Edited by Etienne Turpin

Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy

    Erratic Imaginaries: Thinking Landscape as Evidence

    Fig. 01 Kidston Lake Rocking Stone, Kidstone Lake, Nova Scotia. Gardner Collection of Photographs, Harvard College Library
    Fig. 01 Kidston Lake Rocking Stone, Kidstone Lake, Nova Scotia. Gardner Collection of Photographs, Harvard College Library

    In 1882, the Rev. D. Honeyman wrote about a peculiar geological feature: “The Rocking Stone of Spryfield has long been regarded as an object of interest. […] I was astonished at its imposing appearance. Having reached its top by a ladder, which is placed against it for the convenience of visitors, I enjoyed a strange rock in this wonderful cradle. My conductor and companion, Simon D. Macdonald, F.G.S., seeing me seated at the top, went to the end of a lever, also placed in position, and commenced operations. The mass began to move, the motion increased and the rocking commenced, and was continued until I was satisfied.”[1] A similarly pleasurable experience of rocking the Rocking Stone at Kidston Lake in Spryfield, Nova Scotia, was described 60 years previous in an article in The Glasgow Mechanics Magazine. After “rocking and inspecting this wonderful stone for some time,” the author recorded some observations. Pivoting on a flat stone, the Rocking Stone could be moved by simply mounting it and shifting one’s weight from side to side. With a short lever, the massive body could be moved about 12 inches in an east-northeast to west-southwest direction “by a child of 12 years.”[2] Noting that there were no nearby rocks that the Rocking Stone could have broken from, the author concluded that the anomaly “clearly evidences the skill and power of an Almighty hand!” By Honeyman’s time, a tall, wooden ladder and a lever were on hand to help rockers mount the stone and instigate movement. [Fig. 01] Picnickers laid out their spreads on the flat top and enjoyed the gentle motion produced by their very presence. But years of recreational rocking eventually wore down the base of the stone, and it stopped moving. In the 1890s, one group of garrison soldiers allegedly rocked so hard that the stone became lodged in place. In the 1990s, as part of a clean-up effort of the surrounding land, members of the local heritage society removed impeding materials from beneath the stone, freeing it to rock freely once more.[3]

    Even without human force, the boulder was known to move; a strong gust of wind could trigger its vibration.[4] But long before, the Rocking Stone had moved, or had been moved, even more significantly. In fact, it had been picked up, transported, and deposited by retreating glaciers about 20,000-26,000 years ago at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum, or Wisconsin Glaciation Period, when vast ice sheets extended across North America, Northern Europe, Northwestern Asia and much of the Andes.[5] Honeyman, who was familiar with the local geology and the principles of glacial transport that were well-known by 1882, took a hammer to the rock to investigate its mineral composition and posited that the boulder had probably been moved by some nine or ten miles.

    Terrain Erratique

    Fig. 02 Pierre des Marmettes, from Jean De Charpentier, Essai Sur Les Glaciers et Sur le Terrain Erratique du Bassin du Rhone (Lausanne: Imprimerie et Librairie de Marc Ducloux, 1841).
    Fig. 02 Pierre des Marmettes, from Jean De Charpentier, Essai Sur Les Glaciers et Sur le Terrain Erratique du Bassin du Rhone (Lausanne: Imprimerie et Librairie de Marc Ducloux, 1841).

    Landscapes conspicuously strewn with boulders of foreign origin in the southern Jura Mountain region were described by German-Swiss geologist Jean de Charpentier as terrains erratiques. [6] The term was later used to describe not the landscape, but the individual thing—an erratic. Charpentier himself lived not far from one such rock—the Pierre des Marmettes—a ten-metre-tall granite boulder in the Swiss Rhône valley. [Fig. 02] Based on its unique granitic composition, the rock appeared to have come from 30 kilometres up the valley.[7] The supposed journey of such a behemoth confounded expectations and served as the basis of inquiry, and later as evidence, for Charpentier’s contributions to the development of glacial theory. This aligns with the trajectory of discovery described by Thomas Kuhn, who, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, writes that “discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e. with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science.”[8] While Charpentier investigated, public fascination with the boulder proliferated; a tourist pavilion was erected on top, a version of which remains today.[9] [Fig. 03] When the rock went up for sale to an extraction company in 1905, a nation-wide campaign was launched to save it. The ultimately successful case for preservation was based entirely on the rock’s crucial role in the development of glacial theory.[10]

