The idea of stacking rocks on beaches or beside streams and rivers has become very popular in some parts of the world. The stacks are eye-catching and can be fun to create. The idea of constructing a rock stack may seem like an appealing challenge. There may be harmful aspects to its creation, however, which I explore in this article.
A stack is made of rocks that have the right shape to rest on top of each other without falling off. Gravity holds the rocks together. No glue is used. The goal is to place one rock on top of another without the stack collapsing. The process of creating the art is often described as meditative. This is frequently mentioned as one of its benefits. The selective focus in the photo above seems appropriate for the activity.
The stacks in my photo below have been on the beach for a very long time without collapsing and have been stuck together. That’s not part of the zen of rock balancing. I have seen some photos of “real” rock stacks beside English Bay, though. The area contains both sandy beaches and rocky ones. A beach with rocks seems to hold a special attraction for some people. For me, it’s a chance to see some interesting organisms, especially at low tide. For others, it’s a chance to be artistic.
Many people may not give a second thought to moving rocks from one place to another. Rocks are inanimate objects and aren’t living organisms, so there seems to be no problem in moving them. The activity may have some harmful consequences, however.
Some organisms may depend on the rocks for shelter from the environment, protection from predators, or a place to reproduce. The rocks might provide a safe area for an animal to emerge from its burrow to feed. The physical act of dragging a stone out of its position and along the ground may destroy animal burrows. Even removing a rock and later replacing it may cause an animal to abandon its burrow. On land, stacking rocks may cause soil erosion in the places where the stones were once positioned.
Many [fish] species lay eggs in crevices between rocks, and moving them can result in altered flows, which could wash away the eggs or expose the fry to predators. (Quote from a Ausable River Association)
Some people may think that a single rock stack that they create on a beach is unlikely to cause major problems. This might be true, but according to various reports rock stacking is becoming a popular activity in multiple countries. Photos of stone constructions are popular on social media. Often, a single stack in an area soon becomes accompanied by others as visitors see the original construction and decide to make their own.
We’ve done workshops with schools and have found that children who have trouble focusing in the classroom absolutely take to the stone balancing. (Quote from James Craig Page, stone-stacking artist, via the BBC)
Proponents of rock stacking (or stone balancing) say that the process is meditative and very helpful for some people, including children who have problems focusing on a task. Opponents say the landscape is being ruined by stacks. I’ve seen some photos of small beaches with multiple rock stacks. In one case, so many stacks were present that it looked like it would be hard to walk over the beach. Some people consider the creations to be like graffiti carved into a tree.
The Hawaii Division of State Parks dismantles stacks of stones that they find (but not, of course, cairns with cultural or historical significance that they encounter). In addition to other concerns, they are worried that a stack could collapse on top of a child. On beaches with many stacks and only narrow pathways between them, this risk is increased.
A scientist at the Nature Conservancy has pointed out another potential problem with creating rock stacks. In some places, the arrangement of rocks on the ground may have significance for a particular culture. By grabbing any rock that appeals to us to use in our construction, we may be “damaging the cultural integrity of a place”. I think we may also be damaging cultural integrity if we build a new stack beside or near a historical cairn.
A rock stack is not always the same as a cairn, though cairns are stacks of rocks. Cairns have a long history. They originally had a practical purpose and were used as trail markers and memorials. In some cases, they still serve these functions. Cairns are often found in areas that hold potential navigation dangers, such as on mountains and in deserts. Historically, they were created for spiritual rituals and ceremonies as well as memorials. They were sometimes used as a place to bury the dead when the ground was too hard to dig a grave.
Today’s rock stacks are created mainly for enjoyment. There’s nothing wrong with that, except when it’s potentially damaging for the environment or interferes with the activity of other people. The third site referenced below lists some helpful tips for people who want to build a stack but would like to cause as little disruption to the area as possible For example, it says that rocks should be collected from places where they are “loose from soils, sands, and silts” in order to minimize erosion. It also says that once the stack has been created and photos taken, the rocks should be returned to the spots where they were gathered and placed on the ground in their original orientation.
I don’t know the origin of the saying “Leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but photos”, but it might be applicable in the case of rock stacks. In some places, the constructions have moved beyond interesting curiosities and are now problematic. The art form of stacking rocks has benefits, but its popularity may do more harm than good.