Leland Swenson finished his office hours at Cal Poly, drove home and relaxed in his underground cave with his dog. For 20 years, the psychology lecturer built a cave network beneath his property in San Luis Obispo County.
How a comic book started it all
Swenson said he felt fulfilled in the scientific area of his life, but his artistic side needed an outlet. Inspired by a comic book series he read as a child, Swenson decided digging a cave would be a way to express his creativity.
“When I was a kid, I was a big fan of ‘Batman’ comics, and of course Batman has a cave, the Batcave,” Swenson said. “I grew up in Michigan and our soil was sand, so I would try digging caves, but they would collapse.”
With no previous knowledge about cave digging or engineering, Swenson’s building experience was a process of trial and error.
“We moved to this property in 1995, and there was this ridge and there was a little depression in the earth, so I started digging at it and I got about four or five feet in within a year,” he said. “It was tremendously hard work. Then I tried gunpowder, and that was pretty random and it was faster, and then I rented a jackhammer and that worked. You just learn through experience, and it drives some of my engineer friends crazy because I didn’t use any equations and it’s still here.”
One immediate problem that arose was deciding what to do with the excess material.
“All the branches and organic debris, I put it on the edge of the outside of the cave and put dirt on top of it, which is called sequestering, and there’s no carbon release to the environment,” Swenson said.
Delving into artwork
The cave helps Swenson find a balance between his scientific self and artistic self. Swenson enjoys ceramics, woodworking and oil painting, so he tries to include these things in the cave. Most of the artwork is related to his interest in mythology.
“I’m about 30 percent Scandinavian, so Scandinavian myths have always been the most interesting to me, and they’re about primal psychological forces,” Swenson said. “The old gods all had personalities and administered different parts of the human experience. I try to create a space where some people deep in the earth can get in touch with deeper parts of their own personalities.”
Each room in the cave is dedicated to a family member or friend. Swenson built his children and wife their own rooms with art reflecting their personalities and interests. For instance, his wife’s room includes a mermaid sculpture to represent her mythical side and one of his son’s rooms has an eagle sculpture to commemorate him becoming an Eagle Scout.
Graphic by Josh Munk
To express his grief for the passing of a friend, Swenson constructed a room in her honor, complete with a wine bar and personal mosaics and sculptures. He tries to infuse meaning in each area of the cave, which now includes seven rooms.
For Valentine’s Day one year, Swenson brought his wife Debby Swenson down to the cave to show her a carved “Valentine moose.”
“It was her favorite animal with a heart over it and [I] said, ‘Here’s your Valentine for today,’” Swenson said.
As the cave grew in size and safety became a concern, it didn’t sit well with his family. Debby remembers how much he worked on the caves and how she felt at the time.
“I’ve always joked that I was a cave widow and the children were cave orphans … We always had a fair amount of competition for his time in the cave,” Debby said. “I do have realistic concerns as a mom about it caving in, and as a wife that if he’s down there digging and there’s an accident or part of it caves in, I don’t know how I would find him or get him out.”
Swenson takes the safety of himself and others seriously. He emphasized that the air is clean and that there’s a way to exit the cave from every room.
“I do a little bit at a time, see if it holds up, and all the rooms have at least two exits, so that if there was a problem at one part, there’d be a way to get out,” he said. “The cave as it is now has three exits, so there’s always a bit of air blowing through it.”
More than just a piece of art
Now, as their children are grown and his wife is aware that it’s his way to express his artistic side, the Swensons have been able to find many different uses for the cave. It’s been a scene of Halloween parties, raves and wine tasting.
“Over the years I’ve always been really active in fundraising and it has been a really great tool to use,” Debby said. “We’ve auctioned off [the cave] in silent auctions several times for a wine tasting and cave tour and that’s kind of been a neat side effect of having it. We’ve been able to donate it to basically raise funds for various charities and causes.”
Swenson said no one who has visited his cave has been disappointed or underwhelmed. Business administration senior Maeve Keegan had the chance to explore the cave and get to know Swenson.
“I didn’t expect it to be as big as it really was,” Keegan said. “All the artwork and detail he put in the walls was incredible. He’s got a really big personality and really loves art and is really caring about his family.”
Even though this project is 22 years in the making, Swenson does not spend all his time in the cave. His educational background includes an undergraduate degree and Ph.D in psychology. While teaching full time at Loyola Marymount, he earned master’s degrees in family counseling and law.
Swenson’s educational background has led to a variety of life experiences such as ride-alongs with the Los Angeles Police Department, research studies with monkeys in Japan and baboons in Tanzania and completing “psychoneuro diagnostics” for law firms to diagnose people with brain damage.
Though a lot of his time is spent as a psychology lecturer on campus, Swenson still finds reasons to continue working on the caves. Even though he isn’t spending as much time in it, he’s not
“It’s good exercise, I like showing it to people, and as long as I’m still physically able to do it, why not?” Swenson said.
Correction: The headline in a previous version of this article stated that the caves were built under the house. That correction has been made to state is was built under the property.