Cave Trout

Koi fish paddle among elm seeds, in a private Albuquerque pond.

Koi fish paddle among elm seeds, in a private Albuquerque pond.

During a stop on a cross-country drive this year, I watched a crowd of long, pale fish erupt from the surface of the Lost Sea, the hemisphere’s largest underground lake. They were rainbowless rainbow trout, and a young boatman was lobbing fistfuls of food at them, deep below a hill at the edge of Sweetwater, Tennessee.

They were not, he explained, native to the lake. As he spoke, a trout sailed past the ear of a teenager next to me, provoking screams and a lurch in our glass-bottomed tourist raft. Predecessors of these fish had been carried down through Craighead Caverns and released into the lake by people curious to see if they would escape and reveal a conduit to another body of water.

But they stayed put. And in the deep, lightless cave their eyesight and color faded and their sex drive vanished. Since the lake itself sustains no plant or animal life, the trout learned to swarm around visiting rafts and launch themselves into airborne food deliveries. “Now we restock them and keep them on as a tourist attraction,” concluded the boatman. A memorable end-of-tour splash.

It was unsettling to imagine their lives. Where rainbow trout occur naturally, they have a lot to do: they control dragonfly populations, forage, mate, host colonies of parasitic slime mold, feed bears and provide memorable stories to fishermen. They are bursting with nutritional and ecological value to others. But the trout of the Lost Sea were separated from every external life form, every meteorological pattern and almost every activity around which their species has evolved. They didn’t spawn, and after hours they had nothing to hunt, gather or see. A writer for Chattanooga Parent described them as “ghostly monsters.” Were they good for nothing more than spooking tourists into a gift-shoppy delirium? Seeing those wan cave dwellers sealed off from so much of their value to others, I wondered what made their lives worthwhile to them. Could any of a trout’s satisfactions remain unassailed by the indignities of a bugless, bearless, lightless, idle life?

Some of us feel that our own lives are inherently valuable, regardless of how much anyone else may cherish, need, hate or snub us. Whether we are social reformers, corporate peons or volatile drunks, most of us find the quality and continuation of our lives to be very important. But it’s hard to pinpoint what makes up one’s “inherent value,” and people sometimes use the term more emphatically than precisely.

Continue reading the full story in The Point Magazine »