I fear this post mimics a cairn; it came into being through accretion and readers may not be completely sure what they’ve come upon, though clearly communication of some sort is intended. And somewhere in this is a review of David B. Williams’ new book on cairns.
Clearing out the “things” that accumulate in summer cottages works best if you put sentiment aside, spend as little time as possible considering the item at hand, and ban all second thoughts about the decision to throw something away. In essence, be ruthless. The hardest part of this for me involves books, even those that have begun to disintegrate. This summer, as I worked my way through many boxes of books in my mother-in-law’s cottage, I came across a copy of Armstrong Sperry’s Captain Cook Explores the South Seas, published in 1955 as volume W-19 in the World Landmark book series. A Landmark book! Okay, not one of those regular Landmark books, recounting some aspect of America history and sporting those orange colored covers that often stained wet hands. But a Landmark book nonetheless, possibly among the many that I feasted on as a child.
When the book turned up in a dusty box, I set it aside. I wanted to celebrate the pleasure I experienced those many years ago with these books, and I also wanted to see how Sperry would describe Cook’s first voyage on the HMS Endeavour to the South Pacific in 1769 to record the transit of Venus. I touched on this voyage in a previous post about the fascinating Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander.
This book did not draw me in with the same intensity as Landmark books did several decades ago (and the condescending attitude toward the natives of the South Pacific that appeared at times was offputting), but overall it was an enjoyable read, as it should have been given that Sperry was, in his day, a well respected children’s author and illustrator who won the Newbery Medal in 1941 for his novel Call It Courage. His biography of Cook had those “Landmarkisms” that I remember well, those bubbles of over-enthusiastic writing, those passages of barely plausible dialogue that served to advance the story, and then those moments when the author addressed me directly, to wit
Mark that boy well, Reader! For young James Cook – tall for his thirteen summers, and with all his belongings swinging in a bundle at the end of a stick – had set forth on a great adventure. (p. 4)David B. Williams, in his new book, Cairns: Messengers in Stone which has just come out, describes Cook as a cairn-builder, erecting them at places he visited during his three voyages of exploration. As Williams puts it, "The British are well known for exploring the world, but what they really did was travel around and stack stones." (p. 96) Sperry mentions only one cairn and it was one that Cook didn’t initiate, but did expand. This was on his third voyage when he was trying to find the Northwest Passage from the Pacific side. On Christmas Eve, 1777, according to Sperry, Cook’s two ships came upon a coral atoll with a massive lagoon. Men went ashore.
A cairn of stones was discovered, to which a bottle had been fastened by a piece of wire. A strip of parchment within the bottle stated that a French ship had anchored in the harbor four years previously. On the back of the parchment Cook inscribed a record of his own visit: “Ships Resolution and Discovery, of his Britannic Majesty. December 1777.” He replaced the parchment and sealed the bottle with lead. Then, building the cairn higher so that it might be seen from the bay, he ordered the Union Jack hoisted. Thus Christmas Island stepped into history. (p. 158)Despite the French vessel having preceded him, Cook seems to be credited with “discovering” Christmas Island in the Line Islands. (History, of course, is a European invention.) The island is now called Kiritimati and is part of the Republic of Kiribati.
So, with this cairn, the French intended to communicate to anyone who followed that they had been there. Cook did what many do to a cairn, he made his mark on it, and in so doing, trumped the French in the name of the King of England.
In his slender, entertaining, and informative book, David Williams has composed a paean to cairns. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Still, for me, cairns remain an elusive subject. As Williams notes, the term itself comes from the Gaelic word for a “heap of stones.” (I’ll follow his lead and use “stones” and “rocks” interchangeably.) He writes, “At the most basic level, you can define a cairn as a pile of rocks.” (p. 115) That pile may be a few stones or thousands with an aggregate weight of tons. These are stones as you find them, not altered to fit the stack better. The pile may not even require a human agent; according to Williams, earthworms or birds may do.
