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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

tldd1103
on July 15, 2015 at 4:00 am, in the category But is it Art?, What’s Happening.

6 comments

  1. Saurs 1 January, 1970 at 04:00

    “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.”

  2. kermit 5 July, 2008 at 12:26

    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.

  3. Ivette Soler 8 May, 2010 at 20:46

    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!

  4. Evelyn Hadden 17 January, 2016 at 18:33

    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.

  5. Rachelle 29 June, 2016 at 23:50

    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!

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