    Fig. 03 Postcard, Pierre des Marmettes, (1905) R. Heyraudt, Publisher, St. Maurice, collection of Vincent Franzen
    Fig. 03 Postcard, Pierre des Marmettes, (1905) R. Heyraudt, Publisher, St. Maurice, collection of Vincent Franzen

    Scientific and lay observations of erratic boulders have served as critical, distributed evidence for the development of the theory of glaciation; by implication, ideas of geologic time and the location of humans within it are also entangled in such a theory. Erratics attracted a wealth of curiosity through their alien lithology and their unexpected patterns of distribution, both of which were crucial aspects of the evidence needed to reconstruct an Ice Age. Still, long after they played a role in establishing modern geohistory, individual boulders persist as cultural artefacts for provoking and inscribing ideas about time. Certain erratics maintain a dual status as physical fragments of deep time and contemporary cultural objects that relay more recent histories. They are curious things—in size, shape, and position. They are visible and climbable relics of glacial processes too vast to otherwise experience. They are prone to being used as markers of human events and spaces, yet are also markers of deep time, having travelled long distances in nearly unimaginable environments. It is through this conflation of vastly different timescales that erratics bridge a seemingly unbridgeable divide between geological time and human action.

    Flowing ice acts as a massive material conveyor, plucking and transporting fragments of rock as it advances. Glacial melt water enters fractures in the earth’s surface, freezing, expanding, and loosening angular fragments, or blocks, of bedrock. Rather than being tumbled like river stones, blocks are dragged by the weight of the glacier, honing angular surfaces. Bound tightly by the ice, they scour the surfaces that they pass over, and abrade deep parallel grooves in the direction of the ice flow. In North America, melt water from the toe of the shrinking Laurentide Ice Sheet carved the Missouri and Ohio River systems, radically modifying the drainage patterns of the whole continent. The rebound of land released from the weight of ice, the action of melt water on different types of rock, and the deposition of conveyed debris formed the moraines, drumlins, eskers, and kettle ponds that characterize glacial surficial geology. The majority of this rock material is deposited near where it is picked up; a small fraction of it, usually composed of harder minerals, travels further and ends up deposited elsewhere, often on bedrock with a totally different mineralogical composition.[11] When not embedded in local till, large boulders will appear curiously on the surface of the land.

    The Last Revolution

    In the first half of the nineteenth century, efforts to reconstruct geologic time oscillated between two predominant hypotheses: one according to which the earth had existed for a very short time, estimated at 4000 B.C. by James Ussher; and another that suggested the earth had an unlimited timescale of repeated cycles of geologic change.[12] Georges Cuvier, then a professor at Paris’s Museum of Natural History, proposed in his Researches on Fossil Bones (1812) a middle-ground and modern position, namely that the earth had a vast, non-repeated history, the great majority of which had occurred before humans existed. Cuvier described successive periods of calm, interrupted by periods of violent change, which he called “revolutions” and analogized to the recent political revolution in France.[13] The character of the “Last Revolution” was the most urgent to understand, as it distinguished between the present (human) world and a vaguely defined past.[14]

    Among the most puzzling features of the Last Revolution were growing accounts of far-displaced erratic blocks and underlying bedrock scratched with directional markings. Massive boulders had been found on German plains originating in Scandinavia, in Brandenburg from across the Baltic Sea, and in St. Petersburg from somewhere near Finland.[15] As early as 1787, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure described “indicators,” boulders with such particular lithology that they could be traced to the area from where they had likely originated.[16] Straight lines could then be drawn on a map between the site of an erratic and its probable origin. A widely circulated explanation was found in William Buckland’s Relics of the Deluge (1823), which credited the changes to a mega-tsunami or catastrophic flood (which could be identified as Noah’s Flood) dating back no more than 5,000 years.[17] That scattered boulders, drifts, and U-shaped valleys were evidence of a global diluvial event resonated strongly in the popular imagination. Thomas Cole’s painting The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829) depicts a scene after the rains of the great flood have ceased, with a human skull in the foreground and erratic boulders perched on high peaks signalling the destructive power of the waters.[18]

