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.


My New Book on Cairns

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.