Cairns: Walks in Thin Places

Cairn #7

Jokulsargljufur Region, Iceland

Look . . . I can't find the words for it.
All I have is this golden fullness rising in my chest,
flooding my throat like a pool of honey . . .

And now I am listening not for the words.
For a translation.
For some meaning to settle,
in the still air,
like dew.

From Without Words, Lucy Shaw, What the Light Was Like

For my month's walk in Iceland, I took two books.  Celtic Benedictions -- a liturgy of prayers and readings with which I began and ended each day.  And, a book of poems, What the Light Was Like, by Lucy Shaw.  Poetry is not a natural read for me.  It takes some work.  However, I found that as I read and re-read certain poems, it became like liturgy, like walking a trail over and over.  Meaning and stillness began to settle in.

Stillness doesn't just happen.  There is an intentionality to its creation.  The image for this cairn is from just above the drop into Europe's most powerful waterfall.  The falls are loud, violent, with spray and vibrations engulfing the canyon.  And yet, with the watching and patience of a long expsure, the waters become smooth and flowing.  Especially in the late day's light, the evening's rain, and the echo of the waters below, the stillness that is not immediately apparent can begin to emerge.

At home, I often walk the same trails over and over again.  So, they begin to take on a sense of liturgy.  I've come to especially enjoy a late day's walk during the winter.  A walk that quietly transitions from daylight, to dusk, to evening.  A dear friend of mine with whom I've walked many miles would often describe the day's transition to evening as the importance of watching the stars come down. Watching the stars come down.  Stillness is like that.

Recommended Reading

Celtic Benediction, Morning and Night Prayer, by J. Philip Newell

What the Light Was Like, Poems by Luci Shaw

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Cairn #6

West Coast of Iceland

The idea of a Celtic peregrinatio (pilgramige) has no specific end or goal
such as that of reaching a shrine or a holy place that allows the pilgrim at the end of the journey
to return home with a sense of a mission accomplished.
Peregrinatio is not undertaken at the suggestion of a monastic abbot or superior but, rather,
because of an inner prompting in those who set out,
a passionate conviction that they must undertake
what is essentially an inner journey . . .

From The Celtic Way of Prayer, Esther De Waal

Oftentimes, when I'm talking with someone about my long walk in Iceland, one of their first questions is "so, how far did you walk?"  My answer is always, "I don't know".  For a couple of years prior to going to Iceland, I had carried a pedometer with me whenever I was out for a hike.  So, I was also curious about how far I would walk in Iceland.  My pedometer was in my pocket as I set off for the airport; however, something happened to it on the way over.  Perhaps its was zapped or something as I went through the airport security scanners.  Whatever happened, when I arrived in Iceland, the pedometer wasn't working.  I tried changing battaries and tinkering with it a bit but nothing worked.  So, I took that as a sign -- a sign that it didn't matter how far I walked. 

This image is one of my favoites from the walk and a reminder of the unnecessary measure of distance.  The first morning of this wander was on the western coast along the Snaefellsness Peninsula and I was out for a hike along a trail that parallels the coast -- high cliffs, spectacular sea stacks and rock formations, surprising wildflowers, billowing waves, and calm inlets as the tide receded.  I had walked down to a set of sea stacks and had made a number of images of the rocks and tide pools.  However, many years ago, I learned that the image that I was seeking was oftentimes behind me.  So, I turned around and there this image was; although, at that time I didn't really realize how much I would like it.  When I returned home, I didn't immediately process the images.  Perhaps it may have been the influence of the Czeck photographer, Josef Sudek, whose habit was to wait three months before processing his film that has pointed me toward a similar workflow as well.  As I processed this image, my excitement was almost like that in the darkroom when you see an image come up in the chemicals.  To me, this image speaks of peace and calm and prayer.  The stillness of a conversation spoken and unspoken.

Recommended Reading

The Celtic Way of Prayer, The Recovery of the Religious Imagination, by Esther De Waal 

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Cairn #5

Borgarfjordur, Eastfjords, Iceland

It is not art in the professionalized sense about which I care,
but that which is created sacredly, as a result of deep inner experience,
with all of oneself, and that becomes art in time.

Alfred Stieglitz

I've just recently returned from spending much of the summer trekking in Iceland and it was an incredible experience. The quote from Alfred Stieglitz has been carried in my bag for a number of years and perfectly describes my trek.  I find its meaning coming into focus more and more each day.  Except for a handful of images, the vast majority haven't been processed yet and I will most likely linger over them for awhile. This retreat was a sacred and prayerful walk that deserves time to breath.  So, as I edit and process the images, I will also be writing more about this long walk in the months to come.  

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Cairn #4

Hunters Canyon Trail, Utah

Full awareness of the unnoteworthy, immediate moment
is the grandest and hardest
of all spiritual disciplines.

From The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Robert Belding

This quote is always in front of my desk so that I can be reminded everyday of how difficult it is to pay attention.  Walking is good for focus and thinking through new ideas but the attentive part doesn't happen without some effort.  Whenever I set out on a walk the endorphins quickly set in and stir my imagination . . .and that's what they're supposed to do.  So, I like to let them go for a little while and enjoy their energy; but before too long I want to bring them back into check.  During a long walk, I want to listen and to hear the creative Holy Spirit's voice within me . . . to hear the creative Holy Spirit's voice within.  It's important to allow that voice to use the endorphin's energy for what they were created for.  However, I'm easily distracted and its difficult to maintain focus and attention.  Singing can often be helpful; so, I keep a couple of songs in the back of my head for when I need to call things into focus or to simply quiet down my thoughts.  I remember hearing a photographer once say that just below the viewfinder on his camera he had taped the word think so that he could remind himself everytime that he was about to make an image to not be on auto and to really pay attention to the image in front of him.  When we're out for a long walk, calling into words a melody and a song does the same sort of thing.  It can bring us to full awareness again and again and again.


