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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The Apotheosis of Form

I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.

Anna_Chromy_Cloak_Of_ConscienceIn the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.

I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.

There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?

Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?

Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?

The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.

In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.

We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.