smoothly. I have to admit I’m pretty terrified of sending my final manuscript and cover design (along with a check for many thousands of dollars) to the printer. But I’m sure it will all go smoothly.

My new book project about Fern Cave

The first time I visited Fern Cave in north Alabama, I thought about the Mines of Moria. The cave is vast, beautiful, and more complex than anything I’d ever imagined. I was immediately hooked. I started visiting the cave fairly often with friends who understood the vast and complex cave system, and over time, I started to learn my way around the cave. I still know only a fraction of its secrets. My husband Steve is now the only person now who truly understands the cave. It’s over 15 miles long, over 400 feet from the passages at the very top of the mountain to the passages near the valley floor, and consists of 18 distinct interconnecting levels. The passages alternate between winding canyons, huge rooms, mazy tunnels, beautiful streams, and deep pits. The cave is confusing and bewildering and it takes years to learn its secrets. About ten years ago I started to think about writing a book about the cave. I finally got a draft finished, and the book will be out in July!

Fern Cave, Little Morgue Pit, 1984. Photo by JV Van Swearingen IV.
Fern Cave, Little Morgue Pit, 1984. Photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.

Here’s a tiny bit of background: cave explorers from Huntsville, Alabama found a cave in 1961 with a stream passage that led to the deepest vertical free-fall pit that had ever been discovered in the United States (that record only held for a few years). They named the cave Fern because the entrance sinkhole is lined with a lush carpet of fiddlehead ferns. They named the pit Surprise. In 1968 Huntsville cavers discovered another cave nearby they named the Morgue (I’ll tell you later how it got this creepy name). The next year, they found yet another cave also very close to Fern. It was huge. The passages the cavers found continued for miles. It took them years and a huge amount of work, but the Huntsville cavers finally managed to connect all three caves together into one cave system. In the end, Fern ended up with five entrances.

Fern Cave, photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.
Fern Cave, photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.

The story of Fern spans more than five decades, involves hundreds of people, and is one of the most exciting and fascinating tales of exploration in southeastern history (at least I think so). Today, the vast majority of the cave is closed because the US Fish and Wildlife Service now owns four entrances to the cave and closed their entrances in 2009 (the Southeastern Cave Conservancy owns the fifth entrance, and cavers can apply for a permit to visit Surprise Pit). The book I’m finishing describes everything about the cave’s history, from its discovery and exploration, through the government buying four entrances to the cave, how cavers stepped in to serve as volunteer managers of the cave (cavers performed that job for 27 years), and what happened after the cave was closed for several years (vandalism!). I’m in the final stages of getting the book ready. Right now, my editor Cara Stein is working her magic on it and I’m about to start the design phase (my good friend and graphic artist extraordinaire Sabrina Simon is designing the layout and the book cover so I’m sure it will look fantastic). Due to the generosity of so many people involved in the early exploration of the cave, I have hundreds of fantastic historic photos of the cave from the 1960s all the way up until today.

I’m really excited about this project and can’t wait to hold a finished book in my hands. But more importantly, I can’t wait to share the story of Fern with others. To help raise seed money for this project, I’m in the process of setting up a Indiegogo page. If you pre-order a book, you’ll get to choose from a range of gifts, including prints JV Van Swearingen IV took of the cave (the photos in this post are JV’s), prints of some of the gray bats in the cave, copies of small sections of the new map of the cave, and much more. That page will launch tomorrow.

Fern Cave,Surprise Pit. Photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.
Fern Cave, 437-foot deep Surprise Pit. Photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.

I collected so much information and so many photos while researching this book there is no way I could include everything I found. Some of the best stories, like the time a caver got hit by lightning at the bottom of the 105-foot deep Morgue pit, just didn’t make it in. People who pre-order a book will get access to a password protected page with lots of “extras” that didn’t fit in the book. I’ll also be blogging an absurd amount about this project until it’s finished. So check back soon. More to come!

