In Borneo, they’re called tugong bula alamat, in Egypt, akrugag and in Iceland, varoa. On the Vineyard, some call them a nuisance.

Cairns, those manmade piles of stones and rocks, have been around for 40,000 years and are our oldest form of communication. Something about them seems inscribed in men’s DNA. For those having trouble asking for directions, cairns served as trail markers, directing us to the right path, remaining there for others to follow. Cairns are rarely used for directions or landmarks anymore, or as they used to be, for burial monuments or religious purposes.

Today, some take them on as a challenge. How can you fashion something solid enough to last for a day, a week, a month, a season? How do you balance a stack of rocks without them crashing down and breaking your toe? But it’s not just simple engineering, at least for some Vineyarders with artistic inclinations. How do you make them original, inspiring, whimsical? Why is this cairn different from all other cairns?

Cairns can also be a declaration that you have reconfigured nature or maybe just a declaration. For many Cairnians, the process is existential. Think balance, centering and connection, recognition of our kindred rocky spirit, the pleasure of stacking.

And don’t forget trust. Cairns stand their ground and people usually leave them alone. A cairn’s favorite Tennessee Williams character? Blanche DuBois: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

But there’s another, darker another side to the story. In Hawaii, on volcanoes cairn builders are accused of desecrating the landscape and interfering with lava flow. In Yosemite, hundreds of short stacks of stones litter the landscape. Visitors receive handouts, instructing them that the park shouldn’t be seen “as a showcase for free-form public art.” In other national parks, rangers routinely topple them. Acadia National Park cites a decades-old “infestation”of cairns, which have become a kind of invasive species.

Can it be that these decent, intrepid cairn builders are instead misguided show-offs, crying out: “Look at me.” Is a cairn just another form of graffiti? Does one cairn lead to another cairn?

Witness the cairn villages popping up on Vineyard beaches.

Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society, doesn’t quite condemn cairns but asks us to “maintain our wild beaches where humans have been absent.”

Luanne Johnson, director of BiodiversityWorks, appreciates that “artistic expression is a big part of our Vineyard community,” but points out that “knowing that there’s untrampled wilderness out there, where no one’s left a trace, buoys your spirit.”

Maybe it’s time to draw a line in the sand and acknowledge that cairns, conspicuous by nature, are a slap in the face to the wild, an affront to the natural order.

Bettina Washington, historian for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), states: “Our stance is not to remove any stones or separate them from the beach.” She says ancient cairns are to be cherished. “They’re a way of remembering that something happened here. Like the solistice or equinox. The Creator has put them here for a purpose. They’re meant to stay where they are.” Still, Bettina is practical. “If we now use the rocks for a specific purpose, like a clambake, we should throw them back in a haphazard way,” she says.

One Vineyard cairn that is anything but haphazard has a name. The Place on the Wayside is near the airport, halfway between Edgartown and West Tisbury. The cairn stands where the Rev. Thomas Mayhew, a missionary and the first minister on Martha’s Vineyard, preached his final sermon in 1657.

According to historical accounts, 1,500 members of the Wampanaag tribe formed a semicircle around him as he bid them farewell before sailing for England. His first disciple, Hiacoomes, took his hand, burst into tears and placed a white stone at his feet. “I put this stone here in your name and whenever I pass here, I shall place a stone in your memory until you return,” he vowed. All the tribal members placed stones where Mayhew stood, bowed their heads and marched back to their homes. Mayhew never did return — his ship was lost at sea.

For the past 360 years, this tradition has continued. Unfortunately many stones have been taken by souvenir hunters. In 1901, members of the tribe hauled a boulder over to the site and the DAR set a bronze plaque into it that reads: “In Loving Remembrance of Him Those Indians Raised This Pile Of Stones, 1657-1901.”

Reverend Mayhew probably wouldn’t have known what to make of the elaborate 21st century cairns at Lucy Vincent and Philbin Beachs. But before he cast off for England, perhaps he picked up a stone, blessed it, then left it where he found it, on his beloved Island.

Ted Sutton lives in Newton and Aquinnah.