Cairns in the New York Times

Apparently Doug Schwartz is destroying the cliffs and shoreline on Staten Island. An article in today’s NYTimes describes how Schwartz has been stacking stones and making artwork out of objects he found on the beach. “We have concerns with the impact of his activities, and asked him to stop until we can properly assess them,” according to state official’s statement published in the paper.

Schwartz has long been known for his artwork. The NYT has written about him before and a local video maker, Daniel Ross, produced a documentary about Schwartz in 2009. Like many stone stackers, Schwartz says he does it because it’s peaceful. “Stone is eternal,” he says. He has smashed a few fingers but otherwise remained unharmed by his interaction with stone.

Most passersby get what he’s doing, though one co-worker thought it was a witches’ coven. He cleared up this misunderstanding. He has not been able to clear up the state officials’ concerns that Schwartz’ “movement of this material may be impacting the rate and location of erosion of the bluff (which has increased recently and required us to abandon one of the roads on the property).” Because of this, he has been told to stop his work on the beach.

I am of two minds about this. Moving rocks on the beach does have an impact on the local ecology as many animals make use of the rocks for their homes. But there are generally lots of rocks on the beach thus he is not disturbing a rare habitat, unlike some stone stackers who build them in areas where stone is less common, such as in Acadia National Park, where cairn builders are degrading sensitive alpine habitat. I also find it a bit ironic that one park official who told him to stop rode up on a tractor, which certainly has an impact on the beach.

Well, I wish everyone happy Thanksgiving.



Thoreau’s Cairn

Henry David Thoreau and I might have had a few spats. Despite his apparent fondness for all things natural, he did not like building stone. In Walden he wrote “To what end, pray, is so much stone hammered…Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave…I love better to see stones in place.” Perhaps then we might have agreed on cairns.

No they are not stones left in place but at least they are not stones altered by man or nation. One of the things I like best about cairns is that people make them from found rocks and not from rocks cut, chiseled, or sawn for that purpose. As I noted in my section on geology, stones used in cairns invariably reflect the nature of the stone—where and how it formed and where and how it weathered—and not the nature of a person. In that way, I like to think that cairns honor Thoreau’s admonition for simple and honest architecture.

How splendid then that a cairn is “our oldest monument to Thoreau.” Specifically, this cairn rises near where his original house stood at Walden Pond. It has been a central memorial to the man from Walden Pond since a lady from Dubuque, Iowa, placed the first stone in 1872.

Thoreau had died ten years earlier. He had not lived at Walden Pond since 1847, following his 26-month-long experiment “to anticipate, not the sunrise and the dawn merely, but, if possible, Nature herself!” The 10 x 15-foot house he had built had long been gone from Walden, too. In 1849, it had been moved across Concord. The new owners stored corn in it. They would later demolish it and use the wood for building projects on their farm.

By the early 1870s, Thoreau’s fame had led to a regular stream of pilgrims seeking out Walden. They found little to mark Thoreau’s life until June 1872, when Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May, visited with his friend Mary Newbury Adams and showed her where the small cabin had once stood. Noting that it was pity that there nothing to mark the spot, Adams suggested building a cairn and “then let everyone who loved Thoreau add a stone.” Alcott, a life-long friend of Henry’s agreed and added a stone to the one left by Adams. He noted in his journal of July 12-13, “Henry’s fame is sure to brighten with years, and this spot be visited by admiring readers of his works.”

The cairn at Walden still stands, pilgrims still visit it, and they still leave rocks. And, I still like hammered stone.