    The everyday observations of erratic boulders and glacial processes by people living near them proved valuable for the naturalists seeking answers. Alpine shepherds remarked to early geologist visitors that large, angular boulders and abraded surfaces below existing glaciers were evidence that they had once been much larger. Field observations from one unnamed woodcutter from Meiringen and a shepherd named Jean-Pierre Perraudin ultimately allowed Charpentier to speculate that glaciers, not floods, had transported the boulders:[19] “The shepherds of the Alps have always had a better knowledge of the phenomena of the glacier than most scientific men.”[20] Similarly, the Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz credited Alpine shepherds, who had observed the landscape over time, with being the first to measure the movement of glaciers and their rate of change.[21] Eventually, the explanation that attributed erratic terrain and scratched bedrock to ice floes prevailed over the dilivual hypothesis. Building on the work of others, Charpentier suggested that a giant glacier had once extended throughout the Alps. Agassiz’s Etudes sur les glaciers (1840) expanded on Charpentier’s work, arguing that a single vast ice sheet had in fact covered much of the continent. These hypotheses were seminal in the development and communication of a widely accepted theory of glaciation.

    “I hardly know anything more instructive to a student of geology,” Agassiz suggested in 1860, during a lecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “than to watch the small physical phenomena which we see all about us, and by our imagination, conceive of them as operating on a grand scale.”[22] Geologists and artists used the familiar landscape of glacial debris, erratic blocks, and scratched bedrock in New England to communicate to the public new theories of the geological past. Landscape artists of the Hudson River School socialized and conversed with geologists during the second half of the nineteenth century, as American landscape painting shifted its focus from the symbolic and allegorical to the study of natural phenomena with a more scientific lens. William Haseltine’s painting Rocks at Nahant (1864) references the directional glacial markings on the Massachusetts shoreline, where both he and Agassiz spent time. The painting also depicts the same landscape where Agassiz’s popular Sunday geology walks would take place, which Haseltine often attended.[23]

    Scientific interest in erratics trailed off by the late nineteenth century, yet with their indubitable physicality and weighty presence they maintain a dual status as objects of scientific evidence. In Things that Talk, Lorraine Daston writes that such objects, which both “talk” through the meaning that they produce and are persistent as “things” in the world, “unsettle views about the nature of both.”[24] The apparent paradoxes that surround knowledge of erratic boulders make them objects of sustained consideration. They are solid, insistent markers in space, yet they indicate a remote origin, and therefore travel between these two registers of knowing. Their movements are a result of both subsequent geologic forces and human forces, for instance in the relocation of a celebrated boulder for its “conservation.” Their transient reputation destabilizes notions about the natural environment as static and also challenges assumptions about indigeneity and rights to land. Doreen Massey notes that in a campaign to promote immigration rights in Hamburg, Germany, a large, beloved boulder was identified as “our oldest immigrant,” after being glacially transported from modern-day Sweden.[25] The campaign challenged residents’ political claims to land through their “intrinsic indigeneity” by calling into question the stability of the very land upon which their claims were made.

    Erratics refer to overlapping moments in scales of time: their original formation, their glacial deposition, and different events in human history—sometimes they are even literally carved with a date or name. Unlike the Pierre des Marmettes, the individual erratic cases that follow were not singled out as demonstrative evidence for the theory of glaciation in the nineteenth century, although their recorded histories overlap with the emergence and widespread dissemination of the theory. They reflect instead a range of efforts to grapple with or manipulate ideas about different geological time scales.

