The Clan of the Cavesnail

Tom Aley spent a fortune and more than 30 years of his life defending a creature no bigger than a grain of sand. Beautiful madness or crazy vision?

It is blind, and translucent. It stands as high as a grain of sand and, at its fattest, reaches 2 millimeters across the whorls of its shell.

It hides under stream rocks -- not consciously, for it doesn't have enough nervous system for intention, but by instinct, drawn to the slime, hungering for the bacteria that creep across its path.

It lives in complete darkness.

Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Aley and his wife, Cathy, deep in the underground home of the cavesnail
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Aley and his wife, Cathy, deep in the underground home of the cavesnail

Because it is believed to inhabit only one spot on earth -- Tumbling Creek Cave, just southeast of Branson, Mo. -- it has been dubbed Missouri's Tumbling Creek cavesnail.

But if owning animals were p.c., it'd be Tom Aley's cavesnail.

He's spent more than a million dollars on this critter. Lost a wife to it. Bought land for it. Built it dams and swales. Raised it money by doing corporate consulting that drove him crazier than the world thinks he is already. Stayed up nights worrying how to keep it alive. Championed its rights on the simple assumption that all creatures, however small, matter to the universe.

It's a cavesnail.

It survives on fungal slime.

And a grand obsession.Aley earned his master's in bright, open-aired forestry in 1962, but his interest in natural resources drew him toward something far less valued than the great oaks and pines: slippery, misunderstood water. As he studied its flow and ebb, mystery took him deep into the ground, where water traveled unseen through cracks and fissures, gathering in hidden streams and waterfalls far below the surface. Eager to plant his flag in uncharted scientific territory, Aley vowed he'd be the one to fathom that journey.

He needed a cave.

More precisely, he needed an underground laboratory. There were only three in the world: one in Moulis, France; one in Romania; and one in China.

Aley decided that the U.S. needed a lab of its own. He would create it, and he would steer its course. None of his peers wanted to risk asthma or ruin his knees mucking about in caves, so he'd have a sure path to glory.

He started saving, and in 1965 he quit his cushy environmental-consulting job in LA and went cave shopping. He and his young wife traveled for nine months, camping and eating cheap.

The quest proved harder than he'd expected:

He didn't want land soaked in pesticides. He didn't want a cave under a concrete jungle. He didn't want a boring, single-aisle cave with a couple measly species.

His search spiraled toward Missouri, which has more than 5,000 known caves. Then a real-estate agent in Protem, Mo., way down in the Ozarks, mentioned a remote 125-acre parcel that happened to contain the old Tumbling Creek Cave, a.k.a. Bear Hollow.

Aley hesitated, mainly because the land was 75 miles from a big town's comforts and he wanted scientists to fly in from all over the country to convene at his cave. Still, it was far from row crops and rush-hour toxins, and it had rooms and upper passageways and all manner of habitat.

Most caves host 10 or 12 species; this one, he would discover, accommodated more than 100. Safe for centuries, untraumatized by any ecological disaster, the cave had allowed what's now politicized as "diversity" to thrive out of human sight. With the exception of a few brave teenagers who'd bragged about their intimacies on one of the passageway ceilings -- and a few obnoxious ones who'd smashed some stalagmites -- the ecosystem was pristine.

Aley used his last $3,500 as the down payment. Then he snagged a job as one of the first hydrologists for the U.S. Forest Service, which had just created a new classification for water experts. All weekend, every weekend, he worked on the cave, drilling and using explosives -- he'd gone to Berkeley, after all -- to blast a 2,100-foot trail through the first fifth.

In one hour, a human being sloughs off 60,000 bits of skin, 20,000 bits of lint or fabric and 160 million dust motes. Aley intended to confine as much of that as possible to a narrow central path. "Don't fondle the cave!" he cautioned visitors who, slipping on the muck, grabbed hold of ancient stalagmites, their surfaces as brown and bubbly as roasted turkey skin.

Aley brought in archaeologists to date the stalagmites -- which proved to be tens to hundreds of thousands of years old -- and the bones of what turned out to be a Pleistocene jaguar and a Pleistocene peccary, the latter a useful tongue-twister for tours. He started making puns about bats' hang-ups and curtains for the draperies. He even slept in the cave a couple of times.

In 1973, his wife left him, fed up with his eternal preoccupation and convinced he was never going to grow up. The next year, a young biologist with a background in zoology and water chemistry came to work at the cave. Cathy laid peanut-butter traps for the cave's amphipods and isopods, knowing they would scramble to eat the furry fungus that formed on top. She and Aley painstakingly glued together the smashed stalagmites, bending close to paint the seams with diluted clay and Portland cement.

She was as passionate about protecting natural systems as he was, and their mutual passion deepened, turned personal.

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