by David B. Williams
Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. $15.95
Reviewed by Russell A. Potter
On first seeing this book, some may ask, how much can you really say about cairns? After all, for most who know the term, it calls to mind the trail-marking heaps of rocks that guide hikers above the treeline, or where landmarks are scarce; such modest, utilitarian markers hardly seem to call for an entire volume, even this modest one of 192 pages. And yet on actually opening the book, one finds that — in a manner rather like cairns themselves — it contains a remarkable variety and amount of information within its various nooks and crannies, so much so that one marvels not at its extent, but its compactness.
The feeling grows as one reads through the chapters, each a neat conglomeration of historical, cultural, and scientific facts. The most expected topic — “Cairns on the Trail” is followed quickly by chapters on the geology and ecology of cairns, both of which offer an enormously engrossing and succinct account of the deeper significance of all the things one sees in cairns. Did you know that the thin accretions on the outside of rocks have a name, and that these — along with the size of the lichens on a rock’s upper surfaces — can be used to accurately date a cairn’s age? Did you know there was an ancient species of tree in Lebanon which survives only because its seedlings found shelter in cairns? Did you realize the enormous influence of stones upon an ecosystem, so great that lifting a few rocks and stacking them in a pile both destroys and creates unique micro-climates and colonies of life?
Each of Williams’s historical and scientific disquisitions is interwoven with witty footnotes, evocative excerpts from the reflections of others upon cairns, and John Barnett’s tasteful illustrations, so that one never feels that the knowledge imparted becomes too weighty. For my part, the most delightful sections are those on expedition cairns, particularly in the Arctic. Williams gives a brief but resonant account of the Franklin expedition of 1845, and how cairns served both as its markers, its mailboxes, and — ultimately — its tombstones. A meditation on the origins of a Greenland cairn discovered by George Strong Nares reads like a miniature mystery novel, and if every loose end is not tied up at its conclusion, we nevertheless learn a great deal, including something about the limits of our knowledge.
Some of the book’s most poignant passages describe the destruction of cairns or their wholesale carting-off, a stone at a time, leaving a terrible sense of a void where once there was an abundance. And yet, for every stone that is taken, more than one is often left behind somewhere else. The leaving of stones, from megalithic times to the present, begins to appear as an essential, almost primordial aspect of what it means to be human.
Charles Dickens once wrote that ““No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot,” and having read Williams’s book, I would say the same thing about cairns: once we learn, in this deceptively modest volume, how to read cairns, we will never look upon them the same way again.