Incorporate Symbolism Into Painted Cairns

Throughout history, people have used rock piles to mark trails, identify mountain summits or act as landmarks. Beyond their utilitarian functions, however, cairns are often imbued with sociocultural significance and steeped in social-cultural lore. They are regarded as spiritual symbols and may represent religious beliefs, mythical tales and ancestral reverence. They serve as gateways to the spirit world and are a source of protection, like Icelandic vordur or Mongolian sky-spirit “magnificent bundles.” They provide healing to travelers and offer guidance, such as Arctic tunillarvik and Arctic shamans’ tupqujaq (Williams 2012).

The selection and construction of cairn stones can be an important ritual in itself. The assemblage of stones should reflect the purpose of the cairn, whether it is simply as a marker along a trail or to guide a traveler through the wilderness. The number of stones and the size of the rocks are also important considerations. If a cairn is to remain as a permanent structure, it will need to be secure enough to last through weather and other natural conditions. Otherwise, it can be left in a purely decorative capacity with the intention to encapsulate and evoke an emotion or feeling in the viewer.

Many painting cairns have specific names that are based on the cultural context in which they exist. In the Nordic countries, for instance, they may be built near memorials to fallen warriors or tragedies, serving as touchstones of collective memory and a reminder of the enduring human spirit in the face of great adversity. Similarly, the Inuit of Arctic North America build stone sculptures, called inuksuit or inunguak, that are designed to mimic human figures and embody spiritual health and a sense of personal achievement.

How to Incorporate Symbolism Into Painted Cairns

In the modern era, rock cairns are still constructed for a variety of purposes. They can be simple, such as a pile of rocks along a trail, or complex, such as a monument in honor of a deceased loved one. In some cases, they are even designed to be viewed from above, creating an artificial hill that serves as a landmark for a local community.

It is important to note that when building rock cairns in backcountry settings it is imperative to follow the Leave No Trace principles. A cairn that is not part of the official trail could send hikers in the wrong direction or even lead to tragedy. In addition, cairns constructed just for the sake of it have no place in the backcountry and are an unnecessary blight on the landscape.

Nevertheless, for those who choose to explore the beauty of nature in its purest form, it can be a magical experience to encounter these iconic structures and learn from their enduring legacy. These sculptural stone stacks beckon us to stop, listen and reconnect with the Earth and its people. Painting cairns offers a unique opportunity to capture the beauty, complexity and simplicity of these structures as well as to connect with individuals from past and present who have experienced the same joy of exploring the backcountry.