Letter to the Editor: Rock Art, or ‘Cairns’ near Cave Point in Door County

I am writing to support the public’s opportunity to build small stacks of beach rock, sometimes called “cairns,” along a small stretch of the rocky shoreline just north of Cave Point. The cairns were generally restricted to about 250 yards along the narrow beach, which is accessed by making one’s way down a small embankment. A biologist by profession (Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Kansas), I now spend my time writing books, giving occasional lectures, and photographing nature’s wonders.

This fall I have enjoyed spending time with the cairns in question, and I often returned to photograph and feel the “spiritual energy” associated with these silent sentinels, each of which reflects the creativity of its builder. On my last visit, I discovered that all the cairns were gone. Just as human hands built each cairn, it appears that human hands destroyed them, rather than letting nature’s snow, ice and winds take them apart piece by piece.

There are those who argue that the cairns in question detract from the natural environment of a rocky and everchanging shoreline, and that they take away from the natural beauty of a landscape. They argue that man should simply enjoy nature as it is rather than alter it in any way, shape or form. Realistically, of course, this is impossible, since in Wisconsin we enhance the natural environment for public access by creating trails, parking areas, interpretive signage, and even built structures to allow people to enjoy nature to its fullest.

If cairns littered any park shoreline on the peninsula, I would be one of the first to argue that their sheer numbers are unsightly and that the practice should be regulated along public beaches. But this is not the case. The stretch of shoreline north of Cave Point is contained and limited, and visitors marvel at the hundreds of cairns standing erect along the cobblestone beach. Recently I met a Door County resident who said that, although she doesn’t build cairns herself, “this is my third trip with new friends to show them the remarkable army of cairns.” Other visitors find that the cairns evoke a spiritual feeling, or a feeling of oneness (linkage) between the erect stone and themselves.

In any event, I had a feeling of loss when, on the first day of November, I discovered the cairns were gone. I had hoped to return after the first snowfall to photograph them sporting suits of snow on their stone bodies, or photograph a few of them after an ice storm. All environmental art, including cairns, is meant to be ephemeral, just as in the grand scheme of things, we humans are ephemeral. I regret that the Cave Point cairns were destroyed deliberately by human hands.


Paul Burton

Ephraim, Wis.


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