In the Black
On seeing the sacred in nature
DRAWINGS BY CAI GUO-QIANG
What I know of the divine sciences and
Holy Scripture, I learnt in woods and fields.
I have no other masters than the beeches and the oaks.
— Saint Bernard
Here is life without God. Just look at it!
— George Orwell, on Joyce’s Ulysses
IT IS A LONG WALK, or it seems like one, especially if you have small children with you. In reality, it is just over a kilo- meter; a journey that, on the surface, would take ten minutes
or so. But we are not on the surface. We are several hundred feet
below the slopes of a limestone mountain, and if we weren’t all
carrying torches, the darkness would be entire and unending.
This is Grotte de Niaux — Niaux cave — in the French Pyrenees,
a scribbled network of tunnels, most of them inaccessible now, at
least to the public. As you pass through the artificial entrance with
the thick steel door that is locked every night, your torchlight hits
stalagmites three times the height of a human being, vast bulges
and excrescences of rock on the ceiling and walls, dark crevices
leading to chambers and side passages, icy black lakes, and all the
beauty and solidity to be found in the guts of an old mountain. It is
cool, still, and blacker than anything under the stars.
Our guide walks us through the network of passages, sometimes
slowing for us to skirt around an underground lake, at other times
warning us of the need to crouch or watch our footing on the slip-
pery ground. She stops at a few points along the way to show us
particular marks on the walls. The anticipation is palpable.
How long it takes us to get to the endpoint in our journey is
hard to say. It certainly takes longer than I had imagined it might,
and the walk is harder than I expected. But when we get there, we
know we have arrived.
The guide stops and shines her powerful torch upward. We
can see nothing beyond our beams, but we can sense the size of
“This is le Salon Noir,” says the guide. “In English, the Black
We all stand for a minute waving our torches in all directions.
The walls are great sheets of rock that look like they have been
melted and then folded in on each other. There is a silver sheen to