Stacking Rocks in Wild Places

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Recently I came across this article about the fairly new practice of stacking rocks in wild places.

Historically, cairns (rocks piled or stacked by humans) have served important purposes, particularly in parts of the world lacking dramatic natural features to use as landmarks. A cairn might mark a trail, commemorate a mass gravesite from a battle, or be hidden behind while herding buffalo off a cliff.

But increasingly, short stacks of rocks are showing up in national parks and other natural areas. They appear to be generic “I was here” statements (or “I was here, and I was spiritually moved” or perhaps merely “I was here, and I was bored”), created with the natural materials at hand.

Rock stack encountered on a beach, Mackinac Island, Michigan.

I’m of two minds about this practice.

On the one hand, it may be a kind of graffiti, but it seems more nature-friendly than spray paint. It’s more temporary, not as resource-intensive, produces no empty can litter, requires no manufacturing, and leaves no chemical residue.

On the other hand, the “story value” of the rocks is lost when they are removed from their places. Then there are the (perhaps minor, but it all depends on the scale of the stacking) environmental effects of moving the rocks and exposing the underlying soil to erosion. And finally, a stack of rocks changes the feel of a place. It no longer reads as a wild place, but instead proclaims another person was here. Like any human creation, a cairn impresses itself on our senses more strongly than other elements in a scene.

Of course, this is a small drop in the ocean of garden-and-nature-related issues that might concern a lover of wild places nowadays. It’s hardly worth ranting about… except that it highlights a certain carelessness about the value of our encounters with nature.

Instead of experiencing the minutiae or the glory of a landscape and responding internally, a person has chosen to respond in a public way, and in so doing has changed the landscape the rest of us experience. That should matter.

Here’s a similar scene without the rock stack; do you respond differently to it?

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on July 15, 2015 at 4:00 am, in the category But is it Art?, What’s Happening.


  1. “Then there are the (perhaps minor, but it all depends on the scale of the stacking) environmental effects of moving the rocks and exposing the underlying soil to erosion.”

  2. I am not comfortable with the idea that preferring parks and other accessible areas be left as undisturbed as reasonably possible is “a colonialist mindset”. The sheer numbers of folks who like visiting less “developed” areas can make dramatic changes in an area. I remember handbooks on camping that included tips on blazing trails by cutting patches of bark off trees and the like that simply aren’t sustainable when large numbers of people are involved. No, I don’t find these impromptu spirit cairns annoying, although I might if they become fashionable.

  3. Saurs, thank you for such a wonderful comment – I really enjoyed your nuanced, thoughtful, and informative take on the issue. You said what I would have, outdid so in a much more eloquent way!

  4. Yes, gardens often have a clear voice that guides us through the landscape along predetermined paths and may even tell us where to look (focal points and views). In a naturalistic setting (and a naturalistic garden may aspire to this), there is more freedom in making our own way through a place, exploring according to what piques our interest. These types of settings offer different types of experiences.

  5. Congratulations on getting your cairn to remain that long, Rachelle. And I laughed at your comparing the multitudes of rock stacks to garden gnomes — they do give me the same impression!

  6. When I visit a wild or natural place, I inherently know that people have been there before me. I’m under no illusions that this is pure and untouched virgin wilderness, and that I’m the first person to behold it. Seeing a human made cairn of rocks to me is a form of vandalism. While definitely not as awful as spray paint tagging (which is becoming its own problem even in natural parks), in my mind it is still a form of human alteration of place that serves no other purpose than to stroke the makers own ego/narcissism.

  7. When considering questions like this “Is rock stacking vandalism?”, I always come back to the outdoor mantra that I was raised with (and which is probably wildly outdated) – “Take only photographs, leave only footprints.”

  8. Love ’em and the human creativity and tagging it represents. A reminder we are not the only person who arrived at the place, should we be so arrogant to expect to “own” the experience. I like the human community who seeks out special places. These simple cairns connect us. I make the assumption they *are* simple and do not disturb the place in any lasting way, and that in a few years, weather, time, and those who don’t like them, return the stones to rest again. Sandcastles disappear too.

  9. Put me down on the “love ’em” side of the ledger also. I might be convinced that the overuse of any specific form of personal statement can attain cliche’ status and even become annoying, but give me a break on this one. One could argue convincingly that these little cairns create as many favorable micro-climates as they destroy. Even the Jains, whose respect for all life forms can approach rendering their faithful nearly immobile for fear of injuring even microbes, recognize the role intent has to play in their actions. No harm intended, no foul, or at least a much less egregious one.

  10. Although I think that there might be some disruptive habitat unintended consequences, this post reminded me of the work of Andy Goldsworthy and his ephemeral [not always] art. They are a joy to see in process, and it would be wonderful to wander onto one when walking. Here in Tallahassee, I watched a young man take large pine cones from around a stand of pines and using them to make concentric circles around the trunks of trees. The stand of pines is now gone, replaced by another small shopping “village.” Will miss the trees and work of the young man. Karin

  11. I like very much the idea of pine cones arranged in concentric circles around pine trees. It is more imaginative than rocks stacked on a beach. But both accomplish the same thing — to put a human mark on the land. People have done this for millennia, and poets have written about the effect for a similarly long time. Whenever I see this kind of human marking, I think of Wallace Stevens’ poem, Anecdote of the Jar. Paraphrasing Stevens, he notes how the presence of a jar on a hilltop changes the scene, so that the wilderness sprawls around, no longer wild. My response to the act is an aesthetic one. If the addition makes me see something in the landscape or surroundings that I otherwise might have missed, I respond positively. I think, for instance, of W.Gary Smith’s installation a few years ago at Garden in the Woods, headquarters of the New England Wildflower Society. He put branches end to end to form a snaking line that drew attention to the shape of the land itself. It was wonderfully simple and extremely effective.

  12. The photo reminded me of trips to Mackinac island and the rocky shoreline of Lake Superior when my sons were younger. My first reaction to seeing that stack of rocks was a memory of industrious little boys finding something entertaining to do while the grown-ups soaked up the scenery. No meaning other than to see how many could be stacked before they toppled over. On that note, they would have been just as quick to topple over someone else’s abandoned stack of rocks without a thought that it was put there for any reason other than for fun.

  13. Either way, I like that it brings to light the “real” or historical purpose of stacking rocks – and we’re talking about it. So, in a sense, the true intent lives on in these discussions – but not necessarily in the stacks of rocks themselves.

  14. I suppose if one is so inclined to be offended by these when one comes upon them, one could always undo them. Im sure people are not doing this maliciously. Perhaps people should be required to remove their hiking boots before setting off into the wild for a nice hike?? With all the people hiking in the wilderness wearing boots, are you going to assume nothing is being disturbed.

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