David Williams wrote a book about piles of rocks. Those piles, however, are the most basic of communication to help one connect to the landscape and communicate with others, and are an essential guide to travelers.
“Cairns: Messengers in Stone” explores the history of cairns from the moor of Scotland to the peaks of the Himalaya.
“People use them all over world, this is universal,” Williams said. “It’s the idea that someone takes rock, this inanimate object, and builds a pile and invests it with meaning.”
The central idea is that cairns are a form of communication.
“Maybe you can argue cairns are our earliest forms of communication,” Williams said. “I have a section – tongue and cheek – that we’re not the only species to build cairns.”
He said that early humans, such as the Australopithecus afarensis, a species made most familiar through the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton affectionately known as “Lucy”, may have built cairns.
“It’s not hard to build a pile of rocks,” he said.
Williams said that we take cairns for granted.
“There is so much more history and meaning and story in these piles of stone. That people have been building these for thousands of years, using cairns as a form of communication, such as a trail marker,” Williams said. “But people also used them as trailside shrines.”
He related a story about the Zuni built cairns while running.
“When they would want to rid themselves of the fatigue they had, they would pick up a rock, spit on it, rub it on their body and put it in a pile,” he said. “You will find a pile of stones, but it wasn’t marking the way. There was a ceremonial aspect.”
Williams moved to Moab in 1987 to work at Canyonlands Field Institute.
“I was there first real intern,” Williams said. “I planned on staying three months. I left Moab nine years later.”
He worked as a park ranger at Arches National Park as an interpretive ranger from 1992 to 1995. He wrote “A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country” because he was tired of carrying around a bird book and geology book or more to determine what he would see while hiking.
“Unfortunately I haven’t live in Moab since the book came out,” he said.
A new edition of the “Naturalist’s Guide” is coming out next spring.
Williams now makes his home in Seattle, Wash., where he writes full-time. He works with the Burke Museum at the University of Washington to create “Burke Boxes”, which are educational tools for teachers to share with their classes.
He also hosts naturalist walks in downtown Seattle, focusing on the building stone.
“It is oriented around what a naturalist would ask in an urban environment,” Williams said. “What did it look 100 years ago when Europeans first arrived?”
Andy Nettell has known Williams for years. The two own Back of Beyond Books together.
“David B. Williams reads rocks. Whether interpreting road-cuts, building stones or the rock quarries of the world, David brings rocks and humanity together so the rest of us can understand geology. Now he lends his eye to those piles of rocks founds the world over,” Nettell said. “’Cairns’ is fun, quirky, and educational. World history through rockpiles.”