Steve Pitts setting a bolt in Fern Cave. Photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.
Steve Pitts setting a bolt in Fern Cave. Photo by JV Van Swearingen IV. Used with permission of the National Speleological Society.


Open Season on History

799px-Clovis_Rummells_MaskeI just read an interesting article in the New York Times about the booming business of relic hunting. I found the article interesting because I love relics that I’ve found in the wilderness. Now, I’ve never found more than a few small arrowheads sticking out of the soil in a farmer’s field, I’ve never found Civil War artifacts or any truly amazing native American relics. I have found more modern remnants of people, like glass bottles from the 1950s, soda can tops from very old aluminum cans, and even those make me wonder about the people who wandered the land before I did. I’ve found lots of evidence of past generations in caves, including very old signatures. I love the idea that traces of our history remain sprinkled throughout our landscapes.

Evidently, relic hunters have taken to hunting for relics on private land, then selling what they find for huge sums of money. I had no idea a button from the Civil War era could be sold for $5000! I have long known about pot hunters, unscrupulous people who hunt for arrowheads, pots, and other native artifacts to either keep in private collections or sell for lots of money. I’ve always had a problem with this because these types of artifacts are so rare that I think they should be kept in museums to add to our knowledge of the past. I’ve also heard similar stories about those to hunt for rare dinosaur bones.

The author of the story says:

As a result, it’s open season on vast stretches of Virginia’s heritage. Even graves are in potential danger, though all human interments are protected by law. Pre-1900 burials, regardless of their demographic, are typically unmarked and easily violated by accident. Flowerdew has three known cemeteries, containing Woodland Indians, 1620s colonists and enslaved individuals from about 1760. All three are in the area metal-detected last March. In some burials, one blow from a shovel could destroy all surviving remains.

Sort of sad to know how our heritage is slowly disappearing in the name of profit.

6,000-year-old rock art discovered in Tennessee

Rock Art in Nine Mile CanyonI visit caves all over the Cumberland Plateau so I was excited to read that researchers have discovered what may be the oldest surviving rock art in the United States. The article is in the latest issue of Antiquity, which unfortunately does not provide free access to the article. But this is from the abstract:

Systematic field exploration in Tennessee has located a wealth of new rock art—some deep in caves, some in the open air. The authors show that these have a different repertoire and use of colour, and a different distribution in the landscape—the open sites up high and the caves down low. The landscape has been reorganised on cosmological terms by the pre-Columbian societies. This research offers an exemplary rationale for reading rock art beyond the image and the site.

The Huffington Post provides a bit of information from the actual article: The 6,000-year-old cave art revealed clues as to what Native American life in the South may have been like at the time. Many drawings depicted humans with pointed tools alongside wild dogs, serpents and other beasts. Other drawings of celestial designs allude to a spiritual understanding of the universe.

Caves across the southeastern US can feature some very intriguing artwork, glyphs, and torch marks. I am personally terrible at spotting glyphs and carved symbols on cave walls–they are very difficult to see unless you are skilled at finding them. But I’ve been lucky to see some really spectacular glyphs of spiders, turkeys, and a variety of symmetrical patterns. I love to find ancient art in caves and wonder what they meant to the people who drew them so very long ago.

Fox News also covered this story and they have some quotes from the lead author of the paper in Antiquity, plus they provide some additional photos.  Even more photos are available on Discovery.com. If you’re really interested in this subject, check out this Flickr page for a huge and amazing collection of cave glyph photos.

Cannibalism at Jamestown!

Jamestown fortClassify this under “eew.” Archaeologists have discovered evidence that during an exceptionally bad winter in 1609, starving colonists resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The harsh winter of 1609 in Virginia’s Jamestown Colony forced residents to do the unthinkable. A recent excavation at the historic site discovered the carcasses of dogs, cats and horses consumed during the season commonly called the “Starving Time.” But a few other newly discovered bones in particular, though, tell a far more gruesome story: the dismemberment and cannibalization of a 14-year-old English girl.