Saturday, November 17, 2012

David B. Williams's "Cairns: Messengers in Stone"

David B. Williams is the author of Stories in Stone: Travels through Urban Geology, The Seattle Street-Smart Naturalist, and A Naturalist's Guide to Canyon Country. He has written for Smithsonian, Popular Mechanics, and National Wildlife, and is a regular contributor to Earth.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Cairns: Messengers in Stone, and reported the following:
On the ninety-ninth page of Cairns: Messengers in Stone, we learn the shocking revelation that Englishmen once ate other Englishmen. While this may not seem germane to the subject of my book—small heaps of stone, or cairns—the story of cannibalism occurs in the middle of my chapter about the importance of cairns on expeditions. In such situations they functioned, and still function, as a mailbox, a territorial marker, or guidepost.

The cannibalism took place on Sir John Franklin’s infamous expedition, which set sail from England in 1845 in hopes of finding the northwest passage across the Arctic. After hearing no word from Franklin for two years, the British Admiralty sent three expeditions in search of Franklin. They found nothing. The searches continued for years. In 1854, one expedition talked to Native people who told of seeing Franklin’s men and how they had resorted to cannibalism. Not until 1859, though, did anyone find any written information from Franklin. One piece of paper buried in a cairn told the fate of the men. It was the only written evidence ever discovered from the Franklin Expedition.

I told this story to illustrate how people have long used cairns as a means of communication. When we didn’t all carry smart phones or GPS units, cairns provided an enduring message from one person to another. The message didn’t require any special knowledge or tools to send or receive. It could be communicated no matter the weather or season. When you saw a cairn, you knew what it meant: follow this trail, look for a message here, this is a good hunting spot, something important happened here.

My goal in writing the book was to take something that many people have noticed and probably thought little about and to reveal its complexity. If you read the other 144 pages of Cairns, you will find a combination of natural and cultural history from around the globe and spanning thousands of years of history, woven together with personal observation, my quirky humor, interviews, and science. I hope you will come away thinking that cairns are more than just a pile of stones; they help people connect to landscape, find their paths, and communicate with others.
Learn more about the book and author at David B. Williams's website and blog.

--Marshal Zeringue