RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen


"This shortly brought them to a bewitching spring, whose basin was encrusted with a frostwork of glittering crystals ... the result of the ceaseless waterdrip of centuries ..."

Samuel Clemens -- Mark Twain -- had moved to New York by the time he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer but he remembered Missouri's caves, their surprises, and their underground rivers and lakes.

George W. Bush visits our state often, stopping in St. Louis or Kansas City to raise money to unseat Jean Carnahan from the Senate. He drops in at the airport, ties up traffic, passes the hat, then leaves. From what I can tell from the TV news, he's not particularly interested in learning, but he could learn something about the war against evil by visiting one of our caves.

Today, you can tour Mark Twain Cave and its maze of underground rooms. Twain calls them "'The Drawing Room,' 'The Cathedral,' 'Aladdin's Palace,' and so on." In the book, Tom and Becky hide-and-seek down passages and ramps, losing themselves in the maze and at last coming to a lake where they realize they are, of course, lost.

Caves are often compared to sponges, which have lots of holes but still hold water. Caves have lots of holes and passages, some as big as amphitheaters and some too thin for a needle to pass through. But caves don't hold water, except in a few lakes and ponds. Instead, water flows right through them.

This flowing underground water connects with other underground water for networks of miles. Karst topography -- the limestone base for these tunnels and caverns -- undergirds more than half of Missouri, a.k.a. "The Cave State." We think we have more caves than any other state, including 22 "show caves," but karst also sprawls under much of Arkansas, and other states surrounding. The only sure way to see how the caves connect is to drop dye in the water one place and hope you'll see it comes out, maybe miles away.

The underground passages take explorers up and down rocky ramps. Sink holes and "losing creeks" bring in air and rain from above. Cave explorers have entered unknown caves from hidden passages, crawled a bit, and found beer cans, evidence that a litterbug tossed a can into a creek miles away.

Although the temperature below ground is steady, above-ground weather affects caves. In rainy weather, the caves flood until water gushes to the surface, and fills every dry creek and spring. Some passages burst out of hill side openings as surprising waterfalls.

In dry weather, the water recedes. Springs and drinking wells dry up. If they are above the water level, the exits are themselves the mouths of caves. One huge cave near the Missouri River was fitted out in dry weather with ramps and lights for tourists, but had to be closed because water levels in the cave rose so suddenly and unexpectedly when river levels rose.

Karst topography is known for surprises -- springs and sinkholes that appear spontaneously. The underground systems have no respect for county or state lines. In a region like Afghanistan's -- exactly the same latitude as Arkansas -- the caves could cross national boundaries with as much liberty as they cross county lines here.

Probably the best-understood cave system in the Ozarks is Missouri's Tumbling Creek Cave, a privately-owned cave that has been mapped and studied for decades by the Aley family. Using dye tests, they have determined that the cave system spreads underground at least six square miles from its main opening.

If Mr. Bush toured some of our caves, he could see that caves are safe havens to those who know them. Turn down a passage and you're almost invisible. Jesse James eluded US law for years because he knew where the caves were, and had supplied several with food, water and bedding for his horses and men.

And, if Bush toured our caves, he could see why his current "bunker-busting nuclear weapons" are such a bad idea. He thinks they'd knock out a Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. Hitting that target would be almost accidental. What is certain is that the weapons would kill civilian populations -- men, women and children -- for generations. Because it is certain the nuclear fallout would enter the water.

These "bunker-busting nuclear weapons" are part of the "smoke 'em out and get 'em on the run" design that Bush says will rid the world of evil. According to the Wall Street Journal's special section called "Spending for Defense" (3/28/02), Bush's "Nuclear Posture Review" "advocates developing new low-yield nuclear weapons that could be used to destroy dug-in bunkers but would not leave large residues of radiation."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, supports reform in the armed services to fight terrorism. But he draws the line at "bunker busters," saying they make it "more likely that nuclear weapons could be used" and undermines "our ability to persuade other countries not to rely more and more on nuclear weapons or nuclear technology, missile technologies."

"By appearing to move toward a greater reliance on nuclear weapons, by modifying them so that they can be more practically used, that give us less standing to argue that other countries should not test nuclear weapons, should not be designing more nuclear weapons."

"Nuclear Posture Review" is a classified document, and it's not clear what else it contains. But Levin correctly observes "if we seem to be relying more heavily on nuclear weapons, and making it more likely that they can be used, even possibly pre-emptively, it seems to me we make ourselves less secure in the process because we won't have any standing to persuade others not to follow a similar course."

