An overzealous environmentalist misses the point (and beauty) of amateur cairns.

Stacking rocks is an exercise in vanity, argues Robyn Martin in a column for High Country News, an environmental news site in Colorado. Know those precarious piles of stone you see on hiking trails and beaches, she asks? They’re monuments to the ego.

Martin’s argument posits that the recent rise in cairn-making is destroying our environment and endangering hikers:

Stone piles have their uses, but the many rock stacks that I’m seeing on our public lands are increasingly problematic. First, if they’re set in a random place, they can lead an unsuspecting hiker into trouble, away from the trail and into a potentially dangerous place. Second, we go to the wilderness to remove ourselves from the human saturation of our lives, not to see mementoes from other people’s lives.

She goes on to say that moving rocks encourages erosion and disrupts wildlife. “Every time a rock is disturbed” an animal loses a home, she says, since many insects and mammals burrow under rocks for protection and reproduction.

Cairns on Great Ocean Road, Victoria, Australia. | kokkai/Getty

But most importantly, she says, is the desecration of nature’s beauty. She refers to these cairns as an “unwelcome reminder of humanity” and implores her readers to “fight the urge to stack rocks.”

I have to ask: If these cairns are so unwelcome, why are they multiplying? Nobody’s knocking them down?—?if anything, cairns beget more cairns.

Man and nature

I understand Martin’s argument that human manipulation of natural preserves has the potential to lean towards vandalism. Many people support “Leave No Trace” ethics. I just don’t buy that cairns satisfy the definition of vandalism.

For one, they’ve got a historical claim to be called art. Yes, they have been used for navigation in the past, as Martin points out. But they’ve also been built as spiritual offering, burial mound, communication device and?—?wait for it?—?regular old art.

Paris’s “Love Locks” on the Pont Des Arts Bridge. | Barcroft Media/Getty

Her argument that “they can lead an unsuspecting hiker into trouble, away from the trail and into a potentially dangerous place” seems dubious at best. Navigational cairns are big, organized things (as opposed to the small, haphazard stacks she’s addressing). And besides, it’s the 21st century. The type of outdoorsman who’s using cairns to navigate (as opposed to GPS or a handheld map) can probably discern between a path marker and the product of some stoned college kids.

When I read Martin’s article, I disagreed with the notion that cairns represented an “unwelcome reminder of humanity.” Every teenage tree-hugger knows the motto Alexander Supertramp forfeited his life to discover: Happiness only real when shared.

‘Kilroy Was Here’ Monument. |

Cairns, an unwelcome reminder? Quite the opposite. In fact, it would be cool to stumble upon a cluster of rock stacks laid by previous hikers. Think of it as Yosemite’s answer to Paris’s love lock bridge or WWII’s Kilroy doodle. Cairns are a way of saying: I was here, too, and left something nice for you. There: happiness shared.

Art vs. vandalism

I’m not the only one to roll my eyes at Martin’s prescriptive approach to enjoying nature. An NPR article by freelance writer Stina Sieg pits Martin’s ethos against a woman named Beth Dinet, who is in support of rock stacking. “Dinet says she understands the argument against building cairns,” writes Sieg, “but feels her little pillar shouldn’t be compared to graffiti or litter. ‘There’s worse things in life that you could do to make yourself feel good than stack some rocks,’ she says.”

Isn’t that the question, whether cairns can be considered graffiti or litter?

Some similar questions:

  • Is a message in a bottle litter?
  • Does Banksy do graffiti?
  • Are love locks a form of vandalism?

These questions boil down to intent. I think Martin misunderstands the intent behind cairns, and therefore mislabels them as “no different than finding a tissue bleached and decaying against the earth that a previous traveler didn’t pack out, or a forgotten water bottle.”

Banksy mural on a school in Bristol, England. | Matt Cardy/Getty

The author of a given piece of “graffiti” or “litter” is only morally culpable if his intent is selfish. There’s a difference between the art of Banksy or Shepard Fairey and a simple act of vandalism. Those men and their contemporaries break rules to share beauty. I hope we can reasonably agree that their work has a bigger claim to artistry than somebody scrawling “Fuck the Pigs” on an overpass.

Similarly, tossing trash into the sea is litter; a message in a bottle is not. Lovers’ initials in wet cement can be a tender landmark of romance; a swear word is just ugly.

Bathroom art at Hojoko in Boston. | Duke Harten

I was recently at a Japanese restaurant in Boston. The place is an aesthetic hodgepodge: ceramic knick-knacks, a Pac-Man machine, a projector screening “The Brady Bunch.” Roast duck is served alongside frozen tiki drinks. Colors and styles abound. On the bathroom wall, somebody spent time paying homage to Bart Simpson (shown at left).

In other words, manipulating our environments is not empirically bad. Building a cairn doesn’t deface natural beauty the way Martin claims. When creating something, you have to take your surroundings into account. The “Simpsons” reference is OK in a restaurant whose whole decor is hodgepodge, just as Banksy’s work is OK in Bristol and a cairn is OK in a forest because they complement the natural beauty. It’s when we start mixing media in irresponsible or selfish ways that our art becomes no better than that bleached, decaying tissue.