    Rollstone Boulder, Fitchburg, Massachusetts

    Just as the Pierre des Marmettes was almost sold and turned into dimensional stone in 1905, the Rollstone Boulder, perched on Rollstone Hill in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, was also vulnerable to imminent destruction. The vibrations of an expanding hilltop quarry threatened to destabilize the 110-ton porphyritic granite boulder, whose structural integrity had already been a longstanding and active cause for concern by area residents. From downtown Fitchburg, the boulder’s silhouette was visible on the hill’s ridgeline, making it an ever-present if somewhat distant marker among the town’s natural scenography.[26] It was a well-known character that had “survived the ice age,” “held early pilgrims on [its] shoulders,” “conversed with Mohawk Indian tribes, and observed the creation of Fitchburg and its surrounding communities,” at least according to I Am The Boulder, a poem by Robert Boucher.[27]

    The boulder’s feldspar and iron sulphide varies from the granite that it had landed on, but matched the composition of that found about 100 miles north, in central New Hampshire. Despite understanding that the boulder had once been a part of something much bigger, residents had been preoccupied with keeping the rock whole, lest it break apart and lose the familiar shape by which they had come to know it. To start, someone had filled the surface cracks with cement. At another point, an expedition of geologists instigated the wrapping of the rock’s midriff with a solid iron belt, “to prevent further disintegration.” The concern for the rock’s wholeness passed between generations; in a 1902 report, a member of the Fitchburg Historical Society expressed gratitude “to the person or persons whose kindness and generosity” had taken such care to keep the rock intact.[28] Multiple postcards and photographs show the boulder in various states of repair and disrepair, surrounded by geologists, mounted with children, or being “held up” by a comedic visitor hamming it up for the camera. [Fig. 04]

    In the early 1930s, when the rock stood in the way of a derrick that the quarry wanted to install, it was dragged 200 feet along the hill by a mechanical apparatus. When quarrying operations expanded on Rollstone Hill in the late 1920s, a special committee to save the rock was assembled.[29] Newspaper clippings from 1930 show the boulder’s surface marked with a network of white lines in preparation for being dynamited and relocated downtown. Over the course of 13 weeks, 275 dynamited fragments were transported to Fitchburg’s Upper Common and reassembled using the white lines as guides “to assume again its original famous contours.” To this day the boulder remains there adorned with a plaque that details its past. The Boston Daily Globe did not fail to report on the rock’s resting place as a confluence of both glacial and human forces: “Having been moved only twice since it was forsaken by a cold and inhospitable glacier, the Rollstone Boulder has taken up its last abode nearer than ever to the friendly and admiring citizens of Fitchburg, whose fortunes, although covering the merest instant in the history of the giant monument, are doubtless the most interesting of which it has watched.”[30]

    Fig. 04 Postcard, Rollstone Boulder, Fitchburg, Massachusetts Peter Cristofono collection
    Fig. 04 Postcard, Rollstone Boulder, Fitchburg, Massachusetts Peter Cristofono collection

    Babson Boulders, Dogtown, Massachusetts

    On a visit to the landscape surrounding Dogtown, Massachusetts, in 1858, Henry David Thoreau described “the most peculiar scenery of the Cape. […] We could see no house, but hills strewn with boulders, as though they had rained down, on every side.”[31] The area, later known as Dogtown, was the Commons between significant villages in the mid-seventeenth century; eventually people settled there amongst the densely bouldered terrain erratique. Smaller glacial rocks were used to build walls and houses, but larger boulders were steadfast and speckled the landscape. The town prospered until the mid-eighteenth century, eventually reaching a population of 80 families; it was only as residents migrated to the coast to take advantage of abundant fish stocks that the population saw a decline. As the population dwindled, buildings decayed, trees colonized the clearings, and dogs ran free, giving the town its current name.[32]

    Among the descendants of Dogtown’s first English settlers, Roger W. Babson, born in 1875, maintained a connection with the mostly abandoned town. He built a summer cottage in the area and made telling its history a lifelong project. The Boston millionaire businessman, presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party, author, and founder of three colleges had famously predicted the 1929 stock market crash. He found particular interest in studying the economic rise and decline of his familial land. “Connected with the story of Dogtown is a great economic lesson as well as a story of romance,” he wrote.[33] His autobiography, Actions and Reactions, involved an especially direct appropriation of Newton’s eponymous theory, which he applied to Dogtown as an example of the causal relationship between morality and prosperity:[34] “Dogtown teaches me clearly that progress comes only slowly and from developing within the individual self-control, high ideals and other fundamental immunities.”[35] Babson saw the landscape, then associated with decline and the subject of ghost stories, as an opportunity to record and communicate his lessons.

