I hold a small stone. Its round, smooth form fits comfortably in the palm of my hand. I found it a few years ago at Hemphill Hill on my Grandmother Christine’s farm in Jackson County, Indiana, where as a boy in the 1950s I sometimes hiked with her. Hemphill Hill is a prominent physical feature just a half-mile north of her house, although our hikes there seldom took a direct route. We would first climb the style behind her home and walk through the barn lot before following a meandering brook through the adjacent woodland. After leaving the woods, we headed due north across an open field with Hemphill Hill beckoning in the distance. My grandmother was short in stature and leaned forward as we hiked, as if she was always walking into the wind. Now that I know more about the various hardships she faced during her adult life, I guess in a sense she was. She set a fast pace as we hiked, but enthralled by our adventure, I matched her stride for stride.
As we climbed Hemphill Hill, she would sometimes pick up a small stone from the ground—a stone similar to the one I now hold. As we paused to catch our breath, she would hand me the stone and ask me to stroke its smooth surface. She then would tell me about a time when glaciers covered that area two hundred thousand years before, and explained that one of those glaciers had originally deposited the stone in my hand in this place. She emphasized that its rounded shape and smoothed surface were the result of the abrasive action of the glacial ice over a very long time.
I had not yet seen an actual glacier at that point in my life, and so my young mind struggled to envision an immense sheet of ice, hundreds of feet thick, covering the landscape. I had, of course, experienced snow in Indiana as a boy, but it was seldom deeper than a few inches and melted quickly. The thought that so much ice covered that land over such a long period of time stretched my imagination then—and still does.
I don’t recall that my grandmother used geologic terms as she described the glacial history of her farm when I was with her there in the 1950s, but I certainly do so now. The term “glacial erratic” is my favorite one of all; it refers to a stone or boulder deposited some distance from its point of origin by an advancing glacier and then left behind when that glacier later retreats. A geologist once described such stones as “left stranded” by a receding glacier. The term erratic comes from a Latin word that means wandering. I like that—glacial erratics are rocks that have wandered.
While my own familiarity with glaciers was quite limited at the time of those childhood hikes to Hemphill Hill with my grandmother, I now know that she had earlier experienced glaciers first-hand in Switzerland during her European trip in 1911. She wrote of that adventure in her journal during the afternoon of July 27:
At this moment I am on top of the Eiger Glacier throwing snowballs, sleigh riding—having a time of my life. Feet are buried in snow, air heavenly—but have no coat on—a red-letter moment in my life.
During that same trip, she also visited a park in Lucerne, which she described to her family in a postcard as a “Glacial Garden showing work of glaciers.” The scientific understanding of the role of glaciers in forming many of the earth’s landscapes was still relatively new then, and it’s clear that young Christine was impressed by the idea. I like to think now that when she described to me as a child the glaciers that once covered Hemphill Hill and surrounding areas, she was reaching back into her memory and re-living that “red letter moment” she had experienced on that glacier in Switzerland fifty years before.
Glaciers once covered many of the places I’ve lived and traveled during my lifetime. Thus, those early glacial geology lessons I received from my grandmother on Hemphill Hill served me well. For the past forty years, my mother has lived near the community of Glen Rock, New Jersey. That town is named for a large glacial erratic that still exists there. It was known to the Delaware Indians of that area as the “Stone from Heaven,” which suggests that those people regarded the origin of this erratic as being very different than the explanation of modern geologists. Similarly, the early European settlers in western Minnesota, near where I live now, puzzled over the presence of a particularly unique erratic that is present there. They named it the “Montevideo Meteorite” because they too assumed that it had come from a source other than glaciers.
Not all of the movements—wanderings—of glacial erratics are due to the forces of ice. In my community in eastern Minnesota, I can count dozens of erratics, but few are located where the glaciers originally left them. Most of these erratics were moved to their present locations by home and business owners to serve as yard decorations or as boundary markers. Most recently, I have even noticed some erratics that are not stones at all, but replicas made of plastic and secured with stakes driven into the ground. I guess it makes sense; it certainly would not look good if a decorative erratic in one’s yard was blown away by the wind!
