A Case Against
the Creation of Cairns
Cairn destroying. If you watch my videos, look at my photos and follow me on social media, you’ll know I’ve written and said the phrase ‘cairn destroying’ many times throughout my Hiking with Shawn adventure. You will know that I am not a fan of cairns and that I dismantle most every one of them that I find. The entire public confirmation of me admitting that I dismantle cairns has resulted in me losing fans, getting cussed and even getting threats of physical harm against me. Yet, I still promote a cairn-free hiking and nature loving experience. However, I feel like I need to be blatantly honest about my hate for cairns. But I don’t just want to put my opinion out there briefly and expect you to instantly follow my lead. I am a fan of continuing education and that is the purpose of this article.
What is a cairn and how far do they date back?
The internet’s vast wealth of information describes cairns as stacks of rocks created by humans. These rock stacks date back to prehistory Eurasia and were often created as burials of deceased peoples, memorials, land survey markers and even pagan ritualistic activities. In modern times, cairns are mainly used for navigational purposes and what some people feel is art. There is no significant evidence that cairns were a product of Native Americans in North America unless of course such activity was brought to the indigenous people from European occupying settlers. However, some theories suggest some cairn-like structures may have been used but not for the burial of the dead.
In what is known as America, in the past and even in some areas today – rock stacks were made for trail navigation. They were created to point someone in the direction they needed to go for whatever reason. Many of the reasons were for game hunting such as the direction in which Buffalo were traveling. Many people claim cairns are prominent navigational methods for people finding their way out of wilderness areas. However, there isn’t enough substantial evidence to support the theory that cairns are widely used for that reasoning, aside from the personal stories of people. Cairns being used to save peoples lives may not be a lie, but the idea is more folklore than a reality.
An argument against cairns made for memorials
In many of my online debates on cairns vs. anti-cairns, I’m often attempted to be stopped in my tracks with the common ‘I made a cairn to remember a loved one that has passed’. This is usually a conversation stopper and probably most likely a tactic (even completely made up by many) to attempt to make the argument invalid by introducing death into it – anyone who might argue afterwards can be seen as a monster because a memorial is involved. I argue that most times it is mentioned, it is merely a lie and just used as a psychological form of online debate because it’s hard to argue against. But here is my argument against it anyways.
Cairns have been scientifically proven to kill living species. They have even killed endangered aquatic species that risk being completely extinct. This can be proven by Google search leading to official scientifically backed websites and sources of information. In fact, these circumstances are often proved more than the so-called lost loved on that the cairn is being created for. When you lift a rock out of the earth, it likely results in living fatalities. How so?
Micro-organisms and tiny wildlife species such as worms, some snakes and bugs live in the dirt under many of the kind of rocks best selected for building cairns. These rocks ensure that moisture under them can be trapped so that the ecosystems can thrive. When the rock is removed, the sun and humidity reach the dirt and dries up the moisture, killing everything living that required the moist environment. A memorial idea is then turned into an act of natural murder. It really is even if you the perpetrator didn’t mean to. We already damage nature and take natural elements away from it enough, why continue to do more damage? We might lose nature one day because of our choices.
May I suggest an alternative to using cairns as memorials? Instead of building a stack of rocks that will only likely kill wildlife and create a two-sided argument, why not create a memorial that creates life and promotes health? What do I mean, you say? I suggest you plant a native tree in the forest to act as a memorial for your lost loved one. That alone will help make a forest’s health thrive which is beneficial to the health of human beings and the creatures that rely on the forest more than me and you. Create a memorial with a tree that lives on and might even live on past the species of human beings which you would had caused to remember the life of a fallen loved one. Instead of killing species indirectly, create something that can live a full long life and benefits others in the process.
An argument against cairns made for art
In most cases, cairns are realistically made for artistic reasons. As theory suggests, there really isn’t a largely proven significance of cairns being used as symbolism, especially by North American peoples of the past to the present. A form of artistic display is often the case being made with cairns. But often times, the art is carried away until it becomes a problem. To build a cairn is to promote others to do the same. There is a natural shelter along the Rim Rock trail here in the Shawnee National Forest. Each time I walk by it on visits, it is filled with cairns of all shapes and sizes. There are so many cairns that the bottom of the shelter’s flood has turned to dust from all the moisture deprivation. Aside from that, any attempt to walk into the shelter will result in a potential trip hazard.
Several creek crossings in the Shawnee National Forest are often littered with cairns. This changes the way the water naturally flows as rocks can bypass flow and often change the direction – they are the oldest forms of dams. And if you plan to cross the creek, you risk falling in because of the rock stacks in the way. Nature has enough elements of its own that can harm, maim or even kill you – we humans really don’t need to keep adding more methods.
Did you know that many natural shelters located in Natural Areas, Ecological Areas and Zoological areas are often the points of interest that make those areas officially natural and protected at a higher level than other parts of the forest? This is because rare and highly endangered mammals, amphibians, reptiles, plants and flora thrive in them. These living creatures and organisms require the moisture often trapped in the dirt with aid of rocks. It is a proven fact that using rocks to build cairns dries up the ecosystems under the rocks – often from these natural shelters. So, in reality, by building a cairn, you may be aiding in completely destroying a Natural Area and helping a flower, plant or species become extinct. Is that really art?
As an alternative to creating cairns for artistic reasoning, I want to give you a challenge! Take a trash bag with you and go hiking in an area that often gets high volumes of litter. Bring some tongs, gloves and hand sanitizer with you as well. When you can do so with complete safety present, clean up the trash and take it with you. That my friends, that is art! To be able to make a forest cleaner and healthier than it was before you hiked it, that is something to be proud of creating. Creating a cairn is destroying nature according to science being relied on to keep nature protected for us all. We already do enough harm to nature by being in it – why do we need to do more to harm it when it is unnecessary? Instead of building that cairn, roll a tire out of the forest and you will feel much about doing it.
