Cairns and Caring

BatesCairnAcadia National Park has something called a “Bates Cairn,” a particular kind of trail marker that uses one large rock bridged across two others, with a single rock on top angled roughly in the direction the trail is running. These are beautifully simple structures, easy to interpret, and easy to observe from far away. Since many of Acadia’s trails run along granite slabs, the Bates Cairns are often the only prominent indicator of where trails run.

The Bates Cairns also use far fewer rocks than the conical cairns built in many parts of the world, which really does matter. The Acadian landscape is scoured granite, with pockets of soil clinging to rugged slopes and fire-adapted ecosystems sneaking into every corner they can. Foot traffic has a major detrimental impact on these thin soils, already stressed by wind and weather. Wandering off in search of rocks to add to a cairn, as some hikers may do, can damage or destroy rare plants and hasten erosion. So the Bates Cairn, in addition to being traditional in Acadia, solves a real problem for one of America’s most visited parks.

But Acadia National Park also has a problem, which is that some people (like this one) think that both the tradition and necessity of Bates Cairns in Acadia should be outweighed by their own personal tradition of adding rocks to cairns along their hike. And some do so with apparently gleeful disregard. In the course of one day’s hike, I came upon three signs explaining the Bates Cairns and asking visitors to respect them, and in all three cases the cairn following the sign had been tampered with.

Each time I encountered a vandalized Bates Cairn, I removed the extra rocks, wondering what imperious or vindictive person would so casually disregard the landscape around them. What is it about a tradition that allows it to go from lovingly marking community to viciously assaulting an other? Surely the Bates Cairn was doing these hikers no harm, and surely they came to enjoy the beauty of the Acadian mountains. Why, then, when faced with a choice between satisfying their personal preference and respecting the place around then, did they choose the former?

I cannot quite find the name of this thing, this imperial traditionalism. I cannot quite grasp the place where surfeit of caring and lack of caring become so aligned.

I think, perhaps, ignoring the Bates Cairn and printing it over with one’s own tradition is an act of smallness. I think it is not so much an intentional violation of the world beyond one’s self so much as it is a negligent unawareness of that world. I imagine that the individuals who add rocks to cairns when they have been asked not to, and told why, are the same individuals who shuffle their lunch wrappings into the great crevices in the granite, who trample past the signs for revegetation areas, and who return, sated and ignorant, to their homes with tales of Acadia’s beauty.

For them, perhaps, beauty is a thing to be consumed rather than appreciated, and the marks of their passing and presence are marks of beauty well-consumed indeed. But what of the hiker behind them who follows, seeing damage done by those who came before rather than care well taken? What of those children (and there are many) who hike the Acadian granite domes, witnessing their consumption at the whim of elders? Who will teach these others to take care? Who will teach them to return to their homes with tales of places seen and loved, not consumed?

Some of us will. I hope, enough of us.


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