FLX, hiking, NY, politics, Uncategorized, United States, Upstate New York

Zen Stone Stacking & the Art of Auto Maintenance

We’d been walking along the shore of Lake Ontario,and stopped to watch the sailboats and drink some water.

A very nice lady saw us fooling with these rocks, and asked if we were professional artists, and if she could photograph our “stone stacking.”

It almost seemed like she was serious, so I told her, we artists prefer our creations to be called “Cobble Assemblages“.

We’re novices, from the Spiral Jetty School, working our way up to pyramids and standing stone circles.  No money is required to view them, but an offering of fresh fruit is appreciated.”


This strange little hobby, stacking up stones, “rock balancing” seems to have really caught on.

We’ve run across them in stream beds, woods, parks, even on the berms near shopping malls.

Sometimes there are so many, it appears a Neolithic cult is out there in the woods.


What is the point of this?  I’ve heard a lot of people take this pretty seriously, saying “it’s kind of a Zen thing,” finding the center of gravity of these eccentric objects, and easing you into a contemplative state.

OK.  Sure, you bet.

That sounds “a bit much,” New Age nonsense, and the funny thing is, I think they’re kind of right.

This balancing act takes focus, maybe even discipline.



I’m thinking, as we gravely heft the rocks and find the center of gravity, it’s kind of like politics.

Whether a box of rocks, or the electorate, or that portion of the electorate that resembles a box of rocks, it takes an artist to find the center, to balance every component, including the unstable and unbalanced.   This is rock stacking, kids, not mud slinging, not casting stones.

When you do this stacking thing, you don’t select only perfectly flat rocks, where’s the challenge in that?

To be a sportin’ proposition, you have to take ’em as you find ’em.

That’s not to say, that sometimes, you get frustrated, it’s just not working, and you just chunk it back into the water, to get a few rough edges knocked off.

Or it can swim back to Canada, and wait for the next glacier to bring it south again, a bit more polished.

Politics is also supposed to somehow build things, using all of us lumpy, uncooperative, odd people, being gathered together to build something, say, a city on the hill.



My sister sings while she gathers stones, and the music reminds me of another metaphor for politics  — the “bandwagon,” and I’ve always liked that image – – a big, brassy, hurly-burly, rock ‘n’roll hell-on-wheels.

Like taking a bunch of kids on a car trip – – just an unholy load of mischief, loud and unruly.

Off-tune singing in the back seat, a bit smelly from sunblock and bug repellent, missed turns, negotiating over radio stations, seating assignments, fast food stops, arguments and sharp elbows.

But after an eternity or two, you do get to the beach, and everybody pitches in to build some beautiful sandcastles, or, in our rocky part of the world, a cool stone stack.

Bandwagon or stone stack, it has to find a place for everybody — leaning left, leaning right, centrist, positive, negative, neutral.

Doesn’t that sound kind of fun?  “Come on, blow your own horn if you must, but everybody up on the bandwagon.”

(And in the case of many politicians, we can add “Stay on the wagon!”)

It has to be a big ol’ wagon.

Not a buggy of the extreme and the angry.

The surly with the lunatic fringe on top.


A cairn by environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy, in Sapsucker Woods, the preserve around the Cornell Ornithology Lab, in Ithaca, NY

~ ~ ~

We had a huge old car once, that kept turning over, even after it was switched off, mindlessly “dieseling,” kind of like it had a coughing jag, and couldn’t stop.

Like a lot of folks, I find it can be surprisingly hard to shut your thoughts off, like that old car, definitely not firing on all cylinders, but just spluttering along.

Like some of our public figures, the car was too greasy, too much carbon buildup, too much hot gas coming out the back end.

Missing filters, endless idling, running on and on, throwing a smoke screen, leaking oil into the ground water.  Chugging along, backfiring out half-digested dinosaur crap.

Our system right now, it appears some wiseguy snuck in, and switched the spark plug wires around, firing all out of order.

Like taking a Cadillac, all rose-tinted glass and a plush ride, in for a tuneup, to a shady shadetree mechanic.

And that bad grease monkey fast-talks us into trading for a rusted-out Gremlin, with no muffler, twisted axis, sorry, I mean, axle, and bad tie rods, so it keeps swerving to the right, and into the gutter.