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Cairn #3

Rampart Range Wildlands, Colorado

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet, and learn to be at home.

Wendell Berry


There are a number of well known Thin places throughout the world -- the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne off the coast of England, St. Columba’s Iona in Scotland, the Camino de Santiago in Spain . . .  Each year thousands of pilgrims journey long distances for the stillness and retreat that they find in these places, and rightly so.  However, in addition to the well known thin places, I think that wherever we are can also become Thin.  This idea became apparent to me several years ago as the Sabbath Walks images began to emerge and I have been conscious of it ever since.

My grandparents were farmers in Western North Carolina and lived in a house overlooking the bend of the South Mills River.  Growing up, my family would have Sunday lunch at their house almost every week.  Stories were always a part of these afternoons.  Other relatives would often be there and some of their stories planted seeds for who I am today.  One of the deepest seeds that was planted within me on those Sundays was when, after lunch was over and the stories slowed down, about the middle of the afternoon my grandfather would go for a walk around the property.  “I’m going over the hill”, I remember him saying.   Some of the property was wooded and the fields were pretty large.  I went with him a few times and I recall, even as an eight or nine-year old boy, sensing that there was something sacred or stilling about those walks.  I don’t remember how often my grandfather took his Sunday afternoon walks but it was often enough that they made a lasting impression on me.  Fortunately, there are many trails near where I now live in Colorado and I hike almost every day.  There is something deeply intimate about walking a place repeatedly; and the Sunday hikes . . . the Sabbath walks . . . always take on a special significance.

The image introducing this Cairn was made in the forest above Palmer Lake on a snowy, winter's Sunday afternoon a number of years ago.  I love aspen trees and the intertwining aspens in the background first caught my eye that day.  I remember stepping off the trail into knee-deep snow to see the angle and I lingered there awhile as I watched the image emerge.  I often walk the trails along the Rampart Range and I always try to find the perspective of these aspens again.  So far, though, I’ve not been able to find that same perspective again -- perhaps it was only for this one wintry Sunday afternoon.  This has become one of my favorite images and it always reminds me of my grandfather’s walks and draws me to the Thin places where I live.


Recommended Reading

The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane.

The Old Ways is a beautiful book of short stories describing various long-distance walks, especially in the UK, and the deep and intimate effect that walking often in one's home wild places can have.

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Cairn #2

The Pembrokeshire Coast Trail, Near St. David's, Wales

... the Celtic tradition of prayer is prayer with the whole of myself,
a totality of praying that embraces the fullness of my own personhood,
and allows me not only to pray with words but also, and more important,
with the heart, the feelings, using image and symbol, touching the springs of my imagination.

From The Celtic Way of Prayer, Esther De Wall

I have always been a walker and have come to know long hikes and wanders as intimate prayerful times.  In fact, it is very difficult for me to pray and listen indoors.  I almost wrote that it's difficult for me to pray and listen while sitting still; but that's not the case.  Its not the stillness that gets me, its the non-movement.  I'm easily distracted and walking helps me focus.  There is a rythm in movement. A pulse.  Something that embraces the fullness of my own personhood.   Listening . . . singing . . . a conversation . . . a conversation with the One who created me.  Walking beside the Christ who loves me and wants to go on a wander.  And, the excitement of ideas from the Holy Spirit who stirs my imagination.

I remember many years ago being an instructor on an outdoor education trip into Wyoming's Absaroka Range.  The group was made up of teenagers from the southeastern U.S. and we had been walking in the desert and mountains for about three weeks.  No phones, no TV's, no electronics at all, just walking in the wild.  As we walked down the final stretch of trail and rounded a bend, we could look down into the valley and see the vans waiting to take us back to civilization.  One of my fondest memories of those outdoor instructor days was hearing one of the students whisper as she saw the traihead below, "Oh no . . . not yet." 

I think of that whisper almost everyday as I wrap-up my daily hike.  The second whisper though is a prayer -- one of thanksgiving for conversation and the stirring of my soul. 

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Cairn #1

Cairns, Along the Western Coast of Iceland

Cairns:  Walks in Thin Places

Thin places, the Celts call this space,

Both seen and unseen,

Where the door between this world 
and the next
is cracked open for a moment,

And the light is not all on the other side.

 Sharlande Sledge

     The Cairns Project is the merging of three long-term fine art works in environmental landscape -- The Sabbath Walks, The Talk That Rain Makes, and A Fierce Landscape.  As these three projects have developed and continue to evolve, five geographical areas that I have come to know as thin have become the focus --  the high desert canyons of Colorado's western slope, the coastline of northwestern Washington and British Columbia, the Pembrokeshire Coast of Wales, northern Iceland, and where I live along Colorado's Palmer Divide.

     Please keep an eye on the Galleries Page for new images and also on this Cairns page for new images, stories, meanders and other gleanings from the trail.