    Fig. 05 Babson Boulders Map
    Fig. 05 Babson Boulders Map
    Fig. 06 Babson Boulder, Courage, Dogtown, Massachusetts
    Fig. 06 Babson Boulder, Courage, Dogtown, Massachusetts

    Having located and mapped all of the remnant stone cellars from pre-existing houses in the village, Babson marked them by hiring stone workers to carve numbers into nearby large erratic boulders. He later hired quarry workers to carve slogans into the boulders, following a circuit through the woods surrounding his property. [Fig. 05] Among the slogans, always inscribed with capital letters to emphasize their imperative nature, are the following: SAVE, IDEAS, STUDY, INTEGRITY, LOYALTY, NEVER TRY / NEVER WIN, PROSPERITY FOLLOWS SERVICE, KEEP OUT OF DEBT, USE YOUR HEAD, INTELLIGENCE, KINDNESS, COURAGE, WORK, INITIATIVE, INDUSTRY, TRUTH, BE CLEAN, GET A JOB, BE ON TIME, BE TRUE, HELP MOTHER, SPIRITUAL POWER, IF WORK STOPS VALUES DECAY. At a time when billboard advertisements were beginning to sprout up everywhere, to which Babson was adamantly opposed and called “debauching outdoor poster talk,” he constructed a constellation of rock mottoes. He called the project his “Life’s Book,” and wrote that, “my family says that I am defacing the boulders and disgracing my family with these inscriptions, but the work gives me a lot of satisfaction, fresh air, exercise, and sunshine. I am really trying to write a simple book with words carved in stone instead of printed on paper.”[36] [Fig. 06]

    The erratic boulders of Dogtown were convenient media for Babson’s distributed lessons. They insisted on personal moral responsibility at the exact moment of systemic economic collapse in the United States. The boulders scaled appropriately for such messages were those too large to be cleared or used for other construction purposes; as such, they were pre-colonial and had witnessed the complete economic cycle of the village. Babson enlisted their reference to the past generations’ economic decline as a way of provoking better moral action in the future.

    Medicine or Prayer Rock, Ipswich, South Dakota

    While Babson marked boulders to incite moral behaviour, the “Medicine or Prayer Rock” in Ipswich, South Dakota, outside of the Marcus P. Beebe Memorial Library, is marked as a static monument to a naturalized indigenous past, while patronizing its significance. The embossed sign standing next to the rock reads: “Found near Mobridge, the impression was tediously incised by some old Indian intent on building himself up as a medicine man. Once formed it was a symbol of great power and was venerated by the Indian who believed it was the work of the ‘Wakan’ or Great Spirit. – Erected 1962, Ipswich Commercial Club.” The rock was removed from its location southeast of Mobridge, and taken 68 miles to the main walkway of the public library. On one side of the rock is an impression of two hands, spread apart as if the body they belonged to was leaning heavily into the surface. A plaque bolted to the street-facing side of the rock commemorates the library—not the rock—named in memory of Beebe, the first president of the bank of Ipswich. [Fig. 07]

    Other boulders with similarly incised handprints are on display at the Marshall City Prayer Rock Museum in Britton, SD. Not only does their relocation raise serious questions about rights and repatriation, display efforts sometimes assume the need to physically preserve the rock in its “found state” by encasement or weather proofing. Linea Sundstrom writes that this instinct is odds with northern Plains conceptions of rock art, which is not understood as a static media: “Instead, it changes constantly (or one’s perception of it changes), so that one sees something different each time the rock art is examined.”[37] It is expected to weather, deteriorate, and eventually fall apart. Sundstrom distinguishes this overzealous preservation from the importance of protection from desecration and vandalism.

