Roadside cairns: Are these memorials breaking state laws?

JAMAICA -- Chances are, if you've been driving near any local streams or small rivers, you've noticed a pile of stones erected into small towers near the water.

These man-made piles are called cairns, and this past summer a lot more than usual began showing up in one Windham County town.

But first, some context: According to Wikipedia -- A cairn is a man-made pile (or stack) of stones. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic: càrn (plural càirn). Cairns are found all over the world in uplands, on moorland, on mountaintops, near waterways and on sea cliffs, and also in barren desert and tundra areas. They vary in size from small stone markers to entire artificial hills, and in complexity from loose, conical rock piles to delicately balanced sculptures and elaborate feats of megalithic engineering. ... In modern times, cairns are often erected as landmarks, a use they have had since ancient times. Since prehistory, they have also been built as sepulchral monuments, or used for defensive, hunting, ceremonial, astronomical and other purposes.

About four months ago, 25-year-old Grant Bercik of Jamaica began building cairns as a tribute to his dog, General, who was killed by a truck in Brookline two-and-a-half years ago.

"I miss him dearly to this day," said Bercik. "He meant the world to me and I want to show people how I felt about my dog. I express my feelings in building cairns."

Bercik told the Reformer several weeks ago that he believes he has built 90 percent of the cairns in that area.

"I'm there every day, Monday through Friday," he said.

[SLIDESHOW: Take a look at some of the cairns in Jamaica, here.]

The location in question is the Winhall River in Rawsonville along Route 30.

A few months ago, a resident brought the cairns to Selectboard member Paul Fraser's attention, and reminded him that people "can't interrupt fish habitat." He said he'd like for the fish to come back, which would require the cairn building, or rock stacking, to discontinue.

"If there's fish, they've moved," the resident said.

At it's Aug. 26 meeting, the Jamaica Selectboard briefly discussed the issue.

At that time, Fraser said the board was exploring its options to prevent disturbance of aquatic life.

"It's hard to take steps if we don't have all the facts and the (Vermont) State Police agree that we don't have the authority," he said.

A river manager from the Agency of Natural Resources was contacted by a state game official. He spoke with Fraser about the cairns.

"There's a law in Vermont about not disturbing fish habitat," said Fraser, who told the Reformer that the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department is concerned as well as the State Police. The police are worried about the safety of people taking part in the cairn building.

There isn't sufficient parking in the area where most people park while the building takes place. Both sides of the road in that area are likely private property.

"I know the edges are private property," said Fraser. "Technically, I don't know whether the street is private or not."

He said that a lot of people had taken part in the conversation but "no one wants to make a fuss about things that are apparently benign."

According to Fraser, he believes the Vermont State Police have jurisdiction because it is happening along a state highway.

"The reality is that it's state law. But I don't know if anyone is interesting in enforcing it," he said.

Fraser hoped that new traffic lights, due to bridge construction in Rawsonville, might slow traffic down in a spot where dozens of cars had been seen.

"It's kind of interesting and the kids are having fun. It's kind of a tourist draw," said Fraser. "It will be gone after the first high water comes."

Selectboard member Andy Coyne stated that the practice is "nothing new."

As a board, there was no definitive opinion or stance on the issue.

"The winter's coming," said Selectboard Chairwoman Lexa Clark before the discussion on the cairns ended.

Chris Mays can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext. 273, or Follow Chris on Twitter @CMaysReformer.


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