This year I’ve read several different posts and articles about artful rock stacking, the most recent showed up in my news feed a week or so ago. This seems to be a hugely sensitive topic, bringing out strong emotional responses from people. Most lamented about how terrible, destructive, and sometimes criminal this practice is and how it messes with nature. Generally these types of posts seem to put out a lot of negative feelings towards the stone stacker. After reading this last post, I said to myself, “Really? just use some common sense people.” But I guess that’s part of the problem. At the end, the writer sums up a basic truth, “Most people are simply unaware that their actions are disturbing the natural environment.” Yet, I am left to wonder, is there a time and a place for such things?

I think one of the biggest issues with people is they don’t understand things any more. I’m sure you’ve heard some variation of a story about a person complaining because some people eat animals and how horrible and cruel it is to eat animals and people should just go to the grocery store for their meat because that’s where they make it. Yep. One of the jobs I had involved helping customers in a home improvement center. From my experience there, I can not tell you the number of people who walk in with an internet project idea they want to recreate, but have no idea how to stick two pieces of wood together. Seriously. Some have never picked up a tool and want to build a massive home project and are asking me “how do I do this?” Quite endearing. I try to help the best I can but the point is, I think people see these artful images of stacked stones and it invokes needed feelings of tranquility in them. So the next time they are out communing with nature, they get this urge to stack stones, maybe thinking it will enhance their experience. Little do they realize the sometimes negative impact of what they are doing. I think maybe, some folks see rock balancing as a zen form of self therapy. The others who proliferate a stream with their work are probably just a bit egocentric.

The reality is rock balancing can be inspirational when done appropriately. But this is a very, very, narrow window of opportunity. And from most of what I’ve seen, this level of “art” usually falls into the “cute – but stop it” department. Not to be too harsh about it, but trying to impressing others with your ability to pile rocks really isn’t how it works. To me, there is a more organic or deeper feeling and turning over a river bed to fill it with balancing rocks simply isn’t it. Seriously, please use some common sense folks. Walk softly, take pictures, enjoy nature, please leave the rocks alone. Sigh, with the Leave No Trace issues aside, I think to disrupt a pristine (or any level of use) wilderness area with this fad is just dumb at best, and criminal at worst. I really don’t need to (or want to) see it to enhance my out door experience, thank you.

Yet, every once in a great while, something surprises me. Recently on a day hike through the Narrows and Virgin River in the Zion National Park, I came across a stack of stones which caught me by surprise. Now you must understand, this section of the Virgin river in the Zion National Park is visited by hundreds and hundreds of people every day. All walking in the river bed as far as they can, and then back. The impact on the river is to turn over ever stone and stir the sand for several miles. This explains the silted look of the water down stream. There is no low impact aspect in this massively popular and amazing natural attraction, especially within the first several miles of the walk up river. Anyway, there were actually dozens of stone stacks in various parts of the canyon, some where done on sand bars, some even on the larger boulders. All definitely in the above previously mentioned “cute” category.

But yet, there was this one stack. It was a small, almost tiny” single stack of stones, set peacefully in a green, almost hidden, corner of a canyon wall. I was completely caught off guard by this total exception to everything I have just said about the general nature of stacked stones. And it should not have been there. The act was in all likely hood absolutely prohibited by park regulations under the “don’t mess with stuff” clause. But yet in the chaos of the hundreds of tourist stomping up and down the stream, it provided me a surprising balance to the activities around me. Absolutely and totally inappropriate, but yet somehow perfect. Almost sacred.

As I said, I guess I pull a deeper meaning from such things, so you just can’t pile rocks and have magic. In some cases, the custom of adding a stone at a memorial or grave marker is the same thing. Leaving a stone at a grave or someone’s marker, which I have done, sometimes ends up making randomly built small stacked carins or balance stones. For me these carry a special meaning. they say “I was here, I saw you, I remember you.” All along the Appalachian Trail, there are graves and markers for people who have either died or been buried in the mountains. One of the very first ones I remember coming across was in North Carolina. Hiking along the trail, it surprised me. It was just there, On a small foundation, build on the side of a hill, in the middle of seemingly nowhere, is a small bronze marker for Wade A. Sutton. It simply states he was a forest ranger who died fighting a fire “so you might more fully enjoy your hike along this trail.” I left a stone. I will continue to leave stones. Maybe the small stones, carefully balancing in the quiet, green, hidden in a corner of a busy canyon, were for me, telling me “I saw you here, I remember you.”

I do think about this stone thing, it’s such a precarious fragile thing. It’s a fool’s errand to think you can simply stack stones for others to appreciate. They will not. It is the stones not stacked by others which are most appreciated.

just a stack of stones