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