Book Review: Overlook

Starting this review with chapter 3, Subterranean Renovations: The Unique Architectural spaces of Show Caves, does not mean that chapters 1 and 2 are uninteresting. For example,  chapter 2 on terrestrial miniaturizations covers a justly famous attraction, the model of the San Francisco Bay in Sausalito,

But show caves seemed a fitting introduction to the “internal fringe” idea in the book’s title. The chapter’s introduction describes the caves as, “… places where America is on display under the surface, “ Caves have both a predictable sameness and an astonishing variety.

Since the early 1800s when tours were conducted by lantern-light through the wonders of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, several hundred caves have opened to the public nationwide. Promoters of show caves have gone to expensive lengths to lure people underground. Conveniences like those offered tourists above ground have been installed next to exotic natural formations to allow visitors to eat, buy souvenirs, and enjoy educational videos.

The reception and souvenir sales area in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico.

Sixteen show caves are illustrated and described. Since regions endowed with limestone deposits are most likely to have caves, they are not evenly distributed across the country. The major attractions such as Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and Howe Caverns in New York have long been tourist destinations.

In the Snowball dining room in Mammoth Cave, shown above, baked goods, drinks, and cold sandwiches are served from behind a stainless steel counter while diners sit at picnic tables lined up beneath a ceiling of bulbous formations called snowballs.

Dramatic lighting, like that seen above, intensifies the magical effect of some of the cave interiors. Light fixtures are often hidden behind strange formations. Indeed, hiding the sources and the wires of such lighting is regarded as an art, and professional cave designers carve troughs in stone walls and floors to conceal the wiring that may connect miles of separate fixtures.

Visitors to Fantastic Caverns in Missouri, the country’s only drive-through cave, are transported in propane-fueled Jeeps through a metal garage door on a tour that includes a class room where a video on cave ecology is shown. Having visitors confined to vehicles is thought to reduce the wear-and-tear that tourists are known to have on the cave’s fragile environment.

One of the most memorable unnatural experiences is a performance by the Great Stalacpipe Organ in Luray Caverns, Virginia. Padded hammers activated by pressing the keyboard strike cave formations selected for their pitch and tonal quality. The sound effect in the three-acre area is like that of a gigantic glass harmonica.

Reliance on theatrics may seem at times to have replaced the wondrous power that nature has entrusted to these subterranean places. But this book is not about environmental correctness; it’s about increasing and spreading knowledge of how our nation’s lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived so that we can form our own opinions.

8 Responses

  1. Barbara Seaton says:

    You help keep me wide-eyed.

  2. J. Ware says:

    I read with great interest your book review of Overlook. The American Landscape or rather how we as Americans have chosen to deal with it has always fascinated me. This is a little off topic, but as a civil engineer I am always amazed at the audacity that we have to make such grand interventions on the land – civil indeed. I know civil or civil works came about as contrasted to a war or defense engineer, but in our modern age our intentions and their impacts need to be constantly questioned and fully understood.

  3. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own.

    Those who don’t know about this unique public institution, may go to the Wikipedia website for a detailed history and look at other websites to read the visitors’ reviews.


  4. Thank you for mentioning the Museum of Jurassic Technology! I was tempted to write about it, because it is next door to the CLUI in Culver City. But it has a different agenda and merits a post of its own. If you want to learn more about this unique public institution, Go to its website and read the visitors’ reviews.


  5. L. Ogden says:

    Fascinating! Did you consider mentioning another “treasure trove of the little known”, CLUI’s neighbor in Los Angeles (Culver City), the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

  6. My thanks to Dan Gregory and Jay Claiborne for comments that extend the scope of my review by directing attention to other writers who have looked at our land with discerning eyes and written books worth re-reading.


  7. Great review that I almost wish I hadn’t read because I now want the book and the monk’s shelf says, so now who has to go. Don’t worry Jackson, Banham, McPhee, Pollen, Papa Lynch, you juar may have a new friend. This review made me pull a lesser known work on that shelf called Topophilia by Yi-Fu Tuan which I continue to re-read for the insights she provides on the interaction between the physical world, culture and biology. Overlook seems to illustrate what Yi-Fu Tuan explains so clearly.
    Once again, Sally, you have gotten me into trouble. I want it.

  8. Wow, Sally — this is the greatest eye-opener of a review and I can’t wait to get the book! The Overlook project brings to mind the interpretive landscape writings of J. B. Jackson, Reyner Banham, and John McPhee. Fascinating to learn about the design esthetic of “show caves”; “drowned towns”; and “sit sim villages” developed for training exercises. I love the sign that says “Absolutely Nothing Next 22 Miles”. There is everything in this subject. Bravo!

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