Sisyphus of Karst

Wilhelm Putick – Viljem Putik, born in 1856 in Popůvky, Moravia – has a near-mythical status in Slovenian karstology and speleology, and rightly so.

Putik’s birthplace in Popůvky. The house is long gone. Photo published in Glas podzemlja magazine by France Šušteršič via J. Matyašek.

As a young student he was impressed by the heroic era of exploration of Moravian Karst – here is a sink, there is a spring, the water flows underground, let’s follow it and explore the mysterious depths! – and went on to study forestry and agriculture in Vienna, attending classes on geology, mineralogy, and petrography.

Czechia was back then one of the most developed parts of Austria-Hungary, so (like many highly educated youngsters) Putik had a lot of competition at home, forced to make a career in some other part of the Empire. He got a job as a forestry assistant at the state forestry agency in Vienna, was sent to various postings all across the Empire until he settled in Ljubljana as a forestry inspector, later commissioner, and a higher agricultural advisor until the end of World War I. After the war the respected expert Viljem was retained in the forestry institutions of the newly formed Yugoslavia, living and working in Ljubljana until his death in 1929.

Over half of what is now Slovenia is covered in limestone and dolomite, therefore karst is pretty much everywhere (except at the far northeast), and Putik’s eyes would light up at all the caves, sinkholes, dolines, and all other karst phenomena Slovenia is famous for (just for some perspective: the number of officially registered caves in Slovenia, longer than 10 m, is almost 15.000). It didn’t take long for young Viljem to start squeezing himself into crevices and holes, in hope of finding spectacular underground spaces.

And he went all in – his daring explorations of abysses, caves, sinkholes, and every other karst formation, are beyond legendary. Even the ritual turning Slovenian newbies into full cavers is called “Putikovanje”, and Putik is seen as a mythical King of the Underworld.

But it wasn’t all for glory and heroic exploration of one of the last untouched parts of our planet. Karst presented scientific questions – how do caves and sinkholes form? how to ascertain the direction of the subterranean flow? what is the underlying mechanism of an intermittent lake’s rhythm? – and begged for engineering solutions of various conundrums, mainly connected with water. For on karst, water is a huge problem.

On karst, there is either not enough water, or wayyy too much of it. Limestone karst is mostly dry; the water disappears underground, and having a reliable water source is crucial for people, industry, and transport (the Southern Railway of Austria-Hungary ran towards Trieste through dry Karst plains, and steam locomotives chug huge amounts of water). Speleologists went to great depths trying to reach underground water in dark, precipitous abysses (some well over 100 m deep), in order to secure fresh water sources for towns, newly established factories, and for the railway.

On the other hand, large karst poljes (flat-bottomed depressions; the word “polje” means “field” in Slovene, and is a terminus technicus for such geologic forms) could be used for agriculture, if only they weren’t completely submerged at least twice a year, when the sinkholes capitulate under the onrush of water, either from the melting snow in the Spring, or from the heavy rains of Autumn. Such intermittent lakes and wetlands are delicate ecosystems, extremely valuable for rare species and for tourism – and Austro-Hungarian bureaucrats in the late 19th century couldn’t care less about any of that. Useless land! Make food, or perish!

One of the key missions Putik was assigned to was to somehow mitigate the persistent flooding on a series of karst poljes in Slovenia, going in a pretty much straight line (following the Idria fault) from Prezid through Lož and Cerknica to Planina. Each polje in the series has a spring on one end, a river flowing slowly across the plain, and a sinkhole into which the river disappears only to reappear again on the next polje.

Putik was the first to firmly establish a fascinating fact: all those rivers flowing through all those poljes are one and the same river. Trbuhovica on Prezid polje, Obrh on Lož polje, Stržen on Cerknica polje, Rak flowing through Rakov Škocjan doline, Unica on Planina polje – they are all, together with Pivka river disappearing into Postojna cave, part of the same river basin, their combined waters finally emerging from the vast karst underground in the many springs of Ljubljanica at the edge of Ljubljana Marshes.

As fascinating this discovery was, Viljem was not a pure scientist, but a man on a mission: turn those regularly flooded, wet and unproductive poljes into fertile fields, pride of Kaiser und König. And he turned his geoengineering prowess first to Planina polje, a 5 km long and 2,5 km wide flat depression some 30 km southwest from Ljubljana.

From the huge Planina cave in the southwestern corner of the polje the combined waters of Trbuhovica, Obrh, Stržen and Rak that went underground at Tkalca cave in Rakov Škocjan, and Pivka that comes from Postojna cave, gush out to form Unica river. As the polje is extremely flat, Unica flows slowly in numerous meanders, twisting its way across the wet meadows to the sinkholes at the northeastern edge of the polje.

