Fans of the ageless "Rocky and Bullwinkle" animated TV series will remember when Rocky, the intrepid flying squirrel, would cheerfully announce, "And now for something completely different!"
I can't help but think that's the perfect introduction this week to Seattle natural history writer David B. Williams' new book, "Cairns: Messengers in Stone."
It isn't every day that a book about rocks comes across my desk. Perhaps the last time was in 2009 when I reviewed Williams' last book, "Stories in Stone."
His new offering, published by Mountaineers Books, is a bit more restrained in presentation. Designer John Barnett is responsible for the book's layout and the simple but elegant illustrations.
The text's type size will seem a little stingy to those of us who no longer can claim 20/20 vision. The footnotes, which are invariably interesting, are in a font so tiny as to be ridiculous.
As for content, Williams works hard to balance his geological nerdiness with a writing style that strives to be accessible and fun. He doesn't always succeed, but there is plenty here to entertain lay reader.
The book treats not only the geology and the ecology of cairns, but also the surprisingly significant environmental impact they can have.
Williams talks about cairns as markers, as shrines, and as art. He explores "maledictory lapidation" and the ritualistic use of stone, and notes the "cheery effect" of birds' "depositional habits" on cairns that provide avian perches.
His book provides a quirky world tour - from California to Iceland to Mongolia, from the moors of Scotland to the Libyan desert. Stacked rocks are an ancient but enduring form of communication that can signify spiritual belief, self-expression, trysting venue, or hunting grounds.
Williams writes about the use of cairns in Greek mythology, Arthurian legend and Tlingit commemorations.
Historically, cairns have been used as community post offices and as burial mounds. His description of 12th century Viking graffiti, found inside a Bronze Age burial chamber in Scotland, is particularly entertaining.
The book also discusses the use of cairns in early European exploration - and the poignancy of those markers in the doomed forays of Sir John Franklin's naval expedition, which disappeared in the mid-1800s while seeking the Northwest Passage; and of the Robert F. Scott party, which reached the South Pole in January, 1912 - one month after Roald Amundsen's group captured bragging rights to be the first men ever to stand at that godforsaken spot. Unlike the proud Norwegians, the luckless Brits did not survive the return trip.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a new element has crept into the consideration of cairns - one that is indicative of our era's obsession with political correctness: when are cairns appropriate, and when are they not?
Williams' research in teasing out the stories of the silent rock sentinels offers readers an interesting way of connecting with the landscape and stimulating the imagination. This quirky book is worth a look.
BARBARA LLOYD MCMICHAEL writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com