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Stacking Stones

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— July 15, 2017

Stacking Stones

  • Stone sculptures in the wilderness are eye-catching but could harm the environment.
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It’s almost impossible to be in nature without coming across makeshift sculptures made from stacks of stones. These stacked rocks, also called cairns, appear across the landscape from hiking trails and creek beds to deserts. The concept is simple—rocks are gathered and stacked until the individual pebbles and river rock are transformed into vertical stone sculptures—but their meanings are complex. Cairns, a Gaelic word that means “mounds of stones,” were believed to be one of the earliest forms of communication, according to David B. Williams, author of Cairns: Messengers in Stone (Mountaineers). The stacked stones served as landmarks, marking graves, providing direction and outlining hunting areas. “These were not meant to be just piles of rocks,” notes Williams. Indeed, along hiking trails, the stacked stones are directional markers essential for helping hikers navigate their routes. “We still use cairns as trail markers in some of our national parks,” Williams explains. Cairns are built in areas where it’s otherwise impossible to hang trail markers, including trails above the tree line in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and among the black lava fields in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. In these areas, the stacked rocks serve as essential directional markers for hikers; unauthorized cairns can cause hikers to get lost. “You can’t tell the difference between cairns meant as directional markers and cairns created as art,” Williams says. “Some hikers will see cairns others have created and think it’s an official route and end up on trails that are beyond their abilities or cross sensitive landscapes.” Creating new cairns might do more than cause directional confusion. Critics believe that the stacked stone structures also harm the environment. In 2015, Ozark National Scenic Riverways took to its Facebook page to ask visitors to stop stacking river rocks, writing, “Yes it looks cool, but why do you get to decide what the scenery should look like? Leave that to Momma Nature. If you pick up almost any rock in the river, you’ll find life attached to it.” Caddisflies, snails, mayfly larvae and eggs of various creatures would all die when exposed to air, the group says, adding that “our beloved and very rare Ozark hellbender,” an aquatic salamander, needs the habitat undisturbed. “Stacked rocks would be an awesome addition to your garden, but in the rivers, not so much.” “One or two cairns would be fine,” Williams adds, “but when a lot of people build them—at some summits, there are dozens of them—it becomes a problem.” Moving rocks to make cairns exposes the soil beneath the rocks, which can increase erosion; it can also make insects and animals such as snails and spiders that burrow under rocks for protection more vulnerable to predators. Moreover, there might be microorganisms attached to the rocks. Peter Juhl recognizes that stacking stones is controversial but it hasn’t stopped the self-professed stone balancer, and author of Center of Gravity: A Guide to the Practice of Rock Balancing (CreateSpace), from creating countless cairns. “There is a vast difference between the gentle art of balancing a few stones in an esthetic way and constructing and abandoning dozens of stable stacks that will endure for weeks or months,” Juhl says. “As stone balancing becomes more popular, people who take [stacking] over the top are alienating those who enjoy undisturbed nature.” Juhl aims to create stone sculptures in harmony with nature. He never digs or pries stones from the soil or moves large numbers of stones from one place to another. Nor does he build large sculptures that could topple and harm plants or animals. After he’s stacked a few loose stones and photographed his creations, he tips them over rather than leaving them standing. It’s part of his “leave no trace” approach to stone stacking—a philosophy he wishes others would embrace. “Leave the area in a state that shows no obvious evidence you were ever there,” he says.

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