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The Cairn War

May 1st, 2015

In my local woods, there are cairns: rock towers, more or less precariously or painstakingly balanced, maintained by passing hikers. I’m one of those maintainers. The others, if I had to guess, are a hippie couple I’ve passed once or twice on the trail, long hair, long beard, hemp clothes. I was like them once.

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The cairns follow a cycle, or so I subjectively perceive. Like the woods, they change with the seasons. They grow slowly, if at all, through most of the year. If a storm or a careless mountain biker knocks a stone awry, we maintainers will replace it. But come the end of winter there’s always an explosion of effort. I think this has to do with the melting snow, the thawing, the anticipation. There’s not much to do in the woods at the end of winter except slip on an ice patch and fall in the mud. And raise cairns. So: around March, I find new stone towers appearing where none were before. Who’s doing this, I wonder. What does it mean?

I’ve known about cairns forever. In the northeast they’re more common–if for no other reason, then because there are more rocks. Glacial processes, treeless mountain ridges over which the AT passes and there’s no place to paint the white blaze where it will stick up out of the snow, there’s always rocks. It’s practical. Less so in Michigan, where there’s nothing above treeline and you might actually have to walk ten paces to find a rock bigger than a fist.

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I didn’t become aware of cairning as an ancient human cultural institution, a ritual practice, until steph explained it to me at one of her solstice parties in Western Mass.

When Spring comes to my local woods, somebody knocks down all the cairns. Every year. The new ones and the old ones. Because I’m a lonely pseudopagan in a christian country, because I’m cynical, I assume this is an act of malice. I assume the hunters who spend all winter filling my woods with shotgun casings and beer cans for me to clean up look at my (our) cairns and see paganism, see some kind of threat. I have no evidence for this. But because I spend so much time spoiling for a fight about how yes, climate change is real and no, god didn’t give us dominion over nature so we could pave it, that’s what I see. And for a little while, it makes me sad.

Then I remember that building and rebuilding the cairns is part of the point. It’s a process, an interaction. Nothing lasts forever. We tend our gardens, they tend us. And we tend each other. As steph says:

We have created physical evidence of passing this way; and less tangibly we have left our marks upon each other – bits of spirit inspiring compelling turning and calling us on, always with the invitation to return.

So I rebuild them.

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Happy May Day.

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