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Cairns — a fragile resource

March 4, 2018 GMT

Cairns — often pyramidal stacks of rocks — have been around for millennia in some contexts, as monuments, markers and religious rituals. We can think of several land artists who have made stunning (and not) homages to these ancient traditions. But the current international craze for piling up rocks into multiple cairns along trails, in rivers or all over wilderness areas (there are even “yoga cairns”), is not just harmless fun. Not only can it mislead hikers, but it underlines the meaning of “anthropocene,” illustrating the irony of human hubris in “improving” the geology, the landscape and nature herself, even for personally “spiritual” motives.

When new cairns appear on archaeological sites, as they too often do, they are downright destructive. Locally this fad has become something of a scourge, challenging agencies and volunteers charged with protecting places that are not only historically significant but are sacred to contemporary Pueblo peoples.

Looting and intentional vandalism (including the defacement of petroglyph panels) are all too common in New Mexico, and now rock-stacking on archaeological sites can be added to the list. These acts, casual or contemptible, constitute extreme insults to our tribal neighbors, for whom these sites are not “abandoned” but remain alive, providing vital, intimate context to their contemporary lives.

Unknowing visitors (most of us) blithely moving rocks from one place to another are usually unaware that we have just destroyed a fragile resource: a significant alignment, a circle almost invisible to the untrained eye, the remains of a structure or shrine. Archaeologists then have the daunting task of trying to figure out where each rock came from and replacing it; and Native Americans throughout the region endure yet another injury to their cultural heritage.

In addition, there can be environmental damage as microecosystems associated with boulders, which store the sun’s heat and help retain moisture, are disrupted when even a single rock is moved, encouraging erosion and dismantling an intimate web that sustains microorganisms, plants, invertebrates, vertebrates.

Disrupting the microclimates of many boulders in one area at the same time can have a wide impact on the flora and fauna, especially if the rocks are then stacked in a pile. One man claimed to be “healing” the landscape by building a cairn the size of a large doghouse. When dismantled, it revealed that packrats had started to move in and had been dining on the local cactuses. Now the scattered areas where those stones had once rested not only were being desiccated by sun and wind, but new residents had moved in to eat the remaining vegetation. A recent article in High Country News pulls no punches: “Pointless cairns are simply pointless reminders of the human ego.”

And a warning: Rock-stacking enthusiasts should know that making changes to the landscape on public lands can come with legal ramifications, especially if archaeological assets are involved.

Important: This is not a request to the general public to begin dismantling every cairn or rock stack, which only compounds the problem. Instead, the appropriate land agency should be notified so that the “new cairn” can be documented and verified by qualified inspectors. Simply put: If you see a cairn in the area, don’t take it apart. Find the interpretive sign at the trailhead and report it.

David Kozlowski is a former alpine and desert guide and perpetual student of nature and culture; at home in Santa Fe since 1979. Lucy R. Lippard is the author of 24 books and editor of the monthly El Puente de Galisteo.