Thursday, July 11, 2013


School House Beach stones.
Washington Island, Wisconsin -

Stones can be beautiful with colorful, interesting shapes.  They are useful in construction, to fill holes, create concrete in crushed form, to build masonry walls.  Certain types of stones are considered the ultimate in created beauty, such as when crafted into stone sculpture or stone countertops.

Stones can also be a great impediment, to farming and laying underground cables, a danger to ships when unseen just beneath the ocean's surface, or anytime they appear in their natural state and we find it least convenient - such as in a hole we're digging for a fencepost.

At various times we've all skipped, tossed and collected stones.  However, more recently, the repositioning and stacking of stones as a guidepost or a means of personal expression has become for many a common practice.  For some, this practice has nearly become an obsession.

Where is this piece leading? Why is he bothering to tell us things we already know or don't really care to hear?  It seems intuitive that stones - as common as air or water - aren't usually considered a precious resource unless they are first mined, or specially cut or sculpted, or placed within a wall or floor where they are critical to the structure.

At School House Beach on Washington Island, residents often are asked to defend local policy to visitors, "why the smooth beach stones found there shouldn't be taken."  The apparent and rapid disappearance in the last several decades of School House Beach stones is attributed to visitors taking them home, but a good number may lie at the harbor's bottom, having been skipped in fun by both Islanders and visiting guests.   There is no way these stones can be readily replaced, these wave-polished stones that took centuries for nature to refine, and so we now admonish anyone who takes one for a souvenir.

Another and similar trend, I think, is the movement or our general population to build small piles of stones into cairns.  This has been encouraged through photographs of stacked stones that impart a Zen-like benefit to the builder and viewer that supposedly makes this practice OK on public properties.

The Art & Nature Center of Washington Island currently features a display of stacked stones that are actually ceramic pieces cleverly and skillfully made to resemble School House Beach stones.  The artist includes a disclaimer that he did not take stones from the beach, and that the birch branches framing his piece were taken from a construction site where they were going to be disposed of anyway.   That's commendable and appreciated.  But does his sculpture encourage the building of more stone piles along School House Beach, where already on any given summer day stone stacks exist near the blankets of idle-handed beach-goers?

The Peninsula Pulse recently ran a piece about an art project of Kate Borcherding who stacked stones along Door Bluff on the Peninsula as part of her Memories Diaries Art Project, funded by Kickstarter.  (June 28th-July 5th issue.) The stones she chose were of various shapes and sizes and were stacked and then photographed:  art installation, it was termed.   The impression given to the reader by that article might be that anyone can try their hand to imitate or improve upon such art, and that since it is art, the end product is of a worthy realm, like a Zen object, and therefore we should be encouraged to practice more of the same.

On Rock Island recently, the Friends of Rock Island (quite unwittingly, I'm sure) at the Rock Island State Park Picnic celebrating the Fourth of July sponsored a stone cairn building contest.  I'm not certain of their judging guidelines, whether the goal was to reward the tallest, most massive, or the most unique stack of stones, but the encouragement to take what the glaciers dispersed and reorganize it into our own desired likeness seems wrong, even though any single stone stack seems harmless and temporary. They may seem to many like sand castles which a builder would not displace materials from their "natural setting."  

I read an editorial several years ago that ran in a Green Bay paper where the writer was greatly disappointed when he visited several national parks in the west.  No matter where he hiked, or how remote the location, he observed stacks of stones left behind by clever stone-stacking artists who were probably hikers, like himself.  He wanted to see nature as it was and should be,  knowing that he would encounter trails with footprints here and there left by previous hikers, which for practical reasons can't be undone but will be washed away by nature.  These footprints also come with the presence of man, he believed, but they were less intentional than piled stones. The ever-present rock stacks, he believed, defaced the landscape as would painting your name on a large boulder or carving your initials in a tree or a wooden handrail.

For writing this I may be considered just "an old grouchy bastard" who can't seem to join in the fun or appreciate the benefits of creative release that stone stacks may give its builders.  But, I thought I'd at least like to try getting my point across.

How original are we?  How artistic?  Do we improve upon nature when we stack stones, or do our products become a collective nuisance, such as when stacks of stones proliferate as sometimes is the case at School House Beach?   Better to build than to take them away, some may say, and I tend to agree with that.

In the act of walking down the beach toward the water, each of us is helping push the naturally piled stones further toward the water's edge, one step at a time.  Maybe the pastime of stacking them will bring some of the stones back up the beach line where their march toward the water can start over once again.  But I think there is nothing as enjoyable as seeing that beach, and others like it, after winter's snows have left it in a near-pristine condition, or after a big northerly gale when the forces of nature (and not man's pseudo-artistic hands) have repositioned them flat.

The lake and the lake shore below the high water mark are public property.   There are no laws against stacking stones.  Should we then go along with it, and improve construction methods through the use crowbars and levers, tackling the really big stones, all the more to impress our audience of fellow travelers?

Will an endpoint in stone stacking be reached?  Or will a time come when stacking stones is passe' and no longer a unique form of expression, only a way to pass time?  Will this human pastime ever be seen as a blight, rather than the form of artful construction some now consider it to be?

-  Dick Purinton

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