Rock On!

Cairns—we saw them aplenty when we climbed Ben Nevis. We noticed quite a few in Nova Scotia. We spotted them as trail markers in John Muir woods, on Palomar Mountain near the observatory, and now in the shallows of the Boise river—in this case, parents built them symbolically, one cairn each for a family of seven.

Used by people around the globe, cairns — human-made stack of stones — serve many different purposes:

  • Utilitarian: to mark a path, territory, or specific site
  • Spiritual: inviting passersby to stop and reflect
  • Ceremonial: when placed within a circle of enclosing stones
  • Memorial: when friends and family members voice a fond remembrance of a loved one while adding adding a stone
  • Symbolic: the uses are endless including love, prayer, and artistic expression

Have you ever built a cairn?


61 thoughts on “Rock On!

  1. When we visited the Big Island, lots of white stones lay all around the black lava. My son used the stones to spell out the family name. So I didn’t exactly do it myself, but it was fun to see him create an ephemeral shout out to our family!

  2. YES! When I walked along the SF bay in my small little town early in the morning, I’d carefully tip toe along the rocks along the water, piling one little rock upon another. Don’t know why, but it’s so soothing to create, and then soothing to look at! My first experience with breathing in spirit among the rocks was my visit to Stonehenge in the 1980s. Oh myyyy, took my breath away.

    • Pam — Yes, indeed! Thank you for bringing up the therapeutic aspect of building a cairn.

      I can well imagine that breathing in spirit amongst the megaliths at Stonehenge would be breathtaking!

  3. I associate stones with a merging of the natural and the spiritual aspects of life.

    Years ago one of my colleagues gave me a small rounded stone with the word FAITH etched into it. I have kept it beside my writing desk for years. Maybe because of this stone, I don’t think of stones or cairns as inert, but reverberating with life. We visited Stonehenge years ago, but I didn’t feel a life pulse there as I ambled around the circle – mystery – but not liveliness at this site for some reason.

    • Marian — I know precisely of the single-word etched stones you mentioned. Perhaps the “mystery” you felt at Stonehenge may well have been just exactly what you needed (no more, no less) at the time 🙂

  4. I have a row of small cairns on my studio window sill made of stones and pebbles I’ve collected in my travels. I love them. Whenever my now deceased brother would visit he always left a cairn somewhere in my garden.

  5. I haven’t built a cairn Laurie but I do have a fond memory of the first one that I ever saw…. It was late August of the summer of 1975. I had been invited to ride in on horseback with my dad and uncle and a couple of other men caribou hunting in the Wolverine Range north of Fort St James in British Columbia. It was a good days drive from the farm to get to the trail head and we brought horses and borrowed a pack string once we got there. After staying over night with the person we were going to show the guiding territory , their horses still had to be caught.

    Now, you have to keep in mind that I was the only “woman” on this trip and I was only just about 16 years old. My dad and uncle were confident in my abilities. But others seemed to be a little reserved about the idea of a having me come along on this rugged trip over rocky trails and bogs, on horseback, high up into the mountains above timberline. But the fellow had one young horse that was hard to catch. He pointed it out along with the others they had milling around, circling the round corral. The horse we needed was on the inside of the circle. I didn’t hesitate, took the first opening I had into the pen, timed three long running steps to match with the horse we wanted to catch and put my arms around his neck while lifting my feet and firmly and calmly yelled “Whoa!” The horse almost went to his knees from the unexpected weight around his neck but he stood, My uncle passed me the halter and I led him out of the corral. After that, no one, questioned why this little girl was being allowed to come on a hunting trip up into the mountains where the grizzly bears lived and not much else.

    It was a good days ride up into the mountain range to get to our camp beside a creek. It was rugged but be got there with everyone and all our horses in good shape. I had my first camera and two rolls of film with me that I had bought with my summer wages from piling green lumber in a small sawmill. I wasn’t much interested in actually hunting caribou. I was there to hike and take pictures. So, while the men went off, mostly hiking but hoping to see a caribou, I was free to do as I liked. Since the horse catching incident, no one seemed to be worried about me.

    We were well above timberline and a person could see forever. On one of the mountain tops was this strange thing sticking up. I asked my dad and uncle and they said it was a cairn with stone paths pointing in the direction of north, east, south and west. Distance is tricky in the mountains so I asked if it was close enough to walk to its location. It was though I had to keep in mind the fog might roll in (we were actually up in the clouds) and pay attention to the stone markers that had been stacked close enough together to guide people off of the mountain and back down to the camp where we had our tents set up. If I couldn’t see between the markers I was to sit and wait until I could so as not to get lost. With this sound advice, off I went with my camera in my pocket. I reached the cairn and it was an amazing circular stack of stones about four feet high and around. The view in all directions was stunning. I felt like I was on top of the world. There were little flags and pieces of cloth tied by rope around the cairn. No one seemed to be sure how the cairn got there but they told me that the native people were the ones that tied the pieces of cloth around it. I can say that the place was special and one I will never forget. I have pictures someplace in one of my old albums. But they are not so much to look at. After all, it was my first experience with a camera.

