In the far north west of the Scottish Highlands there is a primeval landscape. Assynt is made up of isolated mountains, standing like monoliths to time, framed by the Atlantic Ocean. There are caves to explore where streams disappear and then reappear. Like an Escher painting, water appears to run uphill. Recently, I took a group to this magical part of the UK. We carried everything we needed for three days and walked from the rugged coastline into the mountains.
Leaving the path, we travelled on untracked land to an elevated spot to camp amongst a cluster of lochans. Pitching our tents, we took stock of our surroundings. There was no evidence of people, not an abandoned tent peg, banana peel, or….stack of rocks.
Most people who visit wild areas are aware that they should take their rubbish home, not to graffiti on rocks or scratch their names on to trees and will have probably heard about the concept of ‘leave no trace’. However, the increasing popularity of rock-stacking has opened a debate on whether this pastime is detrimental.
Currently, there is not much research on the environmental impact of rock-stacking. Some evidence shows that there are negative impacts of rock-stacking in watercourses, such as streams and lakes, as it disrupts habitats for invertebrates which live amongst the rocks. There have also been concerns raised about rock-stacking at archaeological sites, where stones which make up the sites are irreversibly disturbed.
‘Leave no trace’ principles are based on enjoying the outdoors responsibly and a respect for both nature and other visitors. Rock-stacking can be interpreted as contravening ‘leave no trace’ principles as it both changes the landscape and, in doing so, impacts the experience subsequent visitors have.
Firstly, I don’t think it is realised by most people how long rock-stacks will last. From my own observations, rock-stacks often linger for several years. On a trip to the Swiss mountains this Spring I found an area of hundreds of stacks, these had survived the winter, one notable for its heavy snow storms. I would have put money on many of these stacks having been there for multiple years. Yes, some collapse, but they are soon replaced and added to, therefore collectively they become a permanent landmark.
Another concern I have with rock-stacking is that they are now commonly found wherever westerners travel. I’ve seen them on the slopes of many mountains, in rivers and on beaches around the world. The result is a homogeneous landscape. I equate it to visiting a British high street, where identical coffee shops, banks and mobile phone stores create a feeling that you could be anywhere. It erodes the unique identity of places.
Some have argued that humans have left their mark in wild places throughout time, which are now treasured and protected by modern society. Ancient imprints of prehistoric man gives an insight into a culture’s lives and values. They are almost entirely unique to a particular area. The ubiquitous rock-stack, however, cannot to be equated to this on any level and, instead, have been called ‘natural graffiti’.
Ultimately, my increasing disquiet for rock-stacks is the impact their presence has on the wildness of an area. I am particular with my use of the word ‘wildness’ as opposed to ‘wilderness’ for this point. I feel that wildness is a more appropriate term for the wild spaces we have in the UK, landscapes which are now integrally linked with human activity. Despite the British landscape having been altered and sculpted by humans, wildness, and the feeling of wildness, can still be found. Places where there are no human built structures or the direct presence of modern man seen. The ability to experience this, however, is threatened by the increasing pressure on wild places, as ever more people journey to them. A careless deed or inadvertent act can instantly deny such an experience to those who subsequently travel the same path.
As wider society becomes aware of the benefits of being in the outdoors, and are motivated and able to travel to wild places, the need for education in all aspects of ‘leave no trace’ is increasingly urgent. For wildness to be protected we must not overlook the small things that make it so, and educate people that it is not only actions which have a negative ecological impact or visually irreversible damage (conventional graffiti), it is actions which remove any aspect of wildness that are also detrimental. Value should be put on being content in our transience in wild places, rather than a need to leave a mark. Pride should be taken in making our presence delible – maybe a quality which is alien in modern society? Instead, impressing on people that there is a richness in going to a place for the simple act of being in it, absorbing it, feeling it, and then leaving, as if you were never there.
In Assynt a member of my young team asked, ‘Do you think anyone has camped here before?’ Clearly, the answer was yes, most probably, but the fact is, we didn’t know for sure. ‘Maybe not’ I answered, before we were absorbed in silence again and our gaze returned to drinking in the expansive view once more.