The photograph in the Facebook post is pretty: piles of red rocks balanced at the edge of a cliff, suggesting a miniature mirror of the jagged rock face opposite. The stacks look like small shrines to mountain solitude, carefully balanced at the edge of a precipice. But when Zion National Park posted the photo, in September, the social-media coördinators for the park included a plea: “Please, enjoy the park but leave rocks and all natural objects in place.” The post noted the “curious but destructive practice” of building small stone towers, and said, “stacking up stones is simply vandalism.”
The balancing of stones is an elementary kind of creation, not unlike the building of sand castles. Stone stacks, or cairns, have prehistoric origins. They marked Neolithic burial grounds in what is now Scotland, guided nautical travels in Scandinavia, and served as shrines to the Inca goddess Pachamama in Peru. Contemporary stone stackers, then, are taking up the mantle of an ancient and artistic tradition. In the past decade or so, though, there has been an explosion of cairns around the world—in national parks, in the Scottish Highlands, on the beaches of Aruba. Park rangers, environmentalists, and hikers have all become alarmed, to varying degrees. The movement of so many stones can cause erosion, damage animal ecosystems, disrupt river flow, and confuse hikers, who depend on sanctioned cairns for navigation in places without clear trails.
The calamity of the stone stack, in our anxious times, seems admittedly minor. But it’s a prominent example of how social media can generate scale, transforming an activity that would be mostly harmless in isolation into something with planetary impact. Aesthetic fads can go global now, with strange consequences. “Social media has kind of popularized rock stacking as a meditative activity, and you used to have a handful of people doing it, but it has really escalated over the past few years on public lands,” Wesley Trimble, the program-outreach and communications manager for the American Hiking Society, said.
On the Isle of Skye, a group of about twenty local volunteers brought wheelbarrows to a popular rock-stacking spot and spent a Saturday dismantling the stacks and transporting the stones back to where they belong. It’s human vs. human at this point.
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