It is a trend that we see at nearly every state and national park as well as near any body of water on public land. You cannot scroll through Instagram without seeing one of these “artistic structures”. The trend I am talking about is of course rock stacking. It is one that seems to have come from nowhere in a whirlwind that has been adopted by all age groups. I’m sure any hiker or outdoor enthusiast can recall a time seeing someone, face grimaced, hands shaking, attempting to place one rock on top of another. Soon will you will see the same “artist” crouched, phone in hand taking a picture of their newly formed creation.
It seems that the rock stacking trend has taken a page from the Celtics. Rock stacks created by the Celtic were referred to as “Cairns”, which translates to “mound of stones”. These Cairns were used as symbolic markers of burial sites, hunting grounds, and sometimes marking astrological sights. The Norse used cairns as ancient lighthouses, marking the safe routes through the labyrinth of fjords. Ancient cairns can also be found on trails in the Mongolian steppe and the Andes Mountains. In the United States Cairns were most often used by native Americans to mark burial sites. The resurgence of the cairn building was seen after Harmonic Convergence in 1987. During this event may spiritualists constructed cairns as antennas for cosmic energy.
In the early 1900’s as trail building across the United States was in full swing. Cairns were being used as markers along the trails. Today Cairns can be found all along the presidential Mountain range, the Appalachian trail and other popular trail systems. These structures are maintained by various government agencies to ensure the safe passage of hikers.
There is a need for cairns in some instances but the random building of rock structures by park visitors is more destructive than helpful. They can lead other park users off the marked trails potentially leading them to danger. Beyond that they are natural graffiti on the landscape of the area. What was a beautiful beach looks something out of Dr. Suees, with rock structures sprouting up incoherently.
The environmental implications of these cairns are very harmful. Leave no trace practices tell us to “leave what you find”, obviously rock stacking goes against this principle. Under each rock there is a miniature ecosystem. There are varieties of lichen and fungus that grow on and around these rocks. Beyond that there are an unbelievable number of animals that find themselves under stones whether for burrows, food, or cooling off. Every time one of these rocks are moved these miniature ecosystems are disrupted. The movement of rocks in aquatic settings can be even more disruptive. River rocks are a virtual nursery for many species, with everything from frogs to fish laying their eggs under or attached to rocks on the bottom. Every time these rocks are pulled from the water all of the species that are attached to these rocks will die soon after being removed from the water. Ozark National Scenic Riverway released a statement in regard to rock stacking stating:
“Please do not do this. Yes it looks cool, but why do you get to decide what the scenery should look like? Leave that to Momma Nature. If you pick up almost any rock in the river, you’ll find life attached to it. There will be caddisflies, snails, mayfly larvae, eggs of various creatures, all of which will die when exposed to air. Also, our beloved and very rare Ozark hellbender lives under rocks and needs this habitat undisturbed. Stacked rocks would be an awesome addition to your garden, but in the rivers, not so much. Thanks!”
The substrate of waterways are the base of the food pyramid for aquatic species. When these rocks are removed, this allows the substrate to be more easily washed away and with it all the species that call this substrate home to be washed away as well.
Rock stacking is known as a form of art by many. Much like graffiti, it is very much a legitimate a form art. Like graffiti there is a place to create it legally and responsibly. Rock stacking should be kept to areas that will be unaffected. There are many DIY tutorials for setting up rock stacking gardens in your backyard. It could be argued that there is even the potential for packing in your own stones to stack.
In the end, although rock stacking may seem to be a no harm form of art or meditation it leaves an impact on the environment. It also may an indicator of how outdoor enthusiasts are ignoring simple practices to preserve nature for the sake of a social media post. Rock stacks are not only personal monuments but a reminder of the impact of irresponsible humans on the environment.