If we develop these "bunker busters" and if we use them anywhere, we'll destroy the water, across national boundaries, forever. We'll open up the possibility that similar weapons can be developed and used by other nations in the "nuclear club." Perhaps most ludicrous, "bunker busters" could pierce concrete walls -- like nuclear power plants or nuclear waste storage containers -- that we build to be permanently secure.

Senator Levin needs to know we share his concerns. Contact him at 202-224-6221, email

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

COVER/Dennis Loy Johnson

Fighting the Big Book Chains

To most people, it must seem like a no-brainer: Which is better, an independent bookstore or a chain bookstore? Whichever one has the book you want at the lowest price, natch. And let's face facts -- lately, the winner of that contest has been the chains.

However a surprising recent survey says that regardless of price, people actually feel they're more apt to be satisfied shopping at an independent. Meanwhile, the rabble-rousing plaintiff in an incendiary court case claims the chains' low prices are illusionary, achieved by illegal strong-arm tactics, and may actually be insuring higher prices down the line.

First, the survey, which was conducted by Consumer Reports in January -- it found that most people felt the chains or the equally giant on-line booksellers did indeed offer a better deal price-wise. Nonetheless, independent bookstores generated a higher level of customer satisfaction than even the cheapest chain retailer. In fact, independents scored "on a par with the highest-rated stores from any survey we've done in recent years," said the magazine.

What's more, Consumer Reports also noted the illusionary quality of the chains vaunted discounting -- chains, it said, had "quietly hiked prices by reducing discounts."

Of course, if buying books were the same as buying widgets -- an experience where price was all that mattered -- then in the comparison of independents to chains there would be no need to consider anything beyond those disappearing discounts.

But buying books is not the same thing as buying widgets, and as the survey's findings about "customer satisfaction" seem to indicate, there is indeed more to consider.

Which is what the aforementioned legal case -- being heard right now before a Federal District Court in New York City -- stresses vehemently, and in such a way as to make it seem that what's going on now in book retailing is microcosmic of what's going on in the greater society.

You probably haven't heard about it, though (which is microcosmic of mainstream media coverage of conglomerate America, but that's another column -- although I must point out the irony that the plaintiff in the case is the brother of the late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt). But anyway, in brief: Walter Kuralt, owner of a bankrupt mini-chain called Intimate Bookshops, is suing Borders and Barnes & Noble for illegal activities -- such as demanding secret discounts from publishers -- that gave them an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

Sound familiar? Well, it didn't get much coverage either, but in another case last year, the American Booksellers Association and 26 independent bookstores sued the chains for the same thing. But that suit -- years in the making -- ground to a halt when the judge ruled the independents couldn't collect damages even if they proved their case, because it was impossible to determine the dollar value of any harm done. Already outspent and with a doubtless lengthy appeals process before them, the independents settled for enough to cover their legal fees and claimed moral victory.

But the decision, or lack thereof, begged not only the actual question -- do the chains engage in illegal practices? -- it rendered unanswerable still larger questions that get at the heart of life in contemporary democracy. To wit, is it wrong for the chains, victors in the marketplace after all, to throw their weight around like that? Isn't that -- as the judge observed at one point -- "what capitalism is all about"? Or is it about competition and choice driving commerce? In essence: Is bigger better?

Well, the Intimate case provides a second chance for answers. Walter Kuralt doesn't seem about to settle, and as a Publishers Weekly report observed, "when it comes to juicy allegations," his case "takes second place to no one."

In a memorandum filed to counter the chains' request for a dismissal, attorney Carl Person outlined Kuralt's charges that the chains strong-armed publishers into providing a 60% discount off the cover price -- as compared to the 40% to 46% discounts smaller booksellers like Intimate were limited to. (Remember those figures the next time you hear B&N head Leonard Riggio complaining -- as he did last fall, and did again this week -- that publishers are to blame for prices so high he calls them "abominations." Considering that publishers share what's left with printers, distributors, warehousers and, oh yes, authors, even if B&N is getting only a 50% discount, it's making considerably more than those who actually created the book. Who's driving the price?)

Meanwhile, Kuralt set up a website ( providing an exhaustive list of "discriminatory payments and benefits received by the chains -- and largely not disputed by the chains." The list includes "co-op funds exceeding costs of advertising," "free freight," "free books not offered to others," "special allowances for fixtures," "access to information regarding competitors," and more that he says "permit the chains simply to expand at will and overwhelm any smaller competition."

But Kuralt doesn't stop there. He says the case is part of a "national disaster" resulting from "the Wal-Marts and Mega-Malls." What would happen, he goes on to ask, "if all national chain store companies were required to observe the law"?

If the judge doesn't dismiss the case we may finally get a chance to find out. We might also learn which is truly better for the consumer: chain stores, or independents?

Dennis Loy Johnson writes for, where this article first appeared.

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