There are cairns littering the beach, stacked on every flat and semi-flat surface on the rock wall climbing the side of the cove. 

I take them in, thinking of the cairns I have seen before. 

Massive structures in wire or wooden cages, in Atlanta, in Sedona, marking the trail where blazes would otherwise be painted directly onto rock. 

The small stack my then-four-year-old daughter built at a checkpoint at the Grand Canyon in imitation of the many others she had seen, and the hurt and confusion on her face when two hikers knocked it down, loudly proclaiming to themselves how much they hated cairns and were sick of people doing it for aesthetic. (The ensuing conversation we had afterwards, the struggle every outdoory parent knows of balancing LNT with letting kids experience nature on their own terms so they grow up to believe in LNT.)

Cairns marking the border between Greenheart Forest and the trail that connects with the AT, created by the property owner to note the boundary and expanded by the many hikers who find peace, art, or simply mischief in each stack. 

I can’t help but shake my head. The beach has cobblestones in place of sand, and I am trying to find friends in a place I am certain is the wrong location, and rehearsing in my head the conversation I will have with my son about how the rocks are a critical part of the ecosystem, so he will not be allowed to take any home. 

Later, I enter the beach again, exhausted from a walk on the loop road in Acadia National Park, trying to find the beach we were supposed to be at. On leaving the wooden staircase, a young woman, fit, white, and pretty, has built a cairn and is contorting herself with her phone stretched in front of her. She is not bothering anyone, but I wonder if she plans to knock the cairn down when she leaves. 

My daughter says something about the tide. “The slide rock was almost under water and now it isn’t!” She remembers wrong, but is adamant the tide is going out, and refuses to accept the arguments my husband and I present to her. Annoyed with her obstinance, I finally snap, “I know it’s coming in because I checked a tide chart this morning and know low tide was at lunchtime.” 

She sulks momentarily, and then goes back to playing, and my words echo in my head. 

As homeschoolers, we have escaped the painful choice between physiological needs (food, warmth, and the income required to provide both), and safety needs (being able to quarantine ourselves and our children against a virus). We have other Choices, including the one that led us to this rocky beach, but To School or Not To School is not among them. And as homeschoolers, I have long stated that one of the benefits to homeschool is you can do it anywhere. And yet, here I was in a new environment, teaching my child nothing more than she is wrong because I say she’s wrong. 

“Let’s do an experiment,” I say, and she brightens. We talk about her belief the tide is going out, and she learns the word ‘hypothesis.’ I suggest she build a cairn, a few feet from where she is playing in the shallows. I know the tide is coming in. It will knock the rocks down and shift them around the shore regardless.

We spend a few minutes together, completely in the present, looking for the perfect rocks. Engaging with each other, and with our senses. We discuss the scientific method. I tell her she can play for a few more minutes and come back to check, but she insists on sitting there, observing the each wave, until she can no longer deny that the water is rising. 

“What is your conclusion?” I ask. 

“The tide is coming in.” 

“Was your hypothesis correct?”


She runs off to explore some more. I look at the remains of the cairn under the cold, clear water, and think of the judgement I might receive if, out of context, I shared a picture of my child with her experiment. I feel I must explain. I must ask for understanding, in a world where we struggle so hard to find Grace.

Later, in the car, I ask her, “Is it okay that your hypothesis was wrong?”

Her eyes furrow in the rearview mirror and she looks confused, not sure if it is a trick question. She was unbothered by her incorrect guess, more excited by this new definition of ‘experiment’ that does not include potions or bottles or even pen and paper, and that we got to do school on a beach.

Finally, she answers, still not sure why I would even be asking.

“Yeah. It’s okay.”

Cairns marking the border of Greenheart Forest Campground and Pisgah National Forest

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