On the art of stacking rocks
Recently one of my fellow bloggers, MickETalbot, shared an image on his blog of one rock perched precariously atop another and this comment:
Apart from my family I don’t personally know of anybody else who plays at rock balancing. None of them, or myself, have managed 3 high, still trying though.
I live near and hike a lot in areas with tons of rocks lying around thanks to a major history of gold dredging. This area of the American River was one of the largest dredge fields in California, running 10 miles long and up to 7 miles wide. And it produced $125 million in gold in its day1. So there’s plenty of rocks to stack, and I’ve seen quite a few examples of rock balancing.
What I didn’t realize until a few months ago was that, rather than feeling amused or entertained by seeing these carefully arranged piles of rocks, some people are seriously annoyed — or even angered — whenever they spot one! It’s a pretty hot topic online, too; just Google “rock stacking” and you’ll see what I mean.
Out in the wilderness, piles of rocks known as cairns are frequently used as trail markers; most people appear to be perfectly okay with that. What they find truly bothersome is the proliferation of “pointless” rock piles — stacking done just for fun, or for some presumed spiritual reason. Stacking opponents insist that seeing the unauthorized cairns disturbs their wilderness experience — by reminding them that other people have already visited the area — spoils the environment and robs animals of potential homes.
But in my neck of the woods, the main purpose of rock stacking is pretty clearly just the challenge of seeing how many rocks you can balance and how high can you go. It was on a group hike last April on Mississippi Bar that I first learned how annoying these small cairns are to some people. I was amazed to hear that they are damaging to the environment and aesthetically annoying. I was told — and have since also read online — these piles of rocks are no better than spray-painted graffiti.
I’ll admit I’m fairly dubious about these negative arguments, especially when a single stack of three or four rocks is sitting in the middle of an ankle-breaking field of dredged boulders. I just can’t see what harm it’s doing… unless, I suppose, it happened to tip over and land on a passing lizard.
The truth is, I can’t help admiring those rare cairns that clearly took some serious effort and/or imagination to build. Kicking them over seems petty and spiteful; to me, they are harmless and temporary exercises, and I already know that other people are hiking the same trails. I’m actually much more annoyed by the mountain bikers who frequently try to run me down as I hike along the dirt horse/pedestrian trails.
Still — well, maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but I’ve recently made up a little game to amuse myself while I’m out on my hikes; if I happen to see some nondescript pile of rocks amidst the debris field — I’ll pick up a handful of golf-ball-sized stones, plant myself four or five feet away… and practice my aim.
Just for fun, of course.
1. The Lower American River: Prehistory to Parkway (The American River Natural History Association, 2005)