I can view two of the most memorable erratics in the front yard of my neighbor Frank. These large, rounded boulders each stand about three feet above the ground. I once asked Frank if they had been found on his property during the excavations for his house. “Oh, heavens no,” he responded, “those rocks came from about ten miles from here.” Frank then explained that he and his wife, Darlyne, were driving in their car one day during the late 1960s when she spotted two large erratics lying by the side of the road next to a construction site. She exclaimed, “Frank, I want those rocks to decorate our yard!” Their house being newly-built then, they were always on the lookout for inexpensive landscaping materials. Frank talked with the construction-site supervisor and it was agreed that if Frank brought a truck by the site, the supervisor would have those stones loaded onto it and he could take them home.
A short time later, Frank rented a truck and driver and brought the rocks to his house where they were dumped in his front yard near the driveway. Darlyne wasn’t at home at the time the stones were delivered, but when she returned, she was not pleased. “That one rock is much bigger than I thought it would be,” she said, “and it detracts from our house. It just can’t stay there as it is.” Frank was annoyed since he didn’t want to have to rent another truck, load that large stone onto it and haul it back to the construction site. So he and his neighbor, Joe, put their heads together and came up with another plan. They dug a big hole in the yard next to the larger stone, and when they judged that it was deep enough, they leveraged that stone into the hole. It instantly became the same height as the smaller rock. Frank’s wife was pleased with this solution to the problem and the boulder still occupies that place forty years later.
“So, what you see of that rock today, Steve, is just the tip of the iceberg,” Frank remarked as he concluded his story.
Of the glacial erratics I have encountered, there is one that stands out above all others. It is located in a small, obscure park in Rice County, Minnesota. I only recently become aware of this erratic; it is not shown on any maps and, to my knowledge, is not named. To get to this stone, I drive sixty miles south of my house to the park, then hike a half-mile along a small creek and climb a steep slope onto a glacial ridge vegetated with mature maple trees. This area is a remnant of what was once known as the “Big Woods” during early-settlement times. In the fall of the year, the foliage of these maples is glorious—golden hues tinged with brilliant reds and oranges. As I walk the trail that leads through this forest of maple trees towards the erratic, it does at first appear celestial. I can understand how American Indians or early settlers might have assumed such stones came from another world. This particular erratic is huge, the size of a school bus. It stands all by itself with no other stones like it anywhere in the area. As I draw nearer, I see moss growing on the stone’s surface, giving it now the appearance of a whale covered with barnacles. The erratic’s smoothed edges and variegated surface imbue it with a sense of being alive.
But this stone’s most distinctive feature is a large crack running through its middle and creating a space wide enough for me to walk through with ease. This split in the stone appears to have formed recently—no moss grows in it, for example—but, in truth, I expect that it broke apart centuries ago, perhaps when it was originally deposited by the glacier over ten-thousand years ago.
Despite the present obscurity of this particular erratic, I’m sure that other humans before me admired and were attracted by it. Considering its uniqueness within area of the state—and its distinctive crack—I have a hunch that prehistoric people knew of this place and revered this stone. Because this place and stone have become sacred for me through my visits there, I feel a connection with them. As for me, I expect these early people drew inspiration from its beauty of form, color, texture—and its mystery. As with my neighbor Frank’s partly-buried stone, this Rice County erratic also has many facets that are below ground and out-of-sight.
I recently took my small Hemphill Hill erratic to meet its much larger Minnesota cousin. I expect my grandmother would have shared my affinity for the Rice County erratic and, like me, would have wondered about it. Its meaning would have run deep for her too.
My identity with glacial erratics—large and small, impressive and inconspicuous—comes I believe from their image as wanderers. I’ve lived most of my adult life in Minnesota, but I am not native here. My mother recently said to me, “You’re a wanderer, Steve” and it’s true. Although I appreciate the home fires and sometimes stay in one place for considerable lengths of time, at the heart of it I yearn to wander. I think the same could have been said of my grandmother during her adult life. She spent most of her years living in the same small Indiana community and working the same farmland her father and grandfather had before her. Yet she found time to wander—trips to Europe, Mexico and various parts of the United States. She wandered vicariously through her correspondence with friends and relatives living and traveling in distant places. And most assuredly, she—and I—have wandered through the dreams of our hearts. Like those wandering stones my grandmother and I admired together on Hemphill Hill so many years ago, we are erratics. And as my neighbor Frank reminds me, “What you see of that rock today, Steve, is just the tip of the iceberg.”
This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011. All rights reserved.