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.


An Epidemic of Cairns

Recently, I sent out requests for stories about notable experiences with cairns for my new book. The response was and continues to be fascinating. One person relayed a story about the cairns on the Kilauea Iki crater trail in Hawaii. Made of basalt boulders, some of which are quite young, they are known as ahu and are key for helping people across a landscape often covered in fog. In many places, additional items adorn the cairns. These include cigarettes, beer, and fruit, all placed to calm the fiery ire of Pele, the creator of the islands. People also leave aspirin and Rolaids to help Pele’s indigestion and headaches, which some say are the true cause of Hawaii’s eruptions.

The most common theme of the comments was the concern over too many cairns on the trail. A friend from Yosemite described an “epidemic of cairns.” These are not trail cairns but “works of art,” seemingly inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s stone projects. In other areas, the problem is the proliferation of regular cairns near or off trail. It has gotten so bad in some national parks that in addition to regularly destroying cairns, rangers have had to put up signs asking people not to build cairns. The signs appear to have had some success but raised the issue of too many signs in the backcountry.

What is it with these cairn-builders? Erecting such structures is the equivalent of graffiti, an unneeded, self-centered blemish on the landscape. I suspect that some think its okay to do it because others did it or they feel a need to be creative or it’s fun but come on, part of the reason we hike and go in the backcountry is to get away from the narcissistic “I was here” mentality that pervades our modern culture. (I just want to be clear that there are appropriate places to build these stacked stone structures but they are not in places such as national parks.)

I know that some will say that building a cairn does no harm, claiming that they are impermanent structures that can be taken down easily. Yes, that is true but consider that removing stones from their natural settings can degrade and/or destroy the homes of plants and animals and that walking off trail leads to more off-trail use that can damage the environment.

So, I say to those who feel the need to build their own personal cairn in the backcountry, get over yourself; most of us don’t want to see any more cairns than we have to and we certainly don’t want to see your attempts at “art.” Take your visual pollution elsewhere.