There are now over three thousand stones lying in a heap on Mount Caburn. If you pass by, please add another. Or better: begin your own Life Cairn where you live, as a point of awareness, a guiding light on this dark mountain. — Andreas Kornevall
The natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong. To be alienated from this community is to become destitute in all that makes us human. To damage this community is to diminish our own existence. — Thomas Berry
There is a ridge of hills that runs around the back of Swanage on the Dorset Coast. Walking along this ridge one day, it became very misty. I had a feeling of spirits all around me. Only later, did I learn I was walking through a Bronze Age burial site, several large cairns.
A cairn is a pile of stones. Why do we find something satisfying in piling up stones?
In the corner of Playa Jardin, someone, or maybe a group, had made piles of stones, carefully balancing one stone above the other.
Santiago was asked why did he wish to travel to see the Pyramids, when all they were were a pile of stones, something we can create in our back garden.
We have always lost species, but we are now losing species at a cataclysmic rate, an estimated 55,000 a year.
The Life Cairn is located on Mount Caburn in Sussex, a joint project of Andreas Kornevall and Rev Peter Owen Jones, to mark the cataclysmic loss of species.
Anyone passing by, is asked to add a stone, to pause and reflect.
A group of us on top of Mount Caburn, East Sussex have started a Life Cairn — a memorial for species rendered extinct at human hands. The inauguration was held on the 22nd May, 2011. About a hundred of us gathered, resembling broken-hearted scarecrows on the mountain top. We laid our stones and said farewell. We paid tribute to the Baiji River Dolphin, the Javan Tiger, the Golden Frog, the Pyrenean Ibex, the Cape Elephant, and the Great Auk — to mention only a few amongst the thousands of species which go extinct every year; the list is too endless to spell out.
Since then, over three thousand stones have been laid, each one symbolising an animal gone from the tree of life, never to give birth again. The tragedy of man-made extinctions — which are occurring at a faster rate than any natural cycle — is their silence: barely a whisper is heard in the media. How did we allow the rhino of West Africa to be declared extinct in October last year without even marking their passing? Or the river dolphin of the Yangtze? — she was revered as a Goddess of the River in the ancient past, and now she is only a cold statistic on an IUCN Red list. There was no grief from humanity, no songs, and no-one paid tribute — after millions of years of evolution. Why?
Recently, I met an elderly man who had walked up to Mount Caburn. He still remembered the Cape elephant; he laid his stone for this magnificent but forgotten creature, and we had a moment of silence together. Other times when I have visited the Life Cairn, I have seen bundles laid for extinct animals, such as an ant in Namibia, or feathers blown by the winds as a memory for the Emperor woodpecker.
A cairn to mourn the loss of species, a cairn that says, thus far and no further.
During the 20th century the continental black rhino was the most numerous of all rhino species. In 2002 only 10 West African rhinos remained in Cameroon, and in 2006 intensive surveys failed to locate any.
Eulogy for the Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes)
The Western Black Rhinoceros species emerged about eight million years ago and was declared extinct by the IUCN on the 11th of November, 2011.
She stood at 180 cm (52–71 in) high at the shoulder and is 2.8–3.8 m in length and weighed from 800 to 1,400 kg (1,800 to 3,100 lb). The longest horn measured 1.5 m (4.9 ft) in length. She used the horn for defence, digging up roots, and breaking branches. She had a pointed upper lip to grasp leaves and twigs when feeding. Her thick-layered skin protected her from thorns and sharp grasses. She developed a long relationship with the ox-peckers and egrets, who helped to clean and rid her of parasites. With her poor eyesight, the birds also helped to alert her of the presence of predators.
She was a herbivore and ate leafy plants, branches, shoots, thorny wood bushes, and fruit and was able to identify up to 18 species of plants. Her home was made of thick scrub, bushland, and woodland.
None of us will ever see the legendary Western Black Rhinoceros again. The last female of any species means the ending of birth, it means extinction.
“Each sunset revealed your shadow in the savannah, each rainstorm washed over your back. Now an empty pool of water remains where you grazed, and your shadow can only be imagined. “
The Life Cairn located on Mount Caburn, may have been the first, but it was not to remain alone. A new Life Cairn was built at the Sustainability Centre, near Petersfield, Hampshire.
Whenever a crime against humanity has taken place in human history, the perpetrators have inevitably justified their crimes by subordinating their victims into ‘lower’ social, cultural or ethnic groupings. If genocide is to be committed, the victims must first be deemed to be somehow ‘subhuman’. Their lack of morals or worth must first be established in the psyche of the people; once this is achieved, then otherwise good people will often carry on with their lives whilst their government builds mass graves. What is in reality a great evil, springing from a deep moral crisis, can seem entirely reasonable — at the time.
Today, such a moral crisis is found within our relationship to what we call ‘biodiversity’: the rich web of life on Earth. We are reducing the world to ashes without blinking: 50,000 species go extinct every year according to the UN. Biologists have declared this the age of the sixth mass extinction (the fifth was when the meteor struck and wiped out the dinosaurs.) Species fade away daily from the Tree of Life, and we justify it by denying life as a whole any sentience. Does a spider have what a human might consider ‘consciousness’? Not unless a human scientist can prove it. Until then, we are justified in wiping out life in the name of ‘resource extraction.’ This moral vacuum has prevailed I believe, because it has been advantageous to our material development.
It may sound audacious, but I’ve been thinking about how we can change our morals and ethics, especially in relation to the wild. When you look at a culture such as this one in the UK (I am not a UK national, so I am looking from outside in: please have mercy!), yuo may see that much of its moral driving force lies within the white men clad in bronze outside Westminster, and within the public ceremonies held a few times a year commemorating the sacrifices made during the two World Wars. There, through the grief of the soldiers and veterans, we begin to understand what sacrifices they made and what took place. It is clear to see that the ritual and unity of the political parties during this time acts to protect ourselves from the possibility of such horrors ever transpiring again. Ceremonies of this kind swing our moral pendulum, and they should not be underestimated.
Something told me, when I first realised this, that we need a similar public ritual and memorial for the natural world — that a monument needs to be raised for the sixth mass extinction.
This thought was what drove me to set up the Life Cairn memorial in 2011. The Life Cairn is a pile of stones on Mount Caburn in East Sussex, dedicated tp all species rendered extinct at human hands. Every stone on the Life Cairn represents an extinct species. It is a place of awareness, a place to reflect on what it means to be human, to discuss ethics and morality, and to begin to understand how we have allowed the River Dolphin of the Yangtze to never again give birth after millions of years of life.
The Life Cairn has caused a stir: some people want the pile of stones removed now, for a memorial like this upsets as it reveals. It has been vandalised, and threatened countless times. But the Life Cairn stands, humble, yet defiant, on a lonely English hill.
The wild is caught in a fireblaze, the flames seem too high to stop. If we cannot grieve for all that is being lost in the wild, then it was never loved.
Last summer (5 June 2012) a Life Cairn was built in central Stockholm. A stone travelled to Sweden from England hand to hand by foot.
Note: Quotes are from Andreas Kornevall, co-founder with Rev Peter Owen Jones of The Life Cairn.
Top Story in The Digital Mission Daily (Saturday 21 December 2013).