We rock

It didn’t take my mother very long to figure out how to engage her five-year-old grand-niece Katrina‘s attention during a walk in the woods last week. “See where that rock has been flipped over? That’s because a bear walked through here!” We explained briefly how bears love to eat insect larvae. Then came the magic moment of lifting a rock and exposing an ant colony: workers running helter skelter, some of them picking up their babies in their mandibles, others retreating along well-worn pathways and tunnels. Katrina’s two-year-old second cousin Elanor, who was stumping along with a large white teddy bear under one arm — in a jealous funk over this brash new competitor for her grandparents’ affections — started to show interest after the third or fourth rock, all but one of which sheltered an ant colony. Before we knew it, the walk had slowed to a standstill. There were rocks everywhere! Who knew what each might hide?

Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever really described the rocks here — a rather appalling oversight, considering the extent to which they define the mountain landscape. I have been accused of living under a rock myself, and while that’s not quite true, one of the first things a new visitor will notice is the three-foot-high, dry stone wall that shores up two sides of my terraced front garden. Another stone wall runs along the side of the house, and on up the driveway at the top of the hill, the barn rests on a sturdy foundation of reddish-brown sandstone. Go for a walk on any of our trails, and you’ll see an abundance of flat stones among the moss and leaves, ranging in size from smaller than a hand to larger than a serving platter. Depending on where you go on the mountain, the rocks range in color from whitish gray to rose pink and in age from 488 to 417 million years old. Some of the rocks down in the hollow are a bit shaley, and the rocks on the higher of the two ridges and the associated talus slopes are very quartzitic, but all the rocks on our property are sandstone of one kind or another, and virtually all, therefore, are flat-sided. (For the curious, I’m talking about the Bald Eagle, Juniata, and Tuscarora formations.) The only truly round rock we’ve found here was a concretion about the size of a large, slightly squashed orange. My parents discovered it one day lying in the driveway, where it had tumbled out of the road bank.

I’ll skip over the complicated part about why so many rocks are exposed on the surface in the first place — basically, the result of periglacial and normal weathering of vertical strata combined with various human land-use practices (clearcutting, burning, plowing, and the introduction of earthworms) whose exact influence we can only guess at. The simple point I want to make here is how easily a resident can overlook what may be, for some of our visitors, one of the mountain’s most intriguing features. “Open this one, Aunt Marcia! Open this one,” Katrina kept saying, with the characteristic originality of someone still learning the language. Evidently to her, these big flat rocks half-buried in the humus were like doors opening on a literally parallel, miniaturized world.

A few days later, we played host to another set of visitors — a tour group of academics from a landscape architecture conference at Penn State. At one point, during a rest on the higher of the two ridgetops, which affords a fairly impressive view of the Allegheny Front, my mother mentioned how much kids love to look under rocks. falling rockShe quickly discovered, however, that it wasn’t just kids. “Oh my god, look at them all!” exclaimed the fellow from New Zealand. Moments later, all six landscape afficionados were clustered around, peering into the earth.

19 Comments


  1. How wonderful–all your guests like the same things. I guess, at some level, all of us like the same things.

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  2. Playing God, if only for a few seconds, is probably almost a universal thrill.

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  3. Turning rocks (and bits of wood) is a favourite pastime around here.

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  4. I have always had an inordinate fondness for glacial rock.

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  5. Me too! My earliest memories are of our farm in central Maine, where we lived until I was five, so I deeply imprinted on the Canadian Shield.

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  6. How close you are to so much unchanged by the humans who walk over it. Here, you’d have to dig your way back through a millennium’s worth of interference before locating what was produced by ice or fire!

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  7. Yeah, good point. (Only a millenium? Those Neolithic dudes sure got off on moving rocks around!)

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  8. Kind of into sedimentary rocks around here. Turn over a piece of shale with shellfish fossils embedded in it…and we see the same ants! How about an event where all of your readers turn over a rock at the same time on a certain date and take photos or write descriptions of what they see? If you don’t have a rock, you can look in the fridge in some forgotton bowl and see what is in there.

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  9. We live on a mostly unexplored planet according to E.O.Wilson. A new species could be under the next rock . He says that if you take a pail of pond water and look at the life in it under a microscope, and you make two piles, one for what is known and one for the unknown, the unknown is huge, the known is very small. I don’t have the percentages in my head but this is a dramatic statement.

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  10. Yes, thank you – that’s a very important point (and one of the considerations, in fact, that led my calling this blog Via negativa). E. O. Wilson’s Journey to the Ants is a great book, if you haven’t read it – a true nature classic deserving a place on the shelf beside J. Henri Fabre, Howard Ensign Evans and Edwin Way Teale.

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  11. Fred – We have fossils like that in shale outcrops on the younger side of our ridge (Reedsville Shale, early Devonian).

    How about an event where all of your readers turn over a rock at the same time on a certain date and take photos or write descriptions of what they see? If you don’t have a rock, you can look in the fridge in some forgotton bowl and see what is in there.

    That’s a fantastic idea, but I wouldn’t want to restrict it to my readers. Could be a blogosphere-wide event, similar to, but much more limited and less scientific