South Burlington is home to an intriguing collection of artistically created rock structures called cairns. Photo: bernie paquette

Cairns Resurrected

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Thursday May 19, 2016

Last fall, while walking along the recreational path abutting UVM’s Wheelock Farm off Spear and Swift Streets in South Burlington, a pleasantly familiar sight greeted me—Stonehenge like formations sprinkled along the farm’s hillside. Yes, they’re back — the cairns.

A couple of years ago, months after South Burlington resident and UVM Custodian Jacques-Paul Marton, known as JP, introduced me to the cairns, he disassembled them – each work of art he had built, with his own hands, from a collection of diverse rocks he had chosen with tender care over the previous months.

As JP led me through the dandelion dotted field last week, he explained the reason why he dismantled the cairns, “I was frightened. Two parents said they were worried about their children falling,” he said. That fear compelled JP to pause and reflect on what the cairns meant to him. “I thought [they were] too much a part of me, when all I wanted was to engage the community.”

Two months later, his hope of a community connection would become a reality. People started showing up in the field to build cairns. Though they are much smaller than the original set, and therefore more stable, posing less risk to children playing in the field, JP sees them as “more beautiful,” as creations that have “become more than me.” Good things do come in small packages.

As JP swept his hand along a pink sandstone boulder, he described the rocks as each having their own “personality.” One structure he built resembles a nineteenth century New England style wall. Another one he pieced together from various cairns is a sitting wall. It’s a place for people to read, or to simply sit in the company of the nearby ancient tree, its shapely limbs reaching out as if longing for a hug. With the help of others from the community, he resurrected what his daughter once named the Rascals: eight petite cairns linked by a rock to each other, as though they are holding hands. JP welcomes people to make a wish by the well he constructed out of concrete and stone from the hillside. When the wind blows in, it sways the dangling pendulum and carries those well wishes toward, say, an ill loved one or toward those suffering from any kind of calamity. People sometimes share their wishes in a more tangible form, by building mini cairns along the rim of the well. The reason for visiting the well may vary from one individual to the next, but JP thinks of it as “a place to let the world know you’re thinking beyond yourself.” The cairns even inspire people to sit among them and meditate. ‘“There’s a lot of power here,”’ JP recalled one woman saying, as she strolled through the field one day.

When I asked him if he’s seen others adding to the already existing cairns, or building their own, JP said, “They just appear. It’s happening more frequently and organically.” Though he looks for others building them, he added, coming upon a new rock or cairn “is the most beautiful thing.”

Not only is engaging with the community a priority for JP, but so too is diversity and connecting with nature. “How much diversity can we sustain in this crowed community?” he asked, as we meandered through the sprouting spring grass, from cairn to cairn. To do just that, he has collaborated with Mark Starrett, Associate Professor of Horticulture at UVM. His students recently made clay pellets (“seed bombs”) filled with wildflower seeds and, along with Mr. Starrett, tossed them, appropriately so, close to the wishing well. The hope, according to JP, is to make Wheelock Farm “an outdoor classroom” for all, and to generate more of a natural habitat while managing invasive species. JP has planted an additional two thousand square feet of wildflowers. Who knows, we just might see nature’s palette blossoming, right here in our collective backyard, sooner than later.

The community has recognized JP for his self-described role as “caretaker” of Wheelock Farm and the cairns. Some people have given him books or videos about rocks. Others have brought him trinkets representative of cairns from their vacations. Displayed among the cairns is a cross-section of a tree, on which a group of UVM students transcribed an invocation written by JP: Let there be universal attempt for peace between nations; peace between states, provinces, communities, and neighbors. May the young rise up and teach us that dialogue, not war, is the solution towards everlasting peace.

A young boy approached JP in the field one day and said, “Thank you for your art.”

Yes, JP, thank you.

If you desire to engage with the “smallest details of life” and be “amazed all the time,” as JP can attest each time he picks up and holds a rock from the field, then you must sit with the cairns, and, as JP would say, “let the wind go through you.”

SOURCE: Melissa Cronin, Contributor