by Glenn Reed
(Swans - June 16, 2014) Cairns have been in my thoughts lately. Kind of odd, I guess.
Maybe it's an age thing? I turned that key number of age 55 last January. Cairns are all about marking paths, after all, and we're a society that likes to neatly categorize everything, including people. It creates "demographic cairns," so to speak. And here I am at the bottom end of the 55 to 64 range.
Oh right. Cairns are also known for marking grave sites. Anyway...
So back to those piles of stones called cairns. My partner and a friend were doing a day hike up Vermont's Mt. Abraham yesterday and I encountered a small cairn along the trail. Hardly an unusual sight for a hiking path, of course, except that this was in a heavily forested stretch where such guides are not necessary. We were on the very well-marked Long Trail, after all, and so many tens of thousands of feet tramp this course each year that you couldn't get lost if you tried.
Okay, some people can get lost anywhere but, clearly, this particular cairn was more about what I think has become a fad more than anything. A cairn fad, you say? That sounds a little...out there. What...are you stoned? Sorry for that...
Maybe turning age 55 has loosened a few rocks in my head? Maybe, like Sisyphus, I've been pushing a boulder to the top of a mountain all these years and I've already reached the summit and it's started tumbling down? Perhaps it was always a creative rock that I assumed was a writer's block? Maybe the sad result is articles as this one on...
Let me explain. Okay, maybe rationalize further.
Last year there was a story in the local papers, and on the major TV news station up in Burlington, about a conflict between neighbors. Here's the story:
A young man in a small Vermont town had recently lost his beloved dog. To help deal with his sadness, this young man began building cairns in the middle of one of the ubiquitous streams that tumble down out of the spine of the Green Mountains. These streams are filled with the boulders and smaller rocks plucked and deposited by the glaciers thousands of years ago and slowly but surely pushed from mountain to sea by the continued forces of erosion. Coming in an endless variety of shapes and sizes, these rocks are perfect for building such things as...cairns.
Which is what this young man did in this particular brook. He constructed dozens of cairns in the middle of its course. Quickly, people began to notice these temporary memorials and would stop along a somewhat busy road to gawk and take pictures.
One of the young man's neighbors took objection, claiming that the cairns were creating a traffic hazard. He took the liberty of knocking them all down. The young man confronted his neighbor. Things got nasty.
Instant feature story and controversy. Many people who probably didn't even know the word "cairn" before were suddenly aware of these piles of rock that have marked trails or gravesites for centuries. Suddenly, it seemed that I started to see cairns all over the place.
This story was still fresh in my mind last fall when my partner and I did a favorite local hike in the White Rocks National Recreation Area near Wallingford, Vermont. At a key trail junction at about 2,500 feet, deeply shaded by boreal forest, we encountered a cairn city. My immediate gut reaction was that it was entirely inappropriate for this setting and I wanted to knock them all down. Here we were, on a quiet trail to get away from the trappings of civilization and all of these people were defacing the surrounding landscape to satisfy some fad. This was no longer either a natural landscape or quality "land art" that was in balance with, or integrated into, its surroundings.
I wanted to tell these people "we're not all David Goldsworthy types, you know." He's the expert on "land art," after all, and knows it's about quality and not quantity. Or fads.
Yes, David Goldsworthy has done a few cairns in his time. Although it was a stone wall constructed by him, and not a cairn, that I recently encountered at the Storm King Art Center in New York. The piece he has there zig-zags amongst trees and boulders planted in the earth.
But I'm tumbling down the hill, tangential in noting stonewalls and not focusing on cairns. Kind of typical for my demographic, I suppose. Being tangential.
I peer through the swirling mist in my brain. Mourning. Finding a path. Saying "I'm here" to no one in particular. The winter's freezes and deep snows wiping out my path.
A hike I did 36 years ago, a week after climbing Mt. Abraham for the first time. I was on the wide, open summit of Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire's White Mountains, accompanied only by my dog. Fog was swirling about and the trail indistinct in the expanse above the tree line. Squinting and proceeding very carefully, the dark, spectral shapes of cairns eventually brought me to the actual summit.
I still miss this dog these many years later. Like that young man building cairns in the stream. I close my eyes and I'm following cairns on Ben Nevis in Scotland in the fog. Scanning cliff sides for them on the Oregon coast. Replacing a key stone that has fallen off of one on Mt. Katahdin's "knife edge" section of rocky trail in Maine.
Cairns have been on my mind a lot lately. I guess I've stopped questioning the "why" of such things. The summits still beckon.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)