A cairn is a fragile pillar of stones assembled by a passerby, sent tumbling down by wind and weather and the wicked spirit of vandals, rebuilt all at once by the next good soul who comes along, maintained a stone or two at a time by others passing by, and why?, because they see the undeniable simplicity and value of the thing.
On the slope of this mountainside, the trail has thinned out and it’s hard to tell when to turn. Today the cairn enables our pleasure continuing, the family not getting lost for an hour, not spoiling the picnic. Tomorrow the cairn may save a walker in an unexpected storm, hurrying off the mountain before the lightning at the horizon comes close enough to put a life at risk. The next day, in an unexpected snowstorm, where the footprints of the previous walk are now gone, the cairn still rises above the snowfall, guiding.
The undeniable value, the ease of adding a stone, the spiritual grace of the one who places the stone and the gift to the walkers who pass later, whether they are at ease or at risk of their lives. Nobody is paid to do a single part of it; the tradition is delightful to children and a satisfaction to adults. The pile of stones should not endure, according to the ways of the world, but there is something in people that loves a cairn: what and how it means, and how that meaning, that practice, that pillar, can be sustained.
Different from semaphore in that the good-spirited co-op of people who tends a cairn will never meet. A cairn may last a thousand years.