    The rock is featured as one of Ipswich’s main tourist attractions. It is in the foreground of a local mural that depicts the elements central to the town’s history, including the founding of the Yellowstone Trial and the extension of rail lines to the town. Apart from tipis in the distant corner of the mural, all traces of the Lakota or Dakota populations have been erased. At the library, not only does the installation erase the rock’s significance by using it merely as a means to point to the building, it assumes that the rock is no longer of significance to the populations from which it came, and for whom it is an important element in creation myths. In a study of rock art significant to Native American groups in South Dakota, Sundstrom writes that such rocks are, in certain cases, still sacred to single or multiple groups; accordingly, the Ipswich library site and other civic landscapes in South Dakota are “not very appropriate locations for traditional religious activities.”[38] The transportation and representation of the Prayer Rock have manipulated and inverted time such that the indigenous people confronted by both early colonial expansion and contemporary violence are erased and relegated to a naturalized pre-history.

    Fig. 07 Medicine or Prayer Rock, Ipswich, South Dakota : Photo courtesy of J. Stephen Conn
    Fig. 07 Medicine or Prayer Rock, Ipswich, South Dakota
    Photo courtesy of J. Stephen Conn

    Plymouth Rock, Plymouth, Massachusetts

    The Yellowstone Trail, whose ambitious founder came from Ipswich, South Dakota, imagined it as “A Good Road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound.” As in this slogan, Plymouth Rock typically signifies much more than the rock itself. Visitors today are often surprised by its modest size and complete encapsulation in a caged enclosure. At the time of the arrival of British Separatists in Plymouth Harbour, the Plymouth Rock, which may have been used to prop up a disembarkment plank, weighed 200 tons.[39] As Alexander de Tocqueville wrote, “A few poor souls trod for an instant on this rock, and it has become famous, it is prized by a great nation; fragments are venerated, and tiny pieces distributed far and wide.”[40] Over the course of 400 years, the rock has been split so it could be displayed at alternate locations, fractioned and sold, mortared, trimmed, and in 1920, waterproofed. Fragments of the rock reside in Los Gatos, California, Brooklyn, the Nevada State Museum, the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and exist as paperweights, tie clips, and cufflinks.[41]

    The piece that remains in Plymouth is a five-by-six-foot rounded fragment, enclosed in a shrine within a granite and iron portico. [Fig. 08] The granite boulder’s origin has been often traced close to Boston. John McPhee notes how claims that the rock may have travelled from the area associated with British Canada caused enough anxiety to elicit further official study.[42] The rock’s symbolism is highly mutable and transferable, being recalled as a symbol of stoicism by Daniel Webster, of freedom from oppression by abolitionists, and signifying the protection of immigrants.[43] At the first meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X also took on the origin myth of the rock, quoting Cole Porter: “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. The rock landed on us.”[44]

    Fig. 08 Postcard, Massasoit Statue, Portico over Plymouth Rock, The Mayflower. 1930-45. The Tichnor Borthers Collection, Boston Public Library
    Fig. 08 Postcard, Massasoit Statue, Portico over Plymouth Rock, The Mayflower. 1930-45. The Tichnor Borthers Collection, Boston Public Library

    The first National Day of Mourning was held in 1970 overlooking the fiftieth annual costumed, re-enactment of the “Day of Thanksgiving” at Plymouth Rock. Wampanoag leader Wamsutta, whose speech had been invited and then censored by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, delivered it on nearby Cole’s Hill where a boulder monument for the National Day of Mourning has been installed. [Fig. 09] Mahtowin Munro and Moonanum James of The United American Indians of New England, organizers of the Day of Mourning, refute the official history:

    We object to the “Pilgrim Progress” parade and to what goes on in Plymouth because they are making millions of tourist dollars every year from the false pilgrim mythology. That money is being made off the backs of our slaughtered indigenous ancestors. […] And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.[45]

    In Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, under the heading, “Prejudices arising from our peculiar position as inhabitants of the land,” the author acknowledges the difficulty of inhabiting “almost exclusively a theatre of decay, and not of reproduction.” In his words:

