Last spring, a young woman in my yoga class trekked around Mount Kailash. She and her husband practice Tibetan Buddhism and this was a big “pilgrimage” for them.
I found out about her trip after class, when she gave our teacher a small stone, taken from the mountain. The student also reported that she’d deposited a lock of our teacher’s hair at the top of the mountain. Apparently, visitors typically leave mementos at a sacred spot up there: locks of hair, teeth, photos, loved ones’ ashes.
Having never seen Mount Kailash myself, I wondered what is appropriate. Is it okay to leave mementos and to take stones? What is the native tradition?
Perhaps I was reminded of the Big Island of Hawaii. My curmudgeonly friend Bobby, a cave expert and longtime staffer at the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, is ever exasperated by all the offerings (which he calls “junk”) left at Kilauea Volcano for Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess.
People throw bottles of whisky into Halema‘uma‘u Crater. They leave food, flowers, rocks wrapped in ti leaves (to mimic a native dish), and the gamut of manmade paraphernalia. Staffers waste time, money, and energy carting away the junk.
Worse, people take lava rock. And then they send it back. (According to superstition, bad luck will befall those who remove lava without the blessing of Pele. Accounts of life ruination by rock takers abound.) Believe it or not, the park receives hundreds of pounds of rock annually.
Of course, I occasionally have an urge to take a physical souvenir: a piece of driftwood or coral, a shell or a stone. So miniscule. But, over time, human footprints add up.
And, once you’re gone, will your successors even value that souvenir? Or will it be just a meaningless curiosity, clutter that ends up in the trash?
Regarding leaving mementos, I understand that traditional offerings on Mount Kailash are natural objects, such as hair, teeth, a drop of blood, ashes. It is a universal human desire to lay important pieces of ourselves in sacred spots. If organic matter, fine. It ultimately becomes part of nature. But why leave plastic or otherwise manmade knickknacks in pristine wilderness? It makes no sense!
All in all, it’s probably best to change a natural place as little as possible. To take nothing, to leave no trace.