~ ~ ~

Stone stacking helps us relax.  You focus and forget about squabbles and arguments.

And when you don’t focus, you drop a rock on your toe, which sure takes your mind off less pressing concerns.

Like politicking, we’re just childishly happy to shut down any higher brain functions, and see Just How High Can We Pile It, before it all falls over.

~ ~ ~ ~

Meanwhile… we were On The Beach.

The lake shore we’re hiking along is a shingle — tons of piled-up pebbles, so we weren’t prying stones out of the ground and contributing to erosion, or disturbing a stream bed, etc.

Sometimes it’s fun to poke at a few things with a stick, and see what crawls out from under a rock, but we’ve had quite enough of that lately.

A  key thing with these stone stacks:  they’re not cairns, memorials, or markers, so take them apart when you’re done.  Some of the ones we’ve seen, are big enough, they seem like a survivalist’s deadfall trap for little kids.

It falls under the “Leave No Trace” law of the woods.

Leave no stone un-returned.

And for heaven’s sake let’s get some bright new spark plugs and a tuneup for that heap.







40 thoughts on “Zen Stone Stacking & the Art of Auto Maintenance

  1. I confess I’m of a divided mind about stone stacking, and I mostly don’t like it. Those new-age-y sorts that think they’re doing such wonderful connecting with the cosmos while they scavage for stones in refuges, beaches, and wilderness areas are damaging the environment while playing their games. I’ve found more and more areas left bare over the past few years while all of the rocks used for shelter by small creatures are piled up to amuse humans. When I go into a natural area, it’s to see nature, not to find human construction.

    People I know who spend time in the mountain west find the same thing — sometimes so many that it’s hard to sort out what’s a legitimate trail marker and what’s just a pile of rocks.

    Of course, this is where geography makes a big difference. You’ve got beaches and such that provide a wealth of stacking material, so in a sense it’s no difference than building sand castles down here. And you point about not giving in to the Edifice Complex is good.

    I do think your larger point about the calming effect of stone-stacking is probably true. And I really, really like your observation of taking ’em as you find ’em. Stacking flat stones isn’t much of a challenge; just take a look at the huge piles of stacked stone in any rock yard. Add in a little irregularity, and things get interesting, fast.

    Well, the coffee’s gone, and it’s time to get with it. But I can’t go without mentioning the photos. They’re really great. I especially like the tall stack of wet stones in the third photo. The colors are beautiful.

    • Thank you, Linda.
      I’ve read about the issues with confusion over trail markers, etc. and disturbing stream beds, On the shores of Lake Ontario, even if they don’t take them down, the weather usually will in short order.
      There’s a Tibetan monk at the college in Geneva, who does amazing sand mandalas, and after creating a complex and beautiful design, over many hours, ritually dismantles it, and pours the sand into the lake. The stackers need to grasp that concept of ephemerality (is that a word? 🙂 )

      • well, in the words of George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers, hoodoo you love? Not stone stacks, apparently. If that guy was wearing snakeskin shoes, maybe it was Lonesome George.

  2. Wow there’s a ton of interesting thoughts piling up in this blog Robert. Fun to read, and I ain’t gonna knock anything down! Is stone-stacking like politics? Yes, in theory. But in practice you know there’s always some big guy going to come along and knock the whole thing down and stack them just like he wants to … and maybe even build a damn big wall! “The surly with the lunatic fringe on top.”: that made me laugh. I do think you missed a commercial opportunity though with your Cobble Assemblages.

  3. Nice post! I come across these little configurations all the time on beaches across California. I kind of enjoy seeing them. Nothing wrong with a little human creativity. Rather see people spending time doing that, then consuming goods and leaving the trash scattered across the beach. Have a great weekend, dude! 😎

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Just when I thought you were going one direction, you gave it a little twist and went from zen to satire and pointed (or stacked?) commentary. And good photos too! 🙂

  5. Reblogged this on Plying Through Life and commented:
    I’m not one to reblog much – there’s just too much good stuff out there and it’s too much like picking favorites. But this one from Robert Parker pushed all my buttons: photography, philosophy, dry commentary and humor. I hope you enjoy it too.

  6. I recently noticed this phenomenon while wandering through the woods in the Czech Republic. Then I started seeing them everywhere. Kind of ruins the mystery when there are so many copycats. I enjoyed your take on it all. Cheers!

