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Stacking Rocks in Wild Places

Stacking Rocks in Wild Places
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Recently I came across this article about the fairly new practice of stacking rocks in wild places.

Historically, cairns (rocks piled or stacked by humans) have served important purposes, particularly in parts of the world lacking dramatic natural features to use as landmarks. A cairn might mark a trail, commemorate a mass gravesite from a battle, or be hidden behind while herding buffalo off a cliff.

But increasingly, short stacks of rocks are showing up in national parks and other natural areas. They appear to be generic “I was here” statements (or “I was here, and I was spiritually moved” or perhaps merely “I was here, and I was bored”), created with the natural materials at hand.

Rock stack encountered on a beach, Mackinac Island, Michigan.

I’m of two minds about this practice.

On the one hand, it may be a kind of graffiti, but it seems more nature-friendly than spray paint. It’s more temporary, not as resource-intensive, produces no empty can litter, requires no manufacturing, and leaves no chemical residue.

On the other hand, the “story value” of the rocks is lost when they are removed from their places. Then there are the (perhaps minor, but it all depends on the scale of the stacking) environmental effects of moving the rocks and exposing the underlying soil to erosion. And finally, a stack of rocks changes the feel of a place. It no longer reads as a wild place, but instead proclaims another person was here. Like any human creation, a cairn impresses itself on our senses more strongly than other elements in a scene.

Of course, this is a small drop in the ocean of garden-and-nature-related issues that might concern a lover of wild places nowadays. It’s hardly worth ranting about… except that it highlights a certain carelessness about the value of our encounters with nature.

Instead of experiencing the minutiae or the glory of a landscape and responding internally, a person has chosen to respond in a public way, and in so doing has changed the landscape the rest of us experience. That should matter.

Here’s a similar scene without the rock stack; do you respond differently to it?

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on July 15, 2015 at 4:00 am, in the category But is it Art?, What’s Happening.

14 Comments

    • Saurs
    • 15th November 2015

    “Then there are the (perhaps minor, but it all depends on the scale of the stacking) environmental effects of moving the rocks and exposing the underlying soil to erosion.”

    • Susan Harris
    • 19th February 2016

    “Like”. Susan

    • kermit
    • 27th November 2016

    I am not comfortable with the idea that preferring parks and other accessible areas be left as undisturbed as reasonably possible is “a colonialist mindset”. The sheer numbers of folks who like visiting less “developed” areas can make dramatic changes in an area. I remember handbooks on camping that included tips on blazing trails by cutting patches of bark off trees and the like that simply aren’t sustainable when large numbers of people are involved. No, I don’t find these impromptu spirit cairns annoying, although I might if they become fashionable.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 4th December 2016

    Saurs, thank you for such a wonderful comment – I really enjoyed your nuanced, thoughtful, and informative take on the issue. You said what I would have, outdid so in a much more eloquent way!

    • Garden Rant
    • 7th December 2016

    Interesting. HIghlights for me the totally human-made nature of gardens. Susan

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 8th December 2016

    Yes, gardens often have a clear voice that guides us through the landscape along predetermined paths and may even tell us where to look (focal points and views). In a naturalistic setting (and a naturalistic garden may aspire to this), there is more freedom in making our own way through a place, exploring according to what piques our interest. These types of settings offer different types of experiences.

    • Rachelle
    • 9th December 2016

    The multiplying rocks stacks shown in the picture in the original article by Robyn Martin reminded me of nothing more than an attack of garden gnomes!

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 9th December 2016

    Congratulations on getting your cairn to remain that long, Rachelle. And I laughed at your comparing the multitudes of rock stacks to garden gnomes — they do give me the same impression!

    • John
    • 9th December 2016

    When I visit a wild or natural place, I inherently know that people have been there before me. I’m under no illusions that this is pure and untouched virgin wilderness, and that I’m the first person to behold it. Seeing a human made cairn of rocks to me is a form of vandalism. While definitely not as awful as spray paint tagging (which is becoming its own problem even in natural parks), in my mind it is still a form of human alteration of place that serves no other purpose than to stroke the makers own ego/narcissism.

    • John
    • 9th December 2016

    When considering questions like this “Is rock stacking vandalism?”, I always come back to the outdoor mantra that I was raised with (and which is probably wildly outdated) – “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

    • Evelyn Hadden
    • 9th December 2016

    John, I love that mantra for spending time in a natural area.

    • Saxon
    • 10th December 2016

    Love ’em and the human creativity and tagging it represents. A reminder we are not the only person who arrived at the place, should we be so arrogant to expect to “own” the experience. I like the human community who seeks out special places. These simple cairns connect us. I make the assumption they *are* simple and do not disturb the place in any lasting way, and that in a few years, weather, time, and those who don’t like them, return the stones to rest again. Sandcastles disappear too.

    • Joe Schmitt
    • 10th December 2016

    Put me down on the “love ’em” side of the ledger also. I might be convinced that the overuse of any specific form of personal statement can attain cliche’ status and even become annoying, but give me a break on this one. One could argue convincingly that these little cairns create as many favorable micro-climates as they destroy. Even the Jains, whose respect for all life forms can approach rendering their faithful nearly immobile for fear of injuring even microbes, recognize the role intent has to play in their actions. No harm intended, no foul, or at least a much less egregious one.

    • Ivette Soler
    • 10th December 2016

    I want to give you extra bonus points for mentioning the Jains, Joe Schmitt! I echo your sentiments as well

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