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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Recalling Perry, explorer of the Berkshire underworld

By Joe Durwin
Originally in The Advocate Weekly, Nov. 11, 2005

When my father added spelunking to his laundry list of hobbies a few years ago, I rolled my eyes.

Though I've had little compunction about navigating through knee-deep stacks of periodicals and papers in my home office or straining my eyes on old newsprint in a slew of libraries, something about crawling around crevices deep in the ground with a tiny light simply doesn't appeal to me.

It certainly held a great deal of excitement for past Berkshire writer and journalist Clay Perry. Perry spent many years exploring the many caverns and recesses of the earth throughout New England, bringing his passion of dark spaces and love of local ecology to us in books and articles throughout his life.

Born Clair Willard Perry in Wisconsin in 1887, he came east in 1911 and began working for the Springfield Union. The following year he married E. Christine Shankland and moved to Pittsfield. For nine years he worked as Pittsfield correspondent to the Union, and from 1913-14 he served as managing editor of the Pittsfield Sunday Call. He also wrote a column for the Eagle entitled "Outdoors in the Berkshires." Beginning in the 1920s, he focused more on fiction, penning dozens of stories for magazines like Thrilling Adventures and the Saturday Evening Post, as well as several novels. For all his literary and journalistic accomplishments, though, it is his works on the caves of the northeast for which he is best remembered.

Perry crawled around in nearly every New England cave capable of being traversed by the human body, and described his journeys with vivid enthusiasm in three books on the subject: "Underground New England," "New England's Buried Treasure" and "Underground Empire." He coined the term spelunker, from the Greek word for caves "spelaion," to which he appended the "unker" suffix "because it reminded me of a man dunking himself in a cave." The word caught on quickly and soon found its way into dictionaries as the official term for the pastime.

When it comes to his spelunking books, Perry is my favorite kind of author, in that he takes a subject in which I have little or no fundamental stake or interest, and makes it incredibly engaging. The core of his exposition is reminiscent of Jacques Cousteau writing on marine life or Margaret Mead on indigenous cultures, educating in clear, comprehensible prose that is permeated throughout with an unmistakable sensitivity and affection for his subject matter. To this he adds a layer of pure adventurousness and another of playful wit. He not only describes the process of his journeys and the geological features of the caves he has explored, but fleshes out these locations with the history and folklore that surrounds them, until they seem as exotic as anything found in an Indiana Jones film.

In my favorite of his tomes, "New England's Buried Treasure," he dotes lovingly and at length on the Berkshire hills, which he says have more true or "live" caves than any comparable area in New England, boasting more than 40 such grottos. Here he delves deeply into the stories surrounding these cavities in the earth. He examines at length how Elsie Venner's Cave on South Mountain came to draw its name from the anti-heroine of Holmes' novel, and how a legend of an Indian coal mine started out set in Mount Washington but over time came to be attached to Monument Mountain. There is also the story of "Witches' Cave" in North Adams (the origin of whose name is unknown, according to Perry, but I cannot help but wonder if this may have been the sometime abode of the shaman blamed for the disappearance of the Cheshire Cheese) and its reputed "bottomless pool," which upon investigation turned out to be only six inches deep!

Perry points out that before becoming a source of sport for those of his bent, many local caves served as hideouts for those run awry of the law. Besides October Mountain's Tory Glen, which I've touched upon in past Advocate articles, several other caves offered refuge to supporters of George III during the Revolution, including Baker's Cave in New Ashford and Barrit's Cave on Perry Peak (also known as Scalped Woman's Cave, after an old story claiming that a colonial woman was scalped there by some angry Mohawks). Another cave on Perry's Peak is believed to have offered sanctuary to a Hessian soldier having fled Burgoyne's forces after the Battle of Bennington, while Peter's Cave in Lenox made a useful cover for Peter Wilcox, one of Shay's rebels. Finally, there is the tale of a cave, now collapsed, under Money Brook Falls in Greylock's Hopper that sheltered a gang of counterfeiters led by Caleb Gardner, who was hung in Albany for the crime.

A particular treat for those of my father's ilk is Eldon's Cave, first explored by Eldon French in the 19th century using only a candle and a rope. It is the longest cave in the state, and the second longest in New England, running for 450 feet under Tom Ball Mountain. After an approximately three hour wiggle down a "narrow, torturous, wet passage" one comes out into a large chamber full of tiny waterfalls and other smaller chambers off it. This cave offers beautiful views of multi-colored, water-worn marble and the company of such local fauna as bats, grey spiders, transparent white worms and white moths. Perry opines that the "beauty and mystery make up for the discomfort" involved in traversing Eldon's Cave. I will take his word for it.

After a long and fruitful life of writing and exploring, Clay Perry passed away in 1961. He left behind five children and 13 grandchildren. He is buried in Cheshire Cemetery.

Perhaps someday, if I should become bored with all above-ground diversions, I will gear up and make a trip into Eldon's Cave, or into Hancock's intriguingly-named Cave of the Lost Cow. In the meantime, I will simply tip my hat to Mr. Perry, burrow into his books and let the vivid images of dark spaces, full of mystery, history and lore, work their way like stalagmites into the imagination.

Joe Durwin is a local historian-folklorist and mystery monger who recently discovered that Clay Perry lived the last three years of his life in the Wendell Avenue house he currently resides in.

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