How can you help the fight against cairns?
You can help with the fight against cairns and the future creation of cairns. There will always be people who believe they are not harmful. There will always be people who ignore science and attach to fantasy. We must stay strong and continue the fight because it we don’t, science proves that we will lose nature and the forest. An unhealthy forest will die unnaturally and without a healthy forest, healthy humans is going to be a challenge. Besides, think about your local forest and the memories you have made within it – do you want to see that forest go away? NO! Join the fight against cairns today and I’ll show you how right now.
Don’t be aggressive about it! I’ve seen this argument on social media all over the world. People who tend to be defensive about cairns being okay often become aggressive about it. Aggression is often a sign of mental illness and lack of intelligence concerning the topic. Don’t get mad and act out of reasonable behavior over an issue – it really displays the ignorance level in humanity when we do this. Aggression and anger are often used to dominate and enslave others whether physically through acts or verbally through words. That sort of behavior displays ignorance and nothing else. Don’t fall into that lifestyle.
Education is going to be the best way to combat this! Educate those who are willing to be educated. If you see someone building a cairn – don’t scream at them, instead, ask them for 5 minutes of their time and calmly educate them on why cairns are bad in a happy tone. Be friendly! Be relative to how they are! Educate them and maybe it will change their opinion. If they argue that it is for a memorial, tell them how the simple act of it will kill species and then suggest planting a native tree instead. They can always visit the tree again in the future with their children and say we did that to remember the one we loved that was lost. Educate them as a polite and efficient leader and you might change their entire outlook on protecting nature.
Dismantle cairns when you see them as long as it is safe to do so. Don’t result in getting into a fight with someone or falling from a cliff in order to dismantle a cairn. When dismantling a cairn – it is suggested to take the rocks and spread them apart from one and other at far distances to that the rocks will not be closely by one and another to encourage future stacking. The very last rock when in contact with the dirt should be left because it is likely that an ecosystem has been formed under it. When on public land, deep in wilderness areas, some cairns are made for navigation. Use your discretion.
Teach younger people and kids about how damaging cairns are. It will be the young that continues the fight against cairn creation when we are all long gone. If we do not instill our values and beliefs into our young, nature will be doomed in the future. When I was a child, just twenty short years ago, more kids were outside loving the woods and nature than they are today. Many kids today stay out of the woods and that significantly threatens environmental protection and natural preservation. We need to get our children back out into nature as long as we teach them the right ways to protect it.
A conclusion to my stance against cairns
If you build cairns, I don’t hate you. I don’t think you’re a monster. I don’t believe you are intentionally trying to harm nature. I don’t think less of you as a person. I do believe though that you have been misguided or lack education in terms of how harmful they are to nature. I believe you might potentially not care so much about preserving nature. Many people don’t. To many people, nature is just provided to humans for outdoor recreation and nothing else. I can’t join that cause. It was nature that saved my life and changed me forever – and because of that, I will always stand to protect it and continue to evaluate my choices in life that impacts nature. I’m not perfect, nowhere near perfect – there is still much maturing I need to do in order to be better with nature, but I recognize that need and try to be better and that is what is important. So instead of hating you, my attempt is to inform you of the facts with the hope that your opinion will change and that you’ll join me in being anti-cairn.
Please note that I am not nor do I claim to be a biologist of any kind. My formal education does not specifically focus of forestry or natural resources. This isn’t meant to be a scientific argument so with that, if a person of science disagrees with any of my statements – the disclaimer is valid. Please feel free to comment with your thoughts, ideas, opinions, arguments and feedback. I welcome those who are for cairns to comment as well. I do not welcome anyone to be disrespectful in the comments. Name calling, profanity, hate and related subjects will be deleted without warning. Feel free to share this article with others, especially on social media as it will help support Hiking with Shawn as well as the cause against the creation of cairns. For more videos, photos, articles and free content – follow me on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and my newest adventure, Tumblr. Consider supporting me by purchasing some official Hiking with Shawn merch on my online store. Thanks again for reading my article and until next time, I’ll see you on the trail!
Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.
I agree. From an artist’s point of view, cliches should be avoided. The artist most known for using natural materials in their own context is Andy Goldsworthy. Any attempt at emulating what Goldsworthy has mastered is little more than pretentious, failed imitation and most of the cairns I’ve seen are awful to the point of becoming ugly cliches. I prefer nature in its natural state. Leave no trace.
Excellent response ? hope you’re doing well!
Thanks for educating myself and other people. I think in the current world we live in, it’s important to educate people with kindness. Being aggressive, mean, or even humiliating people will never get your point across. Although being a deep wilderness hiker, I do often depend on those markers, but now I know creating a different type of marker might be better to get me out of the deep, without disrupting the forest ecosystem.
I appreciate the comment 🙂
Seems like this has to do more with you being a Karen than cairns… sad.
If caring for the environment and leaning to proven science makes me a Karen, then I am proud to be one. Thanks for your comment!
A hundred cairns in a riverbed is a problem. A single cairn on the side of a trail isn’t. I might not like it but I’m not losing sleep over it or making it the basis of a crusade. Even a single cairn in a creek bed is doing next to zero ecological harm. A single storm can move tons more rock than one hiker will with a cairn. Heck 5 hikers crossing a creek in a procession will too.
Don’t lose sleep over it, LOL. But a single cairn is inviting others to make more. Then it becomes the first problem you state. My opinion.