We went to see the stones. They stretched for miles, each stone like an upright soldier in a formation. They are called “menhirs,” and they populate the area around the seaside town of Carnac in Brittany.
When we drove up to the first formation, the sun was low in the sky and shadows stretching long. We stopped by a field filled with menhir and dolmen, the ancient stones erected some 7,000 years ago for god knows what purpose. Thousands of the stones in stripes across fields, and made of a type of granite that is not local. No one knows how they were made nor why. Carole was especially worried about why.
“Maybe they were religious,” she said. That is the most common supposition. But that didn’t really satisfy her.
“I know,” she said, “they must have been used for some sport. If something was important enough for men to exert this much communal effort to transport tons of stones over miles and miles, there must be a stick and a ball involved.”
We’d drive for a few more miles and she’d pop out with, “Or maybe they were the foundation for some kind of building,” and then, after not saying anything for a long while, “Maybe they were meant to line up like soldiers; maybe they scared off an enemy.” She seemed obsessed with the stones.
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The next day, we went out to explore. Some 4,000 menhirs, or upright granite stones, from about three feet high to almost 20 feet, are striped across the landscape in three or four major “alignments,” as they are called.
Erected some 5 thousand years ago, or maybe 7 thousand — it all seems lost in the haze of prehistory — the Celtic forebears of the Bretons hauled these logs of granite from their origin, miles away, and lined them up over the rolling meadows just north of town.
No one knows that they were erected for. The usual theories of religious meaning are trotted out, but no one really knows. Carole persists for a while that they must have been used for some sort of sport or game, going on the theory that only a Superbowl or the Olympics can bring that much commitment out of a guy, let alone a lot of guys.
We talked about it at lunch, in Locmariaquer, the site of some other megaliths.
Over the oysters, I said, “I think that it is just as likely that someone in the old days went crazy, heard voices in his head telling him to to this, and he then, through the intensity of his insanity, persuaded the community to erect the menhirs. Like a sachem in an Indian tribe. ”
Carole dislike the idea that this might reflect badly on shamans. She maintains there is a difference between visions and psychosis. She has her own reasons for holding this distinction.
“That’s not quite what I mean,” I said. “I mean that someone genuinely nutso hears voices, like Son of Sam — ‘My dog told me to do it’ — and because to ordinary people a shaman and a nutjob are very hard to tell apart, they might have signed on to follow him, the way the Germans signed on to follow Hitler to Valhalla.”
“But the shaman’s vision is always one to help the people, never to harm them,” Carole said.
“Well, Hitler certainly thought he was helping Germany, but we’re getting off on a tangent,” I said. “I just mean that, well, like Moses in the desert, perhaps touched by the sun and heat, came up with a lot of crazy ideas, maybe some prehistoric Celt went off the deep end and the voices in his head told him they needed to build a field of giant upright granite stones.
“It makes as much sense as any of the other ideas,” I said.
Of course, we’ll never know. Carole is obsessed with them right now, wanting to have an answer.
“Don’t you want to know?” She asked.
“But I can’t know.”
“But doesn’t it eat at you?”
“No, I can’t say so,” I said.
“It’s driving me nuts,” she said.
Later, in the evening, after supper, sitting in the hotel room, she started up once more.
“I thought they might be made as a display to the stars, or a sighting device to line up with stars or the sun or the moon seasonally,” she said. She sat for a moment and then began a litany of possible explanations.
“Maybe people stood on them and covered their bodies and the rocks with some sort of long garment that made them look like thousands of extremely tall and powerful people.
“Maybe they were set up to baffle a stampeding herd of animals.
“Maybe they were set up to make it difficult for an enemy to advance.”
I imagined them like some prefiguration of pachinko, used as a military tactic. Ingenious, I thought.
“Maybe,” she went on, “they were put in the ground so that if one were far, far from home, one could climb up into the mountains and look down and find these stones as a marker for home.”
The only problem with that: No mountains here.
“Maybe they were part of corrals and used for the beginning domestication of animals.
“Maybe they were racetrack lanes for racing animals.
“Maybe they used to be part of another kind of a structure that included wood and animal hides.
