I loved the stacks of rocks on the corners and edges of fields on Minnesota farms like the one where I grew up. Farmers moved them there from the fields where glaciers dumped them; otherwise the fields couldn’t be cultivated or seeded for crops. I didn’t know as a child that the rock piles I climbed are cairns, a Gaelic word that comes to us from the Scottish Highlands. Wikipedia says a cairn is “a human-made pile (or stack) of stones…that have been used for a broad variety of purposes, from prehistoric times to the present.” All over the world, people have piled rocks to bury their dead, to mark paths, and to remember special places. Since Cairn & Cloud takes inspiration from cairns, let’s visit some examples.
Ancient Burial Cairns
In 2012, I was exploring ancient rock carvings in Tanumshede, Bohuslän(1), Sweden and was surprised to come across a huge 5000 year old burial cairn. Later it inspired me to start the Cairn Project, in which hundreds of clay rock forms were piled together to create a cairn. But in our case, what was “buried” were the personal experiences of trauma and pain of the people who shaped them.
If you tour Robben Island in South Africa(2), the guide will likely point out a cairn in the rock quarry, where 1300 political prisoners of apartheid were forced to work. Nelson Mandela spent 17 of his 28 years of imprisonment on Robben Island. In a 1995 reunion of ex-political prisoners, Mandela spontaneously put down a stone in the middle of the quarry. As each former prisoner followed suit, a cairn was formed, an impromptu memorial of their history on Robben Island.
Inuksuk, a type of Arctic cairn, has its roots in Inuit culture. Hundreds of these cairns are scattered through the Arctic region from Alaska to Greenland, where the landscape is predominantly the tundra biome and there are few natural landmarks. Built stone on stone (or boulder on boulder), Inuksuk most commonly take the shape of a person. Wikipedia suggests “they may have been used for navigation, as a point of reference, a marker for travel routes, fishing places, camps, hunting grounds, places of veneration, drift fences used in hunting or to mark a food cache.” Enukso Point on Baffin Island, designated a National Historic Site of Canada, has more than a hundred Inuksuk.(3)
Look along paths, roadsides and rivers in regions where Tibetan Buddhism is practiced in Tibet and Nepal, and you will find mani stones.(4) You will come across mounds and walls of rocks inscribed with a mantra, a form of prayer. Most often the mantra is “Om mani padme hum” which translates to "Hail to the jewel in the lotus." In the Cairn Project, we often thought of this expression when we created forms to represent our basic inner light and beauty.
Cairns to Mark a Path
If you’ve hiked in rocky terrain, you may have seen rock piles created to help you stay on the path. Psychologist Gretchen Schmelzer(5) writes in a blog post, Finding a way forward when the path isn’t clear, about how important such guides can be for travelers in life, as well as on a foggy forest path. Schmelzer’s words inspired Marcy Setniker’s choice to attend a Cairn Project workshop in Chicago and her decision to bring the project to Portland, Oregon (more about the Cairn Project in Portland in a different post).
Take a walk into Cornell University’s Sapsucker Woods Sanctuary and you will find Sapsucker Cairn, created by Andy Goldsworthy in 2008 at the end of eight years as a professor at Cornell. In an article marking that occasion, Goldsworthy said his work “is an ongoing effort to come to grips with impermanence and the relentless force of time.” Goldsworthy is a sculptor, photographer and environmentalist renowned world-wide for his site-specific sculpture and land art placed in natural and urban settings.
I see that my niece’s family felt the same way when they vacationed on Minnesota’s north shore. At the edge of Lake Superior, they couldn’t resist trying their hand at cairn-building.
Have you made a cairn? Or seen one? Or heard about a cairn you would like to see? I would like to know about it. Please add your comment to this blog post.
(1) Vitlykke Rosen Round Cairn, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Carvings_in_Tanum
(2) More about Nelson Mandela https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nelson_Mandela
(3) Inuksuk entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/inuksuk-inukshuk
(4) More about Mani stones – http://babelstone.blogspot.com/2006/11/mani-stones-in-many-scripts.html
(5) Gretchen Schmelzer, author of The Trail Guide, a Web-mag intended to support the healing of repeated trauma. http://gretchenschmelzer.com/blog-1/
(6) Andy Goldsworthy https://www.artsy.net/artist/andy-goldsworthy-2
Coming Blog Posts
Reflections from The Next Cairn in Portland, an extension of The Cairn Project
Guest posts by Carroll Cradock, Kara Jefts, and Elizabeth Russell
Contributed by Marsha Baker*
Babies tell stories through their bodies. They grab with their eyes and hands. They reach with their mouths. They move toward excitement and away from danger. All of this, when things go well, happen in the “circle of security”(1) provided by the caregivers who love and watch over them.
Babies enter the world seeking a secure and protective relationship
It is a basic tenet of attachment theory that babies enter the world seeking a secure and protective relationship with an adult. Children can most fully explore their worlds when they can get supportive, nurturing encouragement and reassurance from their main caregiver.
When someone has experienced trauma in their own past, parenting a vulnerable and dependent infant may trigger unexpected worries, fears and intense reactions. Often the work of an Infant Mental Health specialist is to help parents reflect on their own pasts in the context of seeing the world through their baby’s eyes in order to provide that secure base and nurturing joy. Because the awful truth is that trauma is everywhere. And the hopeful truth is that relationships can be repaired – but repairing relationships takes a lot of educated support.
Rules to develop a safe place
In a past post, I mentioned a parent/child drop-in group that was developed to address the effects of multi-layered trauma on parents and young children living in the Little Village community. See article about it. The group met weekly, and after every group meeting facilitators met to reflect and plan. We developed a set of “rules,” some of which were highly relevant for the development of the Cairn Project. The essentials were:
Transition from Drop-In Group to Cairn Project Workshop
From our cumbersome beginnings (we would drag tons of materials and stress with technology), Corinne and I created a template for workshops that provided our own “Circle of Security” for participants. The workshop encouraged creativity, exploration and reflection and provided a place to celebrate and contain powerful emotions that were generated.
The transition from Parent/Infant Drop-In group to Cairn Project workshop was fluid. While both populations and activities were distinct, the overarching goals were similar - developing capacities, creating community, promoting emotional safety. A key difference was that workshops were a one-time event, and the meaning that participants derived from participating lay in their own stories, sometimes shared and sometimes not. This is why the installation of ALL of the rocks and tokens of light became so important. And this is why recording people’s stories began to take on a significance that we did not understand at the beginning of the project. Stay tuned!
*Marsha is a pediatric occupational therapist and infant mental health specialist. She earned her master’s degree in child development and certification in infant mental health from Erikson. Most of her career has been working with families of young children with a focus on nourishing the parent/child relationship. At the Erikson Institute, Marsha saw her work with families through a trauma lens. She recognized that the development of young children is affected by the experience of trauma around them.
(1) Link to Circle of Security International