It was a cool November day when I drove up north to Walden Pond, where the famous New England author, poet, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived and wrote Walden. As I walked around the north side of the pond, I picked up two flat-ish rocks on the edge of the path. I turned the smooth, sun-warmed stones over in my hand and came to a short strip of sand, a small beach currently occupied by about a dozen teenage boys, all wet and wearing nothing but boxer shorts. It looked like some kind of hazing ritual, very Lord of the Flies. I continued west along the water’s edge, passing few other people along the way. I knew the site of Thoreau’s cabin, and the pile of rocks commemorating him, was located in the northwest corner of the pond.
In Cairns: Messengers in Stone, author (and geologist) David B. Williams takes us on a journey through time and geography on a topic that at first glance can appear forgettable: piles of rocks. A cairn is a pile of stones, typically used as a monument, memorial or else as a landmark, often left behind by hikers on trails. Burial mounds made of stone are also sometimes referred to as cairns. But Williams is successful at convincing us to care about a simple pile of rocks, stating: “Maybe that is one of the appeals of cairns, that someone has taken a bunch of rocks and humanized them by placing them in a pile.” As human beings, we tend to anthropomorphize many things, and piles of rocks are no exception.
The book is short, a mere 150 pages, and is unique among recent non-fiction literature in that it focuses on a very narrow topic; it is not one of the so-called “Big Idea Books.” This alone was refreshing for me. It starts out strong, putting cairns in the context of geology, describing the types of stones typically used and which make the most successful and long-lasting cairns. There is a chapter on age dating cairns, with many fascinating facts about lichen, which can be used to age date cairns, as well as the more standard radiometric, or carbon dating of the rocks themselves. The material is presented in an unusual and interesting way and the reader is drawn in throughout the text by parallels with other, non-geological fields. In one of my favorite passages, Williams describes songs as cairns. Both the Australian Aborigines and the Inuit create songs which “…embed the landscape in songs that allow for extensive navigation … the songs highlight landmarks essential for travel through a complicated landscape.” It’s a beautiful example of the creativity and intelligence that makes human beings special.
In the last chapter of the book, Williams describes several locations where famous cairns can be found. One of them is the pile of rocks at the site of Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond. The memorial cairn, or some form of it, has existed on the spot since 1872 when a woman from Iowa placed the first stone there, 10 years after Thoreau died. When people visit Walden Pond from all over the world, they bring a rock from their hometown and place it on the pile. There are even pieces of the Berlin Wall in the pile, placed there by visitors in 1993. I also saw stones covered with graffiti: “Free Bradley Manning” it says on one stone, and of course there are more than just a few declarations of love.
On one hand, it’s a shame that people have desecrated the stones with words and drawings, but on the other hand, the act of creating a cairn can also be seen as desecrating the natural landscape. Williams addresses this point, making the case that many people spend time in the wilderness to escape human influence and for them, coming upon a man-made cairn is equivalent to graffiti. One could argue that Thoreau himself would agree with this point of view, for as he said in Walden: “One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon.”
The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.– Albert Einstein
Happy birthday, Miles Davis! The jazz legend would have been 85 today – celebrate with this minimalist illustrated portrait by artist Jorge Arevalo.