    He who has observed the quarrying of stone from a rock, and has seen it shipped for some distant port, and then endeavours to conceive what kind of edifice will be raised by the materials is in the same predicament as a geologist, who, while he is confined to the land, sees the decomposition of rocks, and the transportation of matter by rivers to the sea, and then endeavours to picture himself the new strata which Nature is building beneath the waters.[46]
    Fig. 09 National Day of Mourning plaque, Plymouth, Massachusetts: Photo courtesy of Gerald Azenaro
    Fig. 09 National Day of Mourning plaque, Plymouth, Massachusetts
    Photo courtesy of Gerald Azenaro

    That we witness just fragments of physical matter at single moments of time, yet seek to understand the world of dynamic materials over deep time, is a perpetual conundrum when visualizing and understanding geological processes. While confined to the land and a particular time, erratic boulders have helped resolve some of the paradoxes of geology by allowing scientists to piece together a cohesive theory about the earth’s distant past, as well as understand, ponder, and re-write time at multiple scales. Beyond their role as scientific evidence, their glacial history, pervasive distribution, and curious shapes and sizes have made them enigmatic characters. These characteristics include the ability to move or rock, thereby echoing their earlier glacial motion, as with the Kidston Lake Rocking Stone; to become affectionate local characters and produce human desires to maintain them as “whole” figures, as with the Rollstone Boulder; to be media for the transmission of ideas about more recent cycles of human history, as with the Babson Boulders; to be used to encapsulate, make static, and efface a poorly understood indigenous history, as with the Medicine or Prayer Rock; and finally as a tool for myth-making and myth-contesting, as with the Plymouth Rock. While each of these boulders has been used in specific and instrumental ways by humans, it is their concurrent references to multiple scales of time, to multiple agents of change—both human and non-human, both scientific and popular—that makes them potent figures.

    Not long after the theory of glaciation had become widely accepted, George Perkins Marsh’s 1868 publication Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action introduced the idea of human action as a force of change at the scale of the landscape: “As we have seen, man has reacted upon organized and inorganic nature, and thereby modified, if not determined, the material structure of his earthly home.”[47] The scientific and lay interest in erratic boulders is nestled between Marsh’s observation that humans had agency in the transformation of the world around them, and the newly theorized proposition that glacial processes had transformed the world at scales previously unimaginable. Through these two entry points, erratics manage to link the seemingly irresolvable chasm between human and geological action.


    Many thanks to Senta Burton for her assistance and insights, as well as to Joyce Rosenthal and Shantel Blakely for their comments on the text. This project stemmed from research for an exhibition that I curated in 2009, the theme for which was originally proposed by Charles Waldheim, whom I’d like to thank introducing me to the topic.


