I would like to formally announce that I have started work on my next book. It will be on cairns, those wonderful piles of stone often used to mark trails. The book grew out of a discussion with an editor at Mountaineers Books, here in Seattle. As with my other writing projects, I will take a broad approach weaving together cultural and natural history. I will be writing about cairns from around the world.
My basic unifying theory is that we build cairns for communication and connection. This might mean expedition cairns such as from the middle 19th century expeditions to the Arctic where people piled up stone to serve as a kind of post office; cairns built by the Inuit and known as Inuksuit; or simply the more commonly known cairns marking trails and roads around the world.
In diving into the natural history, I plan on writing about the geology of cairns. How do different types of rocks and different environments influence the shape and style of cairns? I will look at the microhabitat of cairns, exploring how a three-dimensional structure on a two-dimensional substrate changes the microenvironment. And one chapter will look at how one can date, age-date that is, a cairn.
No one knows when the first cairn was built though I assume that it was very early in the evolution of our species. Perhaps it occurred even before Homo sapiens! It’s not like it takes a huge amount of brain power to pile up a few rocks to let someone else know where to go or where not to go, so it’s not inconceivable to consider cairns one of the earliest forms of human communication.
I am having a fun time researching and writing about cairns. Please let me know if you have any stories about cairns you want to share. I look forward to hearing from people.