Yesterday I visited the Waitomo Caves, which are about 2 hours south of Auckland. Originally discovered in the 19th century by an English surveyor and a Maori Chief, they are magnificent treasures that lie beneath an unassuming rainforest.

In Maori tradition, people did not visit caves as they feared that caves led to the underworld. Upon entering the Waitomo Caves, that fear seems to become quite reasonable. The darkness is overwhelming and only relieved by the few lights that dot the way down towards the river. On the tour, a woman sang in the lowest part of the cave, just before the river, and the sound was overpowering. A sense of beauty filled a space that was also filled with darkness and heaviness, creating an unexpected juxtaposition between lightness and weight—her voice lifting out from the cave, but the visual darkness pulling my focus down towards the water.

Once we stepped onto the boat, we were guided through the caves, looking up at the glow worms that dotted the cave ceiling. More brilliant than stars, they create a luminescent turquoise color. The blackness of the cave ceiling and the brightness of the cave worms created a visual experience in which it seemed as if the glow worms were jumping out from their dark background. In essence, the dark canvas created a powerful backdrop for the small dots that illuminated what would have been a completely dark space.

Glow worms glow because they use light in order to attract insects to eat. The light acts as a sort of deception technique, mimicking the sun and thus attracting mosquitoes, for example. They hang a sticky, but invisible line and once an insect flies close to the glow worm, they are then caught. It’s a quite clever and deceptive technique.

The glow worms survival method and my experience inside the glow worm caves draw parallels to each other, and indirectly comment upon the juxtaposition between lightness and darkness. Upon entering the glow worm caves, one is fully consumed by the darkness of the space, and feels isolated even though physically surrounded by many fascinated tourists. The glow worms seem docile and insignificant, but in truth, are actually quite clever and deceptive creatures that use the beauty of light in order to survive. In essence, it seems as though we expect lightness to bring goodness, and darkness to bring fear, but yesterday’s experience proved just the opposite. Indeed, often times our expectations for where beauty and safety lie are not correct, for even within the darkness of the caves there was a magnificence to the moment, to the serenity, and to the beauty of being surrounded by many small shimmers of light. There is beauty and grace even where we can sometimes feel an initial sense of fear and concern, and the Waitomo glow worm caves proved just that.

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