After twenty-two years of raising children, I recall the simple things, chief among them our family’s days on the North Shore, and the South Shore, of Lake Superior. Other families were rock climbing, perhaps. Someone somewhere else went bungee diving off a bridge, or waterskiing. Others flew to a Disney land, and had fun fun fun beyond measure. But the five of us sat for hours and days on rocks and sand, watching the Midwest version of ocean waves slap the shore rhythmically. We plunged into icy waters that looked as if they were clean enough to drink, and drink we did. We marveled at our solitude. Where but here can you walk seven miles down the strand, without encountering another human, or even a single piece of trash? Lake Superior is just that. It’s damn near perfect.
There are things to do on a Great Lake. Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario have their own charms, and much in common with Gitchee Gumee. You could rent a pontoon boat. You could go fishing, or hike the Superior Trail. You could explore the Porcupine Mountains, a peninsular section of Michigan that regularly receives more than twelve feet of snow every winter. But we spent much of our time staring at stones. Searching for agates. Stacking rocks into tall, exotic surprises, left for the beachcomber that might be walking her dog at sunrise the next morning, If the surf, the wind, plain old gravity, or my friend Will didn’t kick them down first.
Some people call these stacks of stones “cairns.” Cairn is a Scottish-Gaelic word for a pile of stones used for a landmark, a grave site, and occasionally decoration. Being such a simple and useful technology, cairns are used all over the world, and throughout all of history. The Germans call it “steinmann,” or stone man. In Mongolia, it is called an ovoo, and its purpose is primarily religious. In ancient Greek mythology, Hermes, known also as Mercury, stands accused of murdering the monster Argus. Being buried beneath a pile of stones reveals his guilt, and thus becomes the first cairn.
Mountain bikers and hikers everywhere use and appreciate them, and dub them “ducks” or “duckies,” as they are sometimes constructed with a protruding “bill,” meant to point out the way to go.
In our parts, we have appropriated a more or less local term — inuksuk. This is an Inuit word, the plural for which is inuksuit. An inuksuk that resembles a human form may be called an inunguak.
I’ve left a few dozen inunguaks, inuksuit, and cairns behind on beaches and hilltops. Some resemble a person, some are simple stacks. Others are arranged by color, or as small as a salt shaker. All of them, in their making, delighted me. Stacking stones, like searching for agates, like watching waves, has an incredibly calming effect. I would call it a form of meditation, that engages most of the body and just a sliver of mind. In this you can forget your cares. There’s nowhere to shop, no phone to look at, no car coming. A day at the beach with water, stones, and color.
Wasn’t I surprised when my friend, a Canadian naturalist named Will, led me and our canoe-mate Kent, to the top of a La Cloche hill at Grace Lake in Southern Ontario. We were on a paddling trip, enjoying the abundance of pure wilderness that Canada possesses. And here, on this stony peak, were four inuksuit, ranging in height between four and six feet. They were spread out on the granite face, marking the corners of a plane the size of a sheet of Olympic ice. Two resembled crosses, and I wondered if an overzealous youth group had left the marks. Jesus is Lord! times four.
Will desconstructed. In the interest of nature and the simplicity of the space. He defended his own expectation and experience of a hilltop. And he began immediately to destroy these monuments. He kicked them over. He lifted boulders over his head, and threw them far down the stony granite faces of the hills. No such piles would be recreated without hours of hauling tons of rocks back to the hilltops.
If Leave No Trace is the ethical and practical approach to environmental experience, then Will is right, and I, loving every minute of my meditation vacation on the agate-strewn South Shore of The Big Sky Water, am not. Nature, already perfect, does not need me to remodel it. As delighted as I am to leave my little sculpture, it is a mark, a monument, an object that wasn’t there before, and serves no purpose since. (I was not marking a trail).
Well, no, I’m not losing any sleep over this. Nor do I think you need to. My arrangements and decorations never lasted more than a day. So far as I know they didn’t upset another person, and may even have pleased them. But I am compelled to consider if this creation should exist in my own backyard, and not on a national seashore, or in a provincial park. Were I to cross-country ski in the snowy woods, and happen upon an ice sculpture by the amazing Andy Goldsworthy, I’d be quite impressed. But really, even his work should find its home in a park, or a private garden.
Leave No Trace, no?