However, these sinkholes are not particularly good drinkers … they can manage to gulp up to 60 cubic meters per second, which is usually enough, as the average flow of Unica is around 25 cubic meters per second – but when the snows are melting, or when the rains are persistent, Unica can deliver over 130 cubic meters of water every second. And the sinkholes can’t cope with that.

Unica overflows and Planina polje turns into a huge lake. A beautiful lake by our standards, a terrible nuisance for the farmers and for the Ministry of agriculture of Austria-Hungary. Viljem, they said, go and fix that. And Viljem went.

Viljem soon realised that one can’t really control the inflow of a karst polje – but maybe something can be done about the outflow. Limestone at the northeastern edge of Planina polje is permeable, yet is all crumbled and crushed, restricting the water intake of the sinkholes. Viljem surveyed a couple of huge caves above the edge of the polje that clearly used to carry the waters of Unica, and reasoned that while those caves are fossil caves (so to speak), some active caves must exist that might take all the waters and more – if only one could reconnect them with the sinkholes.

He searched, he found, he dug.

Caves on the northeastern edges of Planina polje (see the mythical “Lippert-Höhle”), and a cross-section of Putik’s “katavotron”.
From “Katavotrons im Kesselthale von Planina in Krein”, Wilhelm Putick, Wien 1889.

Exactly what did Viljem find in the underground above Planina polje is a theological question in Slovenian speleology, as his “Lippert’s cave”a huge cavern with water flow, 75 m deep – was lost, and now there are two speleo-religious sects: the Searchers insisting that this mythical cave has not been found yet, and the Finders rolling their eyes pointing to Najdena cave (najdena means “found”; it was discovered in 1937) and tiredly saying “here it is, you fools.”

But mainly Viljem dug. His reasoning was simple and logical – if the sinkholes are deepened and widened, they should take more water. So he devised, designed, and – with a little help from the locals – made two huge, elaborate holes, beautifully termed “katavotrons” by Putik himself.

Katavotrons are basically cleaned and enlarged sinkholes of Unica, encased in concrete and protected by a metal mesh. They are deep – one goes 19 meters down, the other 17 – and wide, and they gulp all the excess waters of the river, connecting the sinkholes with the mighty cave passages under the limestone hills behind.

Thus these katavotrons protect Planina polje from the floods, turning it into an agricultural paradise.

Ah, but alas – as our kites saw and you can see here – they don’t.

Karst is notoriously hard to tame, and most human endeavours to change and “better” it ended mostly in failure. The floods did subside a bit (at least the locals say so), but Planina polje is pretty much as it always was; the meadows are still wet, the soil is poor, and regular floods still cover the whole plain once or twice a year.

And it’s beautiful.

Planina polje is a magical place. As its agricultural value is almost nil, the flat, wet bottom of the polje was never turned into fields. The grasses growing here have low nutritional value even for ruminants and horses, and meadows are cut once, maybe twice yearly. And when it’s flooded, it turns into 8 meters deep lake with over 60 million cubic meters of water.

But one’s trash is another’s treasure. Since Planina polje, despite the valiant efforts of Putik and others, remains pretty much the same as it ever was, and because of its strange rhythm of flooding, it is an ecological hotspot, an incredibly diverse ecosystem, a home for many rare species of flora and fauna.

Planina polje is included in Natura2000 network, its southern part lies within Notranjska regional park, and there are plans to include the whole polje in a larger and more strictly protected Snežnik regional park.

It’s funny how determined we once were to “better” Planina polje, and how only after years of trying we found out that we can’t – the polje is perfect as it is, and all human efforts proved sisyphean, vain and in vain.

Putik is Sisyphus of Karst, defeated over and over again yet indomitable, striving to put the water underground for good, but the water always coming back, washing him, his geoengineering, and his dreams of fertile fields away, as they did every year from the middle Miocene till today, and will for millennia to come.

Putik fought with Planina polje, but nobly … he loved the place, the mysteries, the river that is many rivers, the dark underground. He loved the riddles Planina polje kept posing to him, and while he couldn’t solve them, he would be proud of what Planina polje is today.

As they say, his tall, imposing persona still roams through giant caverns beyond Planina polje, rowing across huge subterranean lakes, ruling his underground kingdom. Putik, the lodestar of cavers, spelunkers, and speleologists, the patron saint of Karst.

Kite aerial photos shot with Nikon P330 on SMAC radio-controlled picavet, flown by The Original Blue Rokkaku, and with Insta360 on Cindy delta, both kites made by master Janez Vizjak of Dr.Agon kites.

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