“Maybe they were part of ancient stalls filled with trade goods.
“Maybe they were an arduous maze a person had to thread through like the meditation mazes in cathedrals.
“Maybe they had something to do with cognitive development — a step between concrete thinking and abstract thinking. Maybe they used them to learn to count from one to a thousand.”
After worrying about this for two days, she continued as we drove out of town, on to Concarneau.
“I need to know what they were for,” she said. “I still think my best guess is that they were for some sort of ball game. You know men are fascinated by a combination of sticks and balls and counting. The counting is important.”
A woman we met, who was from Great Britain, said that she read that the rocks at Stonehenge were transported from far away, also, and that there is a theory that they came from a site powerfully effective in healing.
“But I don’t think that is what these stones were for,” Carole said after we drove on. “They must have been for something massive, because there were thousands of them. They must have been very important for the people who arranged them, because the second group we looked at were actually stone paths, completely straight, leading toward the horizon for many many many miles. So I thought maybe this part of the stone arrangement is a runway for souls. Souls taking off to their journey to the afterlife on foot, that is.
“Maybe they were foundation stones upon which wooden logs were placed for some type of a floor and another structure made of wood came up higher. If they were used as foundation, the equidistant placing of them makes sense, because they are about as far apart as an ordinary tree trunk.
“Or maybe creatures with immense strength arrived from outer space and used some sort of anti-gravity device to pick the rocks up and put them down again in this part of France.
“Maybe they are thousands of monoliths like the black rectangle in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Maybe they were a huge dentist office and each person had his own stone to come to and bang his head against until he was senseless and no longer could feel the toothache.”
She was beginning to get a little punchy.
“I also think my first impression of them might be worth something — that was that they were the earth’s teeth.”
I am a reasonable man and my goals are reasonable. Some burn for the challenge of climbing great peaks; my more modest goals involve the less famous ones. They can have their Everest, their K-2, their Matterhorn or Aconcagua. I have Tucker Mountain.
It sits in Hancock County, on the coast of Maine, north of where any tourists go. From its summit, there is a great view to the south and Cadillac Mountain and Mt. Desert Isle. Its summit, by the way, tops out at 394 feet above sea level. More my style. Still, in places, it is a rugged enough hike.
My friend Alexander wanted to show me the view, and we walked through the mossy woods up past rocky outcrops and on to the goal. Along the way, we kept passing cairns — piles of rock set up by hikers. Some were simply rock-piles, but others showed more ambition, and could easily have passed for sculpture in any trendy art gallery. The more of them we passed, the more it seemed as if something cultural were going on — that there must be some compulsion to make these stony reminders that Kilroy was here.
I photographed them as we walked, and by the end of the day, I had something like 50 or 60 images of them, and that counts having given up on cataloging every single instance; I did not photograph many of the more mundane piles.
I don’t know if such things litter the tops of all the local mountains. I don’t remember seeing so many cairns when Alexander and I climbed the summit of the more daunting Schoodic Mountain nearby (summit: 1,069 feet). Perhaps the cairns on Tucker Mountain (I should call it Tucker Hill) are the work of a single artist, or a single obsessive personality, or a small group of people wanting to make a statement. Usually cairns are left either to mark the trail, or to commemorate some important event. These seemed to exist for their own sake.
But they certainly brought to mind the dolmens, cromlechs and menhirs of Celtic Europe. They don’t have the permanence of those menhirs, which have survived thousands of years; these cairns are just rock set on rock, so the first hard frost could topple them. But I had to wonder if the impulse might have been the same: Make my mark — the X on the dotted line — the proof that someone was here.
There is a resistance to cairns; many dedicated hikers despise them for being unnatural, and for being the equivalent of vandalism. I can’t join their ranks. The best of these cairns are genuine works of art and should be appreciated for such. Their artifice can hardly be a valid source of complaint when the hikers are marching along equally artificial trails through the woods, marked with paint blazes or diamond-shaped route markers stapled to tree trunks.
The cairn-makers may well think of themselves as being clever, postmodern, or snarky, but the bottom line, on which their “X” resides, is that the cairns are the universal cry of the one among the many, like the opening wail of the newborn baby: I am here.