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Pasture Stones

( Originally Published 1908 )

In New England pastures, the boulders are as much in harmony with their environment as any tree or shrub. They have the appearance of having grown here, quite as naturally as the bayberry and the sweet fern, and are kindred of the savin, and the low-spreading juniper which circles round them and hugs the stone like the lichen itself. The migrant boulders from the North are con-genial to these hardy northern plants which reflect the somber character of the rock.

A field that has been entirely cleared of its pasture stones and left to stand thus, somehow looks barren and deserted. You feel you would like to restore a boulder here and there and invite the juniper and the bayberry to return. There is character in these ancient pasture stones, and they cannot be removed without depriving the landscape of that which they imparted ; it is no longer virile and forceful, but tame and meek as though shorn of its strength.

If you would build your house on truly historic ground, lay it on foundation of pasture stones, and incorporate, as it were, Time itself into the structure. This is to let the very elements work for you. On many a farm the boulders are as good a crop as any ; when they are gathered into the walls to give room for one more lucrative, this value at least of the farm is still represented. The fields have produced but one crop of boulders, and only the ages could mature this. If the pastures must lose this ancient beauty, let the house gain by it. Build it into your chimney. Take it to your hearth that it may not be lost. Let the boulder tell its story by the light of the hickory logs.

There is a rustic notion that boulders somehow grow, in some inexplicable manner enlarging like puffballs and drawing sustenance from the earth --and what could be more puzzling to the uninitiated than the presence of these pasture stones? His was an ingenious mind who conjured up that remote ice age from this fragmentary evidence and derived a history from these scattered letters and elliptical sentences. It was like tracing the stars to their origin.

It takes a bold imagination, indeed, to see these familiar fields and woods overlaid with a mile's thickness of ice; to recognize here in this present landscape a very Greenland, redeemed and made hospitable. There was need of a solid foundation of fact, patiently garnered, before such an arch of fancy could be sprung. What chaos and desolation once reigned here, only these boulders can tell. Here was a frozen waste as barren as the face of the moon. But beneath lay the soil that was to nurture the violet and the hepatica. There was a fine satisfaction in riding a miracle like this to earth, to corner it and see it resolve itself into the working of natural laws.

Nature appears as intent on breaking up the old rocks as in forming new ones. The ledge is, after all, but a mass of masonry in which huge blocks are set without mortar and as closely and evenly as jewels. What a lathe was that ancient glacier in which to turn and smooth these rough gems ; or rather a great file which rasped their edges and corners. In rectangular blocks that have weathered, the decay is deeper at the corners, so that a cubical block tends to become a sphere as it diminishes. Frost is the stone-cutter, who scatters his chips over the world; Rain, the giant who is bent on turning these into soil. Consider what power lay in this tongue of ice which licked up the crumbs of the earth ; carried Canada into New England and New England into New York, depositing its burden as gently as the petal falls from a rose.

Boulders are to be considered veterans of glacial times, which carry still the scars of that strenuous day. What tales they have to tell of that mammoth conflict, that prehistoric incursion of the Arctic hosts, but only to very good listeners are they unfolded. You must needs have a sympathetic ear to become their confidant. The unconscious rock assumes dignity in view of its past, as though here were an imprisoned earth-spirit, proceeding thus through the strenuous life to some ultimate freedom. Sermons in stones indeed. ! A terminal moraine is the most ancient battle-ground of the world. Here are the very heroes themselves, stretched upon the field in imperturbable granite, as certain others were fixed in the heavens as constellations. To walk among them is to see in fancy the advent of the wall of ice, mile-high, which buried the primitive jungle forever. Here the great glacier began its retreat, and over the spot there broods a silence, as over historic ground once the theater of great actions. After untold centuries, the wild rose and the hay-scented fern cluster round the boulder, and dandelions star the grass.