    When I got back down to camp, the men had just come in ahead of me. While we were all out exploring, the caribou had walked right through the camp to see what we were doing. Dad and my uncle laughed and started making supper. That was the only sign we saw of caribou on the whole trip.

    • Terrill — I loved reading your remembrance. That is what my friend (and author) Shirley Showalter would call a “Memoir Moment” and would be perfect to include in your memoir (which, by the way you should write) 🙂

      • Well, memoirs seem so self-indulgent Laurie so I don’t know. It was fun to remember this time for you this morning though. I suppose I should tuck the comment away some place in my journal just in case it is of interest someday. Thanks for the spark your post provided!

  6. I usually create Zen Stones, for balance and meditation. I had brought stones back from Easton Mountain that I had used to create balanced stones, they were river rocks flat and round, some round like balls or even egg shaped since I have an attraction to the “egg”. a few of those stones where placed on Riley’s burial place for they had come from where he was from. Leaving the house when it was sold the rock/stones stayed behind, I think?
    I have been called to pick up small stones now which I have in my apartment which remind me of balance and peacefulness.

  7. I’ve had a love affair with cairns also. I think the first time I contributed to one was at Walden Pond when I contributed to the oldest living memorial to Thoreau: I also have a small one in our library, like Joan’s above. Stones collected from travels become like a global community. I don’t know where they are from, but they do. There’s a rock cairn at the meditation garden at Goshen College, which was the inauguration project when I became president. I want some of my ashes left there.

    • Shirley — Thank you for sharing that wonderful, informative link. I love that you have also collected stones from your global travels. And to know that the meditation garden at Goshen College was the inauguration project when you became president. I just learned a new and interesting tidbit about you 🙂

  8. Actually I have built one or two in my day. In Door County, Wisconsin there are a few areas of coastline where these are very prevalent. Legend has it that they are left in memory of long-forgotten wooly mammoth’s that used to roam there. Personally, I think it is hogwash and just a bunch of drunk badgers playing at night!

  9. Our front yard is south facing and gets intense sun–very little grows there.
    What to do?
    My husband built a rock encircled zen garden, but he didn’t stop there. Our garden continues to grow. He has added an inuksuk (Inuit cairn) and continues to add all nature of gravity defying rock art.

  10. Hi Laurie

    I’ve built hundreds of cairns, mostly when tramping, to mark places where for some reason the path is difficult to find, and some help is needed.

    We have a beach a few miles south of here where for some reason people started building cairns, and they have become a miniature forest. Have built a couple there myself, just because.

    I like playing with rocks, both in the coastal space, and in active riverbeds.

  11. I never have, but I would like to try it. When I was north in Canada this summer, I saw several cairns built by First Nations people, only they had had a different name for them. And this is also familiar to me from reading the Bible. There are so many times in the Old Testament (Pentateuch) where God said to the tribes of Israel, “Set up memorial stones here so your children will ask about it in times to come and you can remember and tell them what I’ve done for you.”

    • A specific time I remember is when they were crossing the Jordan River…and that’s not in the Pentateuch, as I said…it’s in the book of Joshua. But it happened in different Bible stories, that people set up memorial stones. I really like this concept.

    • Lucinda — I remember seeing the gorgeous photos of your Canadian adventure on your blog. And yes, I too remember the numerous biblical references to memorial stones.

      In my research, I learned that cairns have been used around the globe by people of every spiritual tradition since time began. Ya gotta love it! 🙂

  12. Have made them many times both on state park land and in my own yard. Love finding them while walking along Lake Michigan!

  13. Laurie, I can’t see three stones in a group without trying to build something with them. My idea of a good day is a slow-moving creek and all the rocks I can pick up to dam the creek with. Or build a wall, or build floor or just to build. I love rocks!

  14. Alas we have not Laurie, but I am quite fascinated and intrigue with the prospect of doing so. You wonderfully frame the significance, which goes a long way in validating this brand of creativity, and positive aspect of the human experience. What a remarkable post!

  15. Laurie,
    I have built a number of them upon reaching the top of mountain peaks I have climbed. Usually there is one already there, so I just add a stone of my own to it. Sometimes there will be be an aging tobacco can with scribbled notes inside. I can’t resist adding a note of my own. It’s kind of like a high five or a spiritual chest bump. Dennis

  16. This is a little weird because this year is the first time I have seen a Cairn and until you gave it a word I didn’t know they had one . We go to this delightful little beach near our home and these little piles of pebbles have been fascinating me …I was told by someone they are like Mandela and ancient but that’s all I knew . Thank you …my mind of information .
    …I shall now plough through all the interesting comments .
    Hey Laurie I might even have a go myself 😊

  17. I have never built a cairn – my little city is very full of them – everywhere and then often gone. I liked reading about them in 17th Century English Literature when in college and did a whole paper on this significance of them in novels including stone walls. It was fun and something fresh for the professor who had not considered them before. Fun post and I loved the picture
    Terrill had quite the memory to share – terrific comments had to read everyone

  18. There are two very small islands in the River near our Island (Motorboat and Strawberry Island). When we anchor and swim the kids have snorkeled to the little islands and left a little family of four. Each time they go back just to be sure they are still there! Someday when the kids are grown, I will have to make sure they are there every year 🙂

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