Ghosts Next Door

Ghosts Next Door
by Lopaka Kapanui

Mar 9, 2020

ROCK ON! - What NOT to Do in Hawaii

Rock stacking. In many places, even here in Hawaii, this can be such a negative issue that some go so far as to call it “graffiti.”

For many people, nature and the practice of hiking, exploring, and escaping from the din of the city has come to include the obsession with finding and posting the “perfect shot” for social media. Sadly, this often includes making adjustments to the natural landscape in order to compose said “perfect shot.” This brings us to one of the most obvious and, some would argue, wildly out of hand practice of rock stacking.

Rock stacks or cairns have their place in history. Stone structures have been used far and wide as markers for trails and paths or gravesites, they are used as shrines and, of course for shelter. Rock stacking or balancing can be a performance art or a devotional. While the practice has become widely popular and examples can be seen in various natural places around the world, it is important to understand that this is not a Hawaiian custom and should not be practiced and left in our rainforests, on our beaches and cliffs, in our lava fields, or at our sacred sites.

Some would argue that Hawaiians built stone structures and they question what is the difference between that and the current examples of rock balancing labeled graffiti. However, there is a cultural distinction in the building of a heiau or an ahu versus balancing some rocks in order to take a cool Instagram pic. In Hawaii, the use of rocks, stacked to create heiau and ahu are of particularly sacred meaning. Heiau are sometimes hundreds of years old while one may see ahu that are new and have been built within the last few years but both are still wahi pana. Both have been built and dedicated with the sacred protocols required. Neither should be disturbed.

Hawaiian heiau are temples used for various purposes such as healing, voyaging, finding peace, and waging war. Depending on their purpose and location, they could range from small, simple earth terraces to large, elaborate stone platforms. Although many of these heiau were purposely destroyed, whether they are intact or not, they are still considered sacred to many Native Hawaiians and are cultural and historical properties.

From ancient times up until today, Hawaiians built ahu for several purposes. Usually small and built without the use of binding materials such as mud or concrete, the simplest definition of ahu is a Hawaiian altar, shrine, or cairn utilized for spiritual and ceremonial purposes. Often the focal points of Hawaiian ceremonies honoring ancestral spirits, these structures are still used by Native Hawaiians today and modern ahu are considered as authentic as those built hundreds of years ago.

There are specific ahu at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park that are carefully maintained by park staff to keep hikers on the correct path. Balancing rocks, building personal cairns for recreational purposes - to simply mark one’s personal passage through the area - can result in confusion and jeopardize the safety of other hikers who may think they are supposed to follow them. Straying from the path within the park is not only extremely dangerous, it can potentially cause irreparable damage to sensitive scientific and historical areas.

Moving rocks around a heiau (an ancient Hawaiian temple), and ahu, or any other sacred or historical site simply compromises the integrity of the site. There may be an abundance of rocks and stones at the beach, upon a cliff, along a hiking path, or next to a waterfall but to use those rocks to build your displays of art or devotion or to take your Instagram or Facebook post is not pono.

Rock formations that you may see on beaches and waterfronts or near streams and waterfalls are not a Hawaiian practice. And while some are quite simple, I do admit that there are some that look quite interesting and challenging. I can appreciate art when it's not disturbing the natural beauty of a site and I can appreciate the challenge of balancing a fifteen pound stone on top of a pebble when it does not impede the essence of nature herself. There may be a place for rock stacking and rock balancing but Hawaii's natural sites and her sacred sites are not it.

I know that many will go on to debate whether a few piles of vertically stacked rocks are truly a problem when one considers something so urgent as drunk driving or as long-lasting as discarded plastics. A quick Google search will show dozens of sites both for and against rock stacking and rock balancing and each site contains numerous comments arguing the point back and forth.

It’s easy to see a pro-stone stacker’s point of view. Rock balancing encourages time outdoors and fresh air and it’s a creative and meditative activity. The impacts of a single stand of balanced stones are probably negligible compared to leaving a trail of power bar wrappers and toilet paper on the side of a hiking trail. There are so many problems that are much more serious in our busy world that stacks of rocks may admittedly seem pretty innocent.

Regardless of how minor rock stacking and rock balancing may seem when compared to current events, social media has transformed this small, aesthetic fad into a global phenomenon with a planetary impact. Beaches, scenic overlooks, and pockets of nature have become overrun with piles of stones that these areas no longer create a feeling of communing with nature but seem to stomp the footprint of man into the heart of peace and escape that one is searching for.

I don’t believe that the intent of stone stackers and balancers are malevolent but they have the potential to disturb a beautiful landscape for no more reason than self-interest, as if to say, “I was here and I did this.” It may be perfectly fine in other places but it does not belong in Hawaii.

Leave rocks in their rightful place.

Hawaii’s beautiful beaches and lush rainforests, her quiet streams and powerful waterfalls, her historical sites and her places of worship are worth remembering. But also remember, when visiting these places, it's best to Leave No Trace that you were there.

Here are a few links if you'd like to read more about rock stacking and balancing in Hawaii and other natural places.

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