I please myself with imagining the venerable pasture stones to have been observant of events and to have retained the memory of it all, as the Colosseum might have memories of Rome, or the Sphinx of Egypt and the desert. Such have seen races live out their lives and disappear. That every dog has his day might well be a maxim among these ancient ones of the earth who saw a tropic jungle resolve itself into an Arctic solitude and as slowly give way to a temperate zone. I salute the pasture stone as having witnessed the advent of man upon the earth. It is difficult to associate the tertiary animals with anything but the museum, or to realize that those preposterous Paleozoic reptiles were ever other than fossils. But here is a weather-beaten observer that was actually contemporary with that life, to us so intangible and shadowy ; that knew the ancestor of the horse, and ages before the separation from the mother ledge, it may be, was wont to see the sky darkened by flying reptiles.

They were fashioned roughly, these boulders, cast in a rude mould, as if they had emerged from chaos itself before forni had become defined. The sea would have all the pebbles on its shore of a size and shape. It takes a block from the cliff and turns it in its lathe that it may become a polished sphere, as in that larger and cosmic lathe the planets are turned. On the beach are innumerable stones that look as much alike as so many eggs. But no two pasture stones are the same. They were turned in no such precise lathe as the sea's, but by a rough-handed force, which here planed a surface and there gouged a depression. Pasture stones are thus almost as individual in appearance as men. Here is one squat like a toad, one humpbacked as a dromedary, another flat as a cake a mere slab of granite. They are wrinkled and deformed, as so many gnomes, and covered with excrescences razor-backed or round-shouldered, lopsided or with protruding paunch, while the great solitary boulders rise from the pasture, massive domes and pinnacles of granite.

But none are polished, none are symmetrical; nowhere is there an ellipsoid, such as the sea loves to turn, but rough outlines always. Frequently one surface is rounded ; the work of making a sphere was begun but progressed only thus far. Again, two surfaces may be approximately parallel and the remainder rough and angular. Commonly it is an affair of many angles, all unequal, and of a multitude of curves of different radii. It is cast in a mould it would be difficult to classify. With the multiform aspects of crystals, they are still not so varied as these pasture stones. For crystals, for leaves, for snowflakes, there are definite patterns. But the boulder is a thing by itself, subject to other laws and formed under a different order of architecture or under no order but the will of the glacier, which has left here and there the marks of its icy fingers.

There is a suggestion of friendliness in the way the lichens clothe these stones, as though Nature aimed to cover the scars she could not heal, or to hang them with such rich medallions as the parmelia in token of that ancient service. Here are colors such as only Time can mix,--shades which are the work of centuries, unspeakably softened and mellowed, like ivory and meerschaum and bronze. In its day the Acropolis may have been glaring and crude in tone ; the raw marble, fresh from the quarry, needed these centuries to subdue and mellow it. It has acquired a tender beauty unknown to that classic day which saw it in its splendor. Some such service has been rendered to the pasture stone and the ledge. When the Archaean granite was poured out from the depths it must have worn a new and crude look, albeit so fresh and clean. Then it was but so much raw feldspar and quartz and mica. But it has long been wooed by the air and the water, by moss and lichen; the years have lent it beauty, softened its curves, rounded its angles and brought it the richness of age.

Boulders are sometimes clothed with a larger growth. I have in mind one, from whose apex springs a maple at least half a century old. It lies at the head of a swamp, and in autumn this tree is always one of the first to turn. In August when the tupelos show signs of change, the maple is already glowing with color. The tree springs from the very summit of the rock while its main root reaches through a split some fifteen feet to the earth. Looking across the swamp, it appears to crown the boulder with a noble dignity a land-mark in the country round as if reflecting those elementary forces which conspired to bring about this unusual condition, the glacier which brought the boulder, the winds which carried the maple seed, the frost which split the rock.

After their many vicissitudes, the boulders have settled down upon the bosom of the pasture and come to be a fixture in the landscape. This present age is to them the serene and mellow autumn of their troubled life. Their day is a thousand years. But they are melting into soil as icicles dissolve in the sun in that measureless and yet imperceptible thaw which melts granite. The pasture land is perhaps the dust of a still more primitive race whose life has been transmuted into the dandelion and the thistle.

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