    1. Rev. D. Honeyman, “Nova Scotia Geology (Superficial)”, Proceedings of the Nova Scotian Institute of Science, Vol. 5, Part 4 (Halifax, 1882), 329. return to text
    2. “Description of the Rocking Stone, in Nova Scotia,” The Glasgow Mechanics Magazine; and Annals of Philosophy, 1 (1824): 349.return to text
    3. Elizabeth Eve, “Rockingstone Road,” in Halifax Street Names: An Illustrated Guide, ed. Shelagh Mackenzie and Scott Robson (Formac Publishing Company: Halifax, 2004), 137.return to text
    4. Ibid., 136.return to text
    5. Peter U. Clark et al., “The Last Glacial Maximum,” Science 325, no. 5941 (August 2009): 710–714.return to text
    6. Jean de Charpentier, Essai sur les glaciers et sur le terrain erratique du bassin du Rhone (Lausanne: Imprimerie et Librairie de Marc Ducloux, 1841).return to text
    7. Martin J. S. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 510.return to text
    8. As pointed out in Timothy Mitchell, “Frederic Church’s ‘The Icebergs’: Erratic Boulders and Time’s Slow Changes,” Smithsonian Studies in American Art 3, no. 4 (1989): 12.return to text
    9. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam, 511.return to text
    10. E. Reynard, “Protecting Stones: Conservation of Erratic Blocks in Switzerland,” in Dimension Stone, ed. R. Prikryl (London: Taylor & Francis, 2004), 5.return to text
    11. Richard Foster Flint, Glacial Geology and the Pleistocene Epoch (New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1947), 75.return to text
    12. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam, 12.return to text
    13. Ibid., 13.return to text
    14. Ibid., 190.return to text
    15. Ibid., 502.return to text
    16. Flint, Glacial Geology And The Pleistocene Epoch, 117.return to text
    17. Rudwick, Worlds Before Adam, 83.return to text
    18. Rebecca Bedell, “Thomas Cole and the Fashionable Science,” Huntington Library Quarterly 59, no. 2 & 3 (1996): 365.return to text
    19. Martin Rudwick, “Essay Review of Studies on Glaciers, preceded by the Discourse of Neuchatel by Louis Agassiz, translated and edited by Albert V. Carozzi,” in The New Science of Geology: Studies in the Earth Sciences in the Age of Revolution (Ashgate: Variorum, 2004), 142.return to text
    20. Ralph W. Dexter, “Historical Aspects of Agassiz’s Lectures on Glacial Geology (1860-61),” Earth Sciences History 8, no. 1 (1989): 77.return to text
    21. Ibid., 78.return to text
    22. Ibid., 75.return to text
    23. Rebecca Bedell, The Anatomy of Nature: Geology & American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001).return to text
    24. Lorraine Daston, ed., Things That Talk (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 15return to text
    25. Doreen Massey, “Landscape as a Provocation: Reflections on Moving Mountains,” Journal of Material Culture 11, no. 33 (2006): 33–48.return to text
    26. William Andrew Emerson, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, Past and Present (Fitchburg, Mass.: Blanchard & Brown, 1887), 18.return to text
    27. Robert Boucher, “I Am the Boulder.” return to text
    28. Fitchburg Historical Society, Proceedings of the Fitchburg Historical Society and Papers Relating to the History of the Town Read by Some of the Members, Vol 3 (Fitchburg, Mass.: Sentinel Printing Company, 1902), 151.return to text
    29. “Rugged Rollstone Boulder Moved with Great Effort Now Wants Plaque Back,” Fitchburg Sentinel, 20 December 1938, http://home.iprimus.com.au/metzke/rollstoneboulder.html. return to text
    30. “Fitchburg’s Historic Bowlder Moved with Care to Site in Park,” Daily Boston Globe, 25 December 1930..return to text
    31. Bradford Torrey, The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, XI, July 2 1858-February, 1859, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1906), 179.return to text
    32. Fred Woods, “Keep Out of Debt Help Mother,” Boston Globe, 19 August 1973.return to text
    33. Elizabeth Martin, “Deconstructing Marginality: Exploring the Foundations of Dogtown Common, Massachusetts” (PhD diss., City University of New York, 2011), 141.return to text
    34. Roger W. Babson, Actions and Reactions: An Autobiography of Roger Babson (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935), 337.return to text
    35. Woods, “Keep Out of Debt Help Mother.”return to text
    36. Ibid.return to text
    37. Linea Sundstrom, “Rock Art and Native Americans: A View from South Dakota,” Plains Anthropologist 44 (1999): 74.return to text
    38. Ibid., 71.return to text
    39. John McPhee, “Our Far Flung Correspondents: Travels of the Rock,” The New Yorker, 26 February 1990, 108.return to text
    40. Sargent Bush, “American’s Origin Myth: Remembering Plymouth Rock,” American Literary History 12, no. 4 (Winter 2000): 745.return to text
    41. McPhee, “Our Far Flung Correspondents,” 130.return to text
    42. Ibid., 109.return to text
    43. Christiana Morgan Grefe, review of Memory’s Nation: The Place of Plymouth Rock, by John Seelye, Journal of Popular Culture 38, no. 1 (Aug. 2004): 212–214. return to text
    44. Thanks to Amy Kulper for pointing this out.return to text
    45. Moonanum James and Mahtowin Munro, “Thanksgiving: A National Day of Mourning for Indians,” United American Indians of New England, http://www.uaine.org/dom.htm.return to text
    46. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology or, the Modern Changes of the Earth and its Inhabitants (London: John Murray, 1854), 81.return to text
    47. George Perkins Marsh, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (New York: Charles Scribner, 1864), 8.return to text