Stacking the river rocks

Yesterday was a beautiful morning, cool and quiet with the sun streaming down. I walked down to the river, part of my usual morning routine now, and began looking for cairns. For a few weeks now, I have noticed little stacks of stone popping up along various trails. A particular collection of cairns captured my interest the day before.

I brought my phone with me, not wanting the weight and bulk of my better camera, but when I got to the place where the cairns had been, a pile of scattered rocks greeted me. I decided to search for others. Even if I found none, the morning’s walk would be worthwhile simply because of the beauty of the day.

I didn’t have to walk far, though, before I came across something more sculpture than cairn.


I was delighted to find this sculpture on a side trail I seldom take.

I’m glad I took a picture of it yesterday. This morning, it was already a mere heap.

I’m curious about who builds the cairns and sculptures. And I’m equally curious about who knocks them down. Is it the same person? Are several people playing a game of hide and seek with one another, one person building up a cairn and another saying, “I found you” by tearing it back down? Or maybe the cycle of creation and destruction is more random?


Two small cairns are all that remain from a group of five or six I noticed last week.

The area around the river was mined for gold through the 1950s, and huge rock piles called tailings serve as a reminder of those days. There is a project underway to build up gravel beds in the river for spawning salmon and other fish, but I can’t see how all that extra rock could possibly fit into the river. The remaining rocks give cairn makers and sculpture artists endless ways to play and meditate and shape their surroundings.


Mining near the river has displaced ample rock to inspire cairn builders and rock sculptors.

While I was out running this morning, I took another trail I’d never noticed and found what appears to be the primary gravel excavation area for moving rock into the river. At the base of the deep pit sat cairns and the obligatory rocks in the shape of an arrow-struck heart with someone’s initials in it.

I smiled and kept on running, leaving the heart and the cairns to stay until someone else comes along to reshape them.

Why do we stack rocks? Why do we build cairns? Early stories in the Old Testament speak of altars, monuments and rock piles as way-finding markers. I especially love the story in Joshua of the men building a stone memorial on the banks of the Jordan to help generations of Israelites remember the crossing there:

Joshua said to them, “Cross again to the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Israel. Let this be a sign among you so that when your children ask later, saying ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ then you shall say to them, ‘Because the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord; when it crossed the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off.’ So these stones shall become a memorial to the sons of Israel forever.”

Thus the sons of Israel did as Joshua commanded, and took up twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan … and they are there to this day.

– Joshua 4:5-8, 9

This story reminds me of sitting with a beloved former minister of my church, as we talked about my book and his upcoming sermon. I can hear his booming voice and see the twinkle in his eye as he talks about the children asking, “Grandaddy, Grandaddy, what do these stones mean to you?”

The stones and cairns I pass by each morning may not have much meaning to me,  because they have not had time to become part of my history. But they still manage to conjure up stories and memories from home.

Planting roots in the rocky soil
Speaking of rocks, I dug into the earth this past weekend, a first planting in our new garden: a Jerusalem Sage. I was delighted to find this drought-tolerant gem of a plant at a nearby nursery—a place where I could spend way too much time and money.

The soil was full of little rocks as I dug. I was glad I hadn’t bothered bringing any of the rocky soil amendment so important to the clay soil of my North Carolina home. It is unnecessary here.

I promise an update when the blooms open.