Thursday, September 26, 2013

Stone on Stone

A natural and social history of cairns
By Michael Gaige
AMC Outdoors, March/April 2013

“Stacking stones is an old business. Trail builders in the Northeast picked up the tradition from ancient cultures. The Scots may be best known for it; after all, the word cairn originates from a Gaelic term for “heap of stones.” But the rather prosaic definition does little justice to a tradition stretching back millennia and across continents. The early Norse used stones as precursors to lighthouses, marking important navigational sites in the maze-like Norwegian fjords. Vikings blazed routes across Iceland with varda (Icelandic for cairn) more than a thousand years ago. Cairns cross deserts on three continents and dot the Tibetan Plateau, the Mongolian steppe, and the Inca Road system of the Andes. Erected for navigation, spiritual offering, or as monuments of remembrance, heaps of stone occur in just about every treeless landscape in which one finds loose rock.
When European explorers began plying the arctic coast, they concealed messages (often their last) describing their discoveries in prominent cairns. They also dismantled many indigenous cairns thinking a comrade had hidden a message within.
Across the North American Arctic, Inuit people construct stone monuments called Inuksuk. Meaning “to act in the capacity of a human,” an inuksuk, like a cairn, can relay a variety of messages: memorial, resource site, or safe passage. The 2010 Vancouver Olympic logo portrayed an innunguaq—an inuksuk with a human-like form.
The extent to which American Indians in the Northeast constructed cairns is unknown. A scattering of evidence suggests they stacked stones for burials and memorials. A cluster of cairns atop a prominent peak in southern Vermont could predate European exploration. But because there is no reliable way to date the structures the architect remains a mystery.”

Michael Gaige became fascinated with the stone-stacking tradition after following cairns hundreds of miles on foot in mountain landscapes throughout the world. He is a freelance conservation biologist and educator based in Saratoga Lake, N.Y.

No comments :