    • Thank you, J.D..
      Cornell University has a big geology department, there’s always bumper stickers with geologist humor, like “Reunite Pangaea” etc. So I used to think it was those kids doing the stacks around here.
      I hadn’t realized it’s a fad in Europe, too.

  7. So, I too look at Mr PlyS posts and enjoy his line of thought… interestingly this year, in my home isle of Cyprus I have come across much stone stacking .. to the extent I do it on random minmisticallyf…

  8. Nice post and interesting textures in the images. They are everywhere. I started seeing thwm in the west at least 5 or 6 years ago. No problem with it as long as you aren’t scouring the entire area, thus taking shelter away from small critters or silting up a stteam.

    But most important, they need to be dismantled as you mentioned mandalas are. Take a photo and return the rocks. If not, stackers may be doing it for reasons other than the zenlike focus it fosters.

    In nat. parks and even many forests, you are breaking the rules by stacking stones, and can be fined. Myself, I find it satisfying in a non zenlike way to do my best imitation of Bruce Lee on them when they’re annoyingly in my photos or my path.

    • You must have steel-toed boots? 🙂 Yeah, probably not a great hobby for streambeds, for a number of reasons, and disturbing the newts, salamanders, crawfish, etc. under the rocks. The Great Lakes are kind of perfect, piles of rocks, and if someone neglects to dismantle their creation, the lakes will take care of it pretty quickly.
      The first time I was ever aware of rock-stacking, I think when I was in junior high school, was a little news item about a practitioner along the freeways going into L.A. But now we see and hear about them everywhere.

  9. I would have liked piggy-backing Linda’s comment up top but don’t see a way to do that. I am no fan of stone stacking for amusement. Foremost because they do take away shelter/cover/breeding places for small creatures. Folks may say “oh, it’s harmless and just a few” but that is of little comfort to those individuals exposed to the elements or an unfriendly environment for their lives. And then there are the trail marking concerns for hikers who may end up lost or at least quite a bit out of their way.
    When I first heard of Andy Goldsworthy I was sort of impressed with his work. And I guess many of these folks are “disciples” of his art. But I no longer am a fan for the above reasons.
    But these are just my feelings and, as they say, YMMV.

    • Thanks for leaving a thoughtful comment, Steve, and it’s been good to hear everyone’s point of view. I actually intended the stone-stacking primarily as a taking-off point for an essay, but I agree with many of the concerns that have been expressed – – disturbing habitats, confusing hikers with false trail markers, or simply cluttering up the landscape – people who enjoy nature should be able to do just that, and not be presented with the detritus of other people’s hobbies. The “leave no trace” policy is noted toward the end.
      I also think that on a lot of swimming beaches, which in my part of the world, are generally artificial constructs with trucked-in sand, it’s a pretty harmless pastime, as long as people disassemble them before they leave. Along Lake Ontario’s shoreline, the pebbles are hurled up in heaps by the storms, and I’ve literally never seen any creature under them, other than the occasional spider. In any case, whether a natural pile or a stack left standing, it is going to be rearranged by the next storm.
      The beds of streams and creeks are a different matter entirely, and need to be left alone.
      The Goldsworthy cairn in the picture was a created by invitation, in a bird sanctuary — a sanctuary which has also cut down some trees to create paths for birders, built boardwalks through marshy areas for wheelchair access. erected an “interpretive center,” bulldozed some parcels for paved parking and an access road, etc. etc. I’d guess Cornell would argue, that the impact of all this is balanced by the need to educate people and draw them to birding. Like all these structures, or a sculpture park in a woods, it is undeniably a man-made intrusion – – I don’t know what justification or goal they had in mind, when inviting the artist to create this cairn, but I suppose it’s presence might encourage people to visit the center, actually leave their cars, and enter the woods to see it.

      • I wish I had taken a picture of the local brook that had literally over a hundred stacks in a small stretch near the bridge I crossed. I agree that on an artificial sandy beach it is less harmful although nature does fill the void when we create something.

        • Yes, I’ve seen the same thing, not quite on that scale, around Ithaca. I don’t think anyone’s enthused about having streambeds disturbed. Maybe, like a picnic park, or skatepark, playground, etc –designated areas for stackers?

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