So, is any pile of stones a cairn? Actually, I’m not sure whether or where Williams would draw the line. For me, perhaps the distinction between cairn and not-cairn lies in having a purpose (thereby leaving out hoodoos, those towering cairn-like rock structures made by water and wind), or in having certain purposes. As Williams describes it, though, the purposes for which humans place stones atop one another are myriad. Previously, in my ignorance, I’d have limited cairns to two categories – navigational aides and memorials for the dead. Those are certainly among the uses to which they are put, but the broad array of purposes Williams delineates is fascinating. In his exploration, he takes us on a wide ranging trip around the world, drawing from many native cultures, and he reaches way back in time. The impulse to build cairns is universal and, on the human scale, seemingly timeless.
Cairns may be message boards; if not containing actual messages like the one Cook found on Christmas Island, then their very existence may be the message – someone came before you, someone is reaching out to you. Yes, they may mark a trail, placed at the beginning of a particularly difficult spot, or may signal that the path goes in this direction. But they may also constitute a boundary, a warning to keep out or away, or they may be intended to propitiate local spirits to help you on your journey past this place or the cairn might be a holy place in and of itself. Your addition of a rock to a cairn may be to signal that you are of the community of those who built the cairn. The memorializing goes well beyond marking a burial site. When he describes the massive cairn that built up near where Henry David Thoreau had his cabin at Walden Pond, Williams makes it clear that cairn-building may be no minor act.
Piling up stones to honor a person or event extends back deep into human history. We find such memorial cairns from Bronze Age Europe, across the Americas, and high on Himalayan peaks. Most are like Henry’s, built up stone by stone by admirers, family, or friends.He adds
It’s not just that we recognize the permanence of stone, but also that we realize the oneness of our planet, how we are all part of the same big rock, and that when we place a stone on a ceremonial cairn we are establishing an intrinsic connection with that person and that place. Or as Thoreau put it, “The whole earth is but a hero’s cairn.” (p. 126)Then there are the artists, about whom Williams writes, who stack stones. Yes, these rock sculptures reflect that apparently basic human impulse to put one rock onto another. But my sense of what constitutes a cairn became very tenuous at that point in his book – are these stacks really cairns? I’m not quite sure how to explain why I balk at deeming artists’ stone stacking to be cairn building, but accept without question that the mound of blocks of ice (not rocks) erected by Robert F. Scott and his men in 1912 to mark their presence at the South Pole is a cairn. I don’t believe it’s just that Scott called it a cairn in his journal, I think it’s more about the purpose of the enterprise. For Scott and his men this was how they could mark and tell of the attainment of their goal (a profoundly sad event because they’d lost the race, and would ultimately lose their lives). Further, had there been stone to use, I’m sure they would have. Ice was what they had.
True to the geological expertise reflected in his previous book, Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology (2009, which I reviewed here), Williams well describes the geological aspects of the cairn. Sedimentary rocks are most likely to be used in erecting a cairn simply because that’s what’s typically around on the surface of this planet of ours. And that’s a good thing for cairn building because this kind of rock often breaks apart in ways that offer two relatively flat sides. Building cairns on paths traversing U.S. mountains is likely to involve the use of igneous rocks because that’s what the mountains are made of. Williams asserts, and I think he’s right, that
We intuitively sense that a cairn represents a cross between the realm of geology and the realm of humans. Both realms are rich, and when they intersect – whether in the form of an earthquake, a volcano, or a cairn – it merits our attention, draws us in, and gives us a richer connection to the world around us. (p. 37)Cairns may harmonize with nature or they may intrude. But, as Williams makes clear, cairns alter the landscape. In fact, I found the book to have a subtext that posits that this altering is often for the worst. For some who go out into nature, the discovery of a cairn in the course of a long hike is analogous to finding graffiti, a “Kilroy was here” reminder. But, more than that, William warns that the very act of creating the cairn may disturb fragile ecosystems, even as it creates an ecology all of its own.
Walt Whitman penned some wonderfully dramatic lines about cairns in Leaves of Grass. They appear in the portion titled Salut Au Monde! which exuberantly explores the sounds and sights of the world.
I see the places of the sagas,
I see pine-trees and fir-trees torn by northern blasts,
I see granite bowlders and cliffs, I see green meadows and
I see the burial-cairns of Scandinavian warriors,
I see them raised high with stones by the marge of restless
oceans, that the dead men’s spirits when they wearied
of their quiet graves might rise up through the
mounds and gaze on the tossing billows, and be
refresh’d by storms, immensity, liberty, action.
Ah, cairns and other living things.