Le Dernier Mot: Cairns, A Monumental Problem

Le Dernier Mot: Cairns, A Monumental Problem

The trend for rock-stacking is having unexpected consequences, as Kristin discovers.

My husband and I were strolling along the seafront when we noticed one of those man-made rock sculptures on the beach. A delicate balance of stones in varying sizes, this particular composition des cailloux reminded me of a family looking out to sea.

Tiens! I thought. Forget chess! This would be a good skill to learn next. Imagine sitting in a peaceful cove in summertime, quietly arranging rocks while listening to the waves crash gently on the shore. What could be more relaxing, creative and mindful?

Returning home from our promenade, I googled “rock-stacking” and finally learned the word for these purposely piled pierres. Known as “cairns’’ they have been around depuis la nuit des temps. Serving as landmarks or indicating burial sites, les amas de roches are also a handy guide for hikers – that is, when the piles are left intact and not moved (thus throwing les randonneurs off track).

Lately, cairns, or a form of cairns, are cropping up across the globe. You’ll see them at les stations balnéaires, such as here in La Ciotat, and at popular tourist locations, but just as the word “tourist” can have both positive (the economy) and negative (the litter) connotations, so, it seems, can a heap of rocks.

A sign warns visitors not to stack rocks as it disturbs wildlife;

A sign warns visitors not to stack rocks as it disturbs wildlife © KRISTIN ESPINASSE


Search the hashtags #rockstacking #rocksculpture and you will be amazed at how trendy #rockbalancing has become on Instagram and Facebook, where pictures of these cool, zen-like structures inspire more of the same.

The fad reminds me of the love locks trend in Paris, in which lovers attached un cadenas along a bridge railing and then tossed the key into the Seine.

This cadenas d’amour frenzy got so out of hand that one of the metal parapets of the beloved Pont des Arts collapsed under so many (Le Monde estimated that there were over 700,000 of them in 2014) “declarations” of love.

While you may not see many cairns at the Paris-Plages along the Seine, they are ubiquitous elsewhere in France. Stacked along the coast of Brittany, balancing in shallow Alpine rivers, piled in parks and along trails all the way to Corsica, hundreds of these rock statues are erected each day and, in extreme cases, they are altering the natural landscape of L’Hexagone. As a consequence, certain creatures, having lost their stony rooftops, are scrambling to find new homes. To prevent further ecological damage, some towns have put up a pictogram indicating that rock-stacking is forbidden in the area.

For some, all the ecological brouhaha surrounding rock-balancing seems ridiculous, as evidenced in the comments section of one of the many online articles on the topic: “Boy, oh boy, there sure are a lot of busybodies with a lot of time on their hands to get worked up about someone piling up some rocks. I for one think they are fun, creative and look great.”

I know some of us can relate to this stony reaction, and it makes me wonder: in this post pebble-piling society… is it ever OK to stack rocks? Maybe it’s not a matter of all or nothing – perhaps those ancient cairns hint at the answer: all that is needed is balance.

French Vocabulary

TIENS! = hey!
DEPUIS LA NUIT DES TEMPS = from time immemorial
LA PIERRE = stone
UN AMAS DE ROCHES = pile of rocks
LA STATION BALNÉAIRE = seaside resort

From France Today Magazine

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The American-born author and photographer lives with her French husband, Jean-Marc, and their two children on a vineyard and olive farm near Bandol in Provence. She's the author of "Words in a French Life: Lessons in Love and Language from the South of France" and runs the French Word-a-Day blog and newsletter.

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  • JVC
    2021-08-12 00:24:35
    The same issue in the western deserts of USA. It interrupts lizard habits and much needed shade and shelter.