Sunday, July 12, 2009

Iowan Cairns

As I was traveling the back roads on my way home from NE Iowa several weekends ago, I passed by this permutation of the ubiquitous rock piles that weigh down the corners of our agricultural fields here in Iowa. These stones are glacial erratics that have surfaced and are the bane of those farmers who strike one with a field implement as they are making their passes across the field. I had to turn around so I could snap some fotos of this artsy stack!

Much to my delight, I spotted another set of piled rocks, exactly one mile from the first. Was someone wayfinding? Perhaps these Iowan cairns mark the path to someone's farmstead. I thought back to my younger days, climbing the passes high in the Rocky Mountains, with cairns marking the thinning trails up on the tundra.

Wikipedia offers that the word is derived from the Scottish Gaelic (and Irish) càrn which can refer to various types of hills and natural stone piles. It states that cairns along hiking trails are often maintained by groups of hikers adding a stone when they pass. They vary from loose, small piles of rock to elaborate feats of engineering. In some places, games are regularly held to find out who can build the most beautiful cairn. Maybe these should win the prize?

In ancient times, cairns marked burial sites to memorialize the dead. I doubt these Iowa cairns were for that purpose. There are so many pioneer cemeteries dotting our landscape, we don't need to bury our folk in fencerow corners! Sometimes the ancient cairns were used for astronomical purposes. I suppose these stacked rocks might be marking celestial bodies in the heavens. We do have some beautiful night skies here in Iowa.

Over a hundred years ago in North America, cairns were used as a hunting tactic to mark buffalo jumps, or "drive lanes", to direct buffalo towards cliffs. This landscape is pretty flat - no cliffs - and no buffalo for miles around.

Cairns are often erected as landmarks. Placed at regular intervals, they indicate a path across stony or barren terrain or across glaciers. No glaciers at present, although, millions of years ago, Iowa was buried under hundreds of feet of glacial ice. This part of Iowa's landscape is referred to as the Iowan Surface, with "long, gently inclined slopes with unrestricted views to the horizon. Broad, shallow valleys and abundant glacial boulders, reflect a landscape shaped by erosional scour during intense glacial cold" (Prior, 1991). These Iowa cairns I spotted were of more recent vintage.

In parks exhibiting fantastic rock formations, such as the Grand Canyon, tourists often construct simple cairns in reverence of the larger counterparts. They may be used to commemorate events - anything from a battle site, to the place where a cart tipped over. Maybe this was their purpose. Farmers have been known to tip grain wagons, even tractors, if they get too close to the ditch, or a soggy corner in a field.

They may have a strong aesthetic purpose, for example in the art of Andy Goldsworthy.

I think some farmer, in her heart of hearts, is a landscape artist using the tools available, i.e. glacial erratics, to create some whimsical art for the viewing pleasure of those of us traveling the back roads home.

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