Marking our Place along the Path
On a long walk across a set of rocky fields in Ireland, our guide picked out our group’s path from what seemed to be thousands of little lanes trod upon by sheep and shepherds from time immemorial. With few landmark At first I couldn’t figure out how or if there was a plan to our walk, but eventually the markers became clear. Small towers of stones set up at cross paths pointed out the route. Cairns have been simple, effective marking system over the course of time, using materials on hand and local customs to share a language of way-finding and placing landmarks. As societies have become more complex, the marking systems have grown with them. Street signs, lane markings, GPS coordinates… Yet, somehow, we still continue to choose small, personal ways to mark our places. It’s part of who we are.
Our shop was “tagged” again recently. A couple of brief phrases left to point out someone’s path along their journey. It was a call to the rest of us that we needed to notice someone, to include someone in our journey, to recognize someone’s place among us on this path. These calls for attention and help are unfortunately out of place and don’t quite help point out the next steps for the fellow travellers. But they do remind us to pay attention along our journey and to keep an eye out for the signs.
When I was a teacher and leading guided walks through fields or forests, I liked to use cairns as markers for the next students who I might bring along this path. A particular view, a rare plant, a unique formation, maybe just a fine spot for a sit and rest, these places then became a way of sharing our journey with whoever might follow us. Stop, notice what I noticed, if you can. So, whenever we’d come across a cairn, I’d make the stop and have us try to determine what might have been its intent. As another exercise for my students I would ask them to spread out along our trail, find a spot that held something special for them and mark it with a small cairn. Then we’d all walk the trail and stop at each one to see if we noticed what the person who built the cairn had noticed. Being “wrong” was almost as much fun as being “right” on this journey.
Around the Lyndale and Kingfield neighborhoods, small cairns of a sort have popped up over the past few years. Originally utility boxes, the small towers set along streets often became places for people to leave their marks, but usually in negative ways. The efforts to wrap these boxes in photos and images that provide positive markers to those of us on the journey through our neighborhoods has become a creative and life-giving project embraced by our city and is spreading. I appreciate the ability to pick out a street corner based on its utility box wrap (you might know where the girl on a trike rests, or where the teddy bear in a cabinet is found).
I watched the city workers this summer and early fall as they stacked limestone bricks around cement towers, curious at what these cairns might mark. And now, as the neighborhood names get attached, and places are identified by signage, I smile at how a simple stack of stones can become both a place-maker and marker of a place.
While I have left a few physical cairns over the course of my life (at least one of which I know to be still standing), I also try to imagine myself to be a symbolic cairn of sorts for my neighbors, my employees, my students, and customers. I have made it my purpose to create a place here in southwest Minneapolis. I am marking a corner along Nicollet Avenue as a place where one can rest, meet, enjoy a view, get a new perspective, or just stop along the path knowing that we’re all still heading in the right direction. I’m not sure if my shop’s markers will stand for the length of time as those along the ancient Irish pathways, but I’ll hope that what I am building will continue to be able to point to a journey well lived and a walk that supports a sustainable future for all who will someday follow us.