Dennis the Menace

Louisville’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy photo.

I drove to Cherokee Park’s Big Rock Pavilion, adjacent to Beargrass Creek, on Friday afternoon, anticipating a profusion of white bonesets, blue dayflowers and lingering yellow wingstems. I wasn’t disappointed.

But there was more.

A hundred yards downstream, I could make out rock sculptures—dozens of them. They looked, from a distance, like cairns—unmortared rock piles. I wandered down a slippery slope toward Big Rock.

A modest, young man explained what he was doing. “Piling up rocks,” he said. His stacks were fascinating, but I wondered if he realized the next heavy rainstorm was going to knock all of his work back to the Silurian streambed, if kids or the park authorities didn’t topple them first.

He wasn’t concerned. His palette of creek and fieldstones was laid down 435 million years ago, so why should he be worried what might happen over the weekend or the next millennium?

The young man introduced himself as Dennis (“like the Menace,” he said). Dennis, a 24-year-old apprentice pipe organ refurbisher, wasn’t noticeably menacing, unless you find either rock piles or the Beatles annoying. The Beatles were singing Love me Do, from a large boombox. The sound quality was terrific. Eight Days a Week soon bounced off the steep and massive limestone outcrop. Dennis took a big gulp from a Bud Light Tall Boy. It was a sweltering late afternoon.

I asked if he’d ever heard of Andy Goldsworthy, the English sculptor and installation artist who works with found, natural pieces. Dennis had never heard of Goldsworthy but promised he’d look him up.

Dennis had never stacked rocks until this past May. Whenever time allowed this summer, he returned to Big Rock. He had assembled 110 rock towers by late July.

Rocks come and they go.

Fifty sculptures were flattened by heavy rainfall in August.

Dennis stayed at Big Rock on Friday night well past dark. He kept company with hoot howls, crickets and frogs. “I love the solitude,” he said.

Young kids, splashing in Beargrass Creek, knocked down several more sculptures on Saturday. He didn’t scold them. They were having fun; Dennis was, too.

Sixty sculptures survived the kids and the Planet X apocalypse over the weekend, but they may not survive this week.

Some park visitors complain that Dennis is creating an eyesore. His “towers” alter the scenic nature of Beargrass Creek, they argue.

There is a growing art vs. nature argument about built rock piles. Critics worry that streambeds, beaches and trails could become cluttered with such piles. Biologists worry that moving rocks along streams create a disturbance to invertebrates that hide under the creek stones.

Louisville’s 120 Metro Parks, including Cherokee Park, suffer occasionally from too much love, and a chronic lack of sufficient funding for maintenance and enforcement. Bathrooms get vandalized; rocks, buildings and benches get tagged with graffiti.

Park users jump curbs and park their cars off road in the shade of large trees. Cars compact the soil, preventing aeration to the roots. Trees suffer.

And there is never a weekend that goes by that Louisville’s parks don’t get littered with trash.

Dennis and his pal John picked up the mess left behind by the mindless and the lazy. Their adopted sanctuary, within one of Louisville’s 18, historic, Olmsted-designed parks, was as clean as any park anywhere this past Friday and Saturday.

Dennis has quickly developed a talent for building rock sculptures. Again, he built his first one just four months ago. He can’t imagine that anyone would view his rock towers as a threat to nature. He means no harm.

Dennis will move on eventually. He’s more talented than he realizes; he’s learning.

He’s no menace. And there’s certainly no worldwide scarcity of rocks. 

Allen Bush is an Honorary Trustee of Louisville’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy.


  1. I see these rock cairns everywhere. I understand the visual appeal (it reminds me of a meditative zen design) and see the real need for the cairns on hiking trails, but I don’t understand why I see them EVERYWHERE. Is it just so people can take a photo to share on the internet?

    Don’t get me wrong. I built a own cairn once on a trail when we became turned around and I’ve enjoyed taking photos of others’ cairns at picturesque settings.

  2. My first reaction is: he spoiled the natural beauty of the site. My second was: he disrupted the local ecosystem. Lots of critters live on and under rocks in rivers and streams and this disrupts their ecosystem and, if they’re attached to the rock or get covered by disturbed silt, may kill them.

    I know this is a bit of a spoilersport attitude but I enjoy and respect natural spaces and this is not what i want to see when I go hiking.

    • Susan it sounds as you may need some enlightening. This is pure art work. They have a true talent. Not only did they add such incredible art to take in, they cleaned this place up so nicely. It saddens me to hear such negative thoughts on this. I think it’s awesome. Dennis your art is awesome, don’t stop!

      • I’m fluent in three languages, too.
        English, sarcasm, and profanity.

        As Freud said:

        “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes.”

  3. The stacking of stones into an Inuksuk was and still is, very common amongst some First Nations people in Canada.

    They are built for navigation and to mark camps, pathways, and places of cultural significance. Many of them have spiritual connotations and are built to represent a connection to the land.

    These inuksuit are “venerated regardless of their function”.

  4. I find it particularly ironic that people find human recreational activity disrupts the natural beauty of a landscape designed by Olmstead. Olmstead first and foremost designed parks for the people that would use them. He also would move heaven and Earth to mold the land into his vision. He would drain and fill wetlands and create topography that never existed on the sites previously. Olmstead parks are not natural beauties but beautiful human constructs much like those stacks of rocks.

  5. Perhaps it is best to move like a ghost through the wilderness, if we visit at all.

    But one new subdivision causes more damage than a hundred thousand rocks displaced. I’d wager that water from this stream cannot be safely drunk. We are poisoning our aquifers – legally! The very air makes me cough. We as a species have started the sixth great extinction. We are all captive consumers, making our contributions to destruction, and we cannot escape the shared guilt completely.

    My house wasn’t here 16 years ago, and my garden is an unnatural displacement of the desert that was here before. But I planted a milkweed last week; hopeful the occasional monarch I see on her migration will lay eggs here. We get hummingbirds also stopping by to refuel on their migrations. Nearly the whole lot has been stripped of sod and replaced with trees, shrubs, ground covers, and vegetable beds.

    Should David not move the rocks? I would not, but I still find the cairns beautiful. And I suspect that in thirty years, when I am no longer around, that David will be part of the global movement to save humanity, by saving the world first.

Comments are closed.