Book Review: “Cairns, Messengers in Stone”

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Cairns have been with us since man walked on two legs. Today there are two camps regarding cairns: those who believe they serve a purpose as communication or art, others who perceive them as intrusive. Still there is something in our yearning genes that compels us to say we were there; whether a climber making a first ascent or an early Arctic explorer. However you perceive cairns, David B. Williams provides an energetic account of cairns, their history, and how they are used in “Cairns, Messengers in Stone.”

Williams fears our technology could jeopardize our innate ability to read natural markers. Many hikers rely on a GPS, and/or include or use map and compass skills. Perish the thought, others still “read” the terrain, old blazes or bent branches indicating where others have passed.

Williams provides a descriptive account the types of cairns ranging from border markers to commemorative shrines. Cairns give directional guidance by how stones are placed, a simple system used by Boy Scouts, Native Americans, and hunters.

You’ll travel with Williams as he takes you from the Mongols to the Inuit, and from trailside shrines to burial markers. Cairns also provide habitat for many organisms, including ladybugs and 14,000 thousand lichen species that live thousands of years.

Humans build cairns to mark, mourn, or celebrate. Mountain climbers sign summit registers (often semi-hidden inside an existing cairn). Even the infamous mailbox on Mailbox Peak could be considered a cairn, a place where hikers leave messages or objects for others to find.

Where to find cairns? Almost anywhere. While most of us are unlikely to search for cairns from early Arctic expeditions there are compelling cairns closer to home such as the Gravity Garden in Carmel, California created by artist, Jim Needham. Some of his cairns are balanced on tree limbs.

Many suggest one just say “NO” to building cairns; the practice is discouraged in several national parks including Yosemite Park. Rangers stress the importance of preserving/protecting natural resources, not places to be used for public art.

Whether you consider cairns a friend or trash to be kicked aside, people will probably continue to stack stones until the end of time; as mammals we’re born with the instinct to mark territory. Many will agree with Williams there are too many cairns that serve no purpose; yet a thoughtfully-placed cairn in fog could save your life should you drop your latest electronic device into a crevasse or lake.

If you do stack stones, build them wisely, respect the land; leave some of the mystery for others to discover.


Title:  Cairns, Messengers in Stone

Author:  David B. Williams

Publisher:  Mountaineer Books

Pages:  158

Published: 2012

Karen is a Washington native raised near the foothills of the Olympic Mountains. She has been hiking since the early 1980s and hikes year-round. Karen has published articles and photographs in The Seattle Post Intelligencer (she wrote “Hike of the Week” for the Seattle Post Intelligencer for several years) and has also been published in Washington Trails Magazine (formerly Pack and Paddle and Signpost), Enumclaw-PATCH, Sierra and The Seattle Times. Mountaineer Books published her book "Hidden Hikes" (out of print) and she was co-author of "Best Wildflower Hikes, Washington. In addition to hiking Karen scrambles, snowshoes and is also a runner.

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