It's kind of hard not to. Stacking rocks at a beach with a rocky shore is both meditative and distracting enough to keep me from looking at my phone. And when I'm at a lakefront or seaside, I don't want to waste my time in a beautiful location scrolling through Instagram. I do stretches, look along the water's edge for tadpoles or water bugs, and take pictures of the landscape. But if there are stones around — especially the pleasingly round, burnished-by-the-sea ones — I find myself stacking them up.
There are endless games you can play solo or with others: How high can you make your stack? How many colors can you use? What kind of multi-rock sculptures can you make? If it feels like art, that's because it is art — numerous rock-stackers have become Internet-famous over the last few years for their skill in unlikely, or unusual projects.
But now everyone is doing the stone-stacking thing, and it's not as harmless as it seems.
It can hurt people and cultural history
"People are [stacking rocks] with no education of the environment so they don't know what site they're in — whether the site has any wildlife significance or historic significance," John Hourston, president of the Blue Planet Society, told the BBC. "Add to that the historic significance of cairns in Scotland, used for landmarks and to show safe ways. You're now confusing that with personal statements that really mean nothing."
Stacked rocks in the shape of cairns have long been used as path-indicators, but when it's done for fun, it can confuse other hikers, causing them to veer off the trail. That's just dangerous, the wilderness equivalent of stealing a triangular Yield sign to hang in your room. And in some places, as Hourston points out, cairns have historical significance, so creating new ones amounts to defacing a piece of history.
Also, it's kind of rude: As Nick of Wicked Wildlife points out in the video above, most of us go to natural spaces to leave the human-dominated world behind. Stacking rocks and leaving them for others to see is a kind of environmental graffiti. "You don't need to come and leave your mark on the wilderness," says Nick, reminding us all of the virtues of "leave no trace" wilderness ethics.
It hurts wildlife
And then there's the impact rock-stacking has on life in and near water, especially our already threatened freshwater ecosystems, which is where you often find rocks stacked willy-nilly. As Randall Bonner writes at Wide Open Spaces:
"Each rock in a stream is blooming with life. Everything from aquatic plants to micro-organisms are attached to those rocks. They also create habitat for crustaceans and nymphs. Crevices in the rocks hold eggs in salmon redds to be fertilized, supporting those eggs until they grow into fry and begin feeding off the very critters that were hatching off of and crawling around those same rocks."
Not everyone knows how freshwater ecology works, so here's your heads-up: rocks in streams are really important for a number of types of life, especially young insects and amphibians; between and underneath rocks are nurseries for all kinds of forest life that begin in streams. "You could be lifting the roof off the home of a crawfish, or disturbing the cradle for the future generations of already dwindling salmon runs. Removing rocks from fragile stream habitats is essentially the equivalent to removing bricks from someone else’s home while raiding their refrigerator and food pantry," Bonner writes.
Even worse, if rocks are removed from a stream bank, it can lead to more and faster erosion of what may already be a fragile place.
Depending on where on a saltwater beach you pull your rocks for stacking, it could impact life there, too: Various insects and small crustaceans, like crabs, depend on rocks for shelter, and rocks create pockets of water that they wait in until the next tide comes in. Shore birds depend on those insects, crabs, and other animals for food. Rock stacking disturbs these natural hidey-holes.
Knowing all this, I'm going to stop stacking rocks from now on. I don't need to "leave my mark" on the environment, and I sure don't want to upset an animal or insect's home or nursery. I'll leave rock stacking to the people who work on trails — they'll create cairns where they're needed and most appropriate depending on how the trail runs.