By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
What Lurks Below Our Feet

We’ve all heard tall tales. We’ve all heard that cousin go on and on about how he hooked the biggest largemouth bass in history, and how he battled for two hours before the line broke and it swam away. Or maybe it was a friend that swears on the grave of Elvis Presley that he drove his Camaro a full mile on its side on two wheels.

Tall tales are those stories that seem unbelievable, but are presented as true accounts. They are the exaggerations that led to the stories of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill. Tales that have turned into metaphors and morality tales.

Such was the case with my great Uncle Cooney. My grandmother would spin yarns of her brother’s seemingly fantastic adventures and the trouble he would find himself in. He had long since passed away by the time I had come into the world, so her stories about Cooney were the only reference I had as to his life.

One such tale was how my Uncle Cooney once crawled on his belly in a cave in Dowelltown. He would crawl through the dark, wet, and cold cavern for what seemed like forever, before it finally opened up into a large cave with fantastic underground lake, full of magical creatures. Cooney described another world living beneath our feet, full of fish and salamanders that had never seen daylight. So reclusive was this subterranean world, that none of the creatures that lived there had eyes.

To a seven or eight-year-old, this sounded bizarre and conjured up images of the stories of Jules Verne. Could there be strange monsters living right beneath our feet? What else lived down there, and did they ever sneak into our world.

As I grew older, those tales became more and more fanciful. But I would later learn that most tall tales are based on truth, and some are even more accurate than you might think.

As it turns out, yes the town of Dowelltown does sit on an underground lake. The DeKalb County area is full of cave systems, carved over millions of years through the limestone bedrock. The land is sometimes peppered with evidence of what lies beneath, with sinkholes appearing after heavy rains, even sometimes threatening a house or yard.

True as well are the fantastic creatures that live beneath our very feet. Yes, there are fish and other creatures that have found the use of eyes as not necessary. Bizarre creatures that not only have no eyes, but also appear translucent when exposed to light.

Typhlichthys subterraneus as Wile E. Coyote would say, also known as the Southern Cavefish inhabit cool, lentic cave waters but also occur in pools of streams at or near the water table. First observed in 1859 from a well near Bowling Green, Kentucky, the Eyeless Cavefish inhabits cave streams, the outlets of springs, and underground lakes. Some scientist believe the creatures even exist at great depths in the water systems underground.

Also found in DeKalb County is the Spring Cavefish, which was first discovered in a deep well in Lebanon, TN, in 1872. These fish inhabit caves, springs, spring runs, and spring seeps, and sometimes emerge into streams at dusk and retreat underground an hour or two before dawn. The Spring Cavefish still has eyes in a sense, with the creatures only able to discern light from dark.

But there are other creatures lurking in the dark waters as well. The Tennessee Cave Salamander (Gyrinophilus palleucus) can also be found in the caves in DeKalb County. The illusive amphibian was even designated as the Tennessee state amphibian in 1995.

There is also the Southern Cave Crayfish. As you might expect, it’s much like its outdoor cousin, but is translucent or white in appearance, having spent their entire existence not knowing of the sun.

As all these inhabitants of the underworld spend most of their existence far below man’s reach, little is known of their breeding habits or even just how far down in the depths of the Earth the creatures exist.

What is known is that even living in a world far removed from humans, humans are their greatest threat. It is believed that water pollution from ground water threatens the existence of the subterranean world. Populations are particularly vulnerable to water pollution from agricultural runoff and septic tanks. All of the species listed are endangered due to that belief.

As it turns out, sometimes tall tales are in fact true accounts, and sometimes alien worlds are not on distant planets, but right under our feet.