Post Pleistocene

When Jeff Whetstone was growing up, he spent a lot of his time exploring the old saltpeter cave near his family’s house in Ooltewah, Tennessee. Inside, there were names and dates carved everywhere, some a hundred years old. In some places, the bacteria growing on manganese oxide formations had formed their own letters and shapes over time.

Years later, he went back to the caves of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee and Alabama, this time with a crew of assistants, an 8x10 camera, and some powerful, battery-operated strobe lights. His team wriggled through cracks and narrow crevices, equipment in tow, before reaching huge rooms with fluted walls and cathedral ceilings.

The entrance to the enormous complex, which runs for hundreds of miles, is a crack in the earth (see image below). It’s the gateway to the eighth-largest cave system in the United States. And most of it is still unmapped, Whetstone says.

He and his team set up their equipment by the light of headlamps and flashlights, but they never knew what exactly would be in each photograph until it was developed. “Caves are a very confusing, disorienting place to be,” he says. “There’s no horizon, no floor, no light, no sound. It’s utterly dark.”

There are hundreds of years of graffiti layered on each other, including tally marks that slaves made by candlelight while mining for saltpeter (the main ingredient of gunpowder). In the upper left photo, tally marks from the 1860s record how much saltpeter was taken out of the cave by one group of slaves.

The New Wilderness

In a collection called the New Wilderness, Whetstone photographs hunters, farmers, deer stands, fishing tournaments, ATV conventions.

Turkey Hunt

Whetstone joined turkey hunters in the field and took photographs while they waited for prey.

Grasshopper Infestation

In 2009, Whetstone began traveling to Utah, Wyoming, and Nebraska to photograph the grasshopper infestation that has destroyed crops and farmland.

The American West was the site of the largest conglomeration of terrestrial animals in history, Whetstone says — that of the Rocky Mountain Locust, which hit peak numbers in the 1850s and 1870s. “They were incredibly devastating,” he says. “An immense, awesome power. And then they went extinct. In 1903, they mysteriously vanished from the planet.”

Biologists count grasshoppers by the square yard, Whetstone says. But counting isn’t easy. Whetstone is developing a simple method for getting accurate numbers: “I basically laid a white sheet out on this giant field, and just waited,” he says. “After a while, the grasshoppers occupied the sheet with the same consistency as they did the rest of the field.” An infestation is defined as eight grasshoppers per square yard. Some one to two hundred grasshoppers wandered onto Whetstone’s square yard of white sheet. “That’s all-out craziness,” he says. Scientists predict that next year’s infestation will be much worse.

Jeff Whetstone, an assistant professor of studio art in the College of Arts and Sciences, is one of the 2009 Hettleman Prize winners at Carolina. The New Wilderness was funded by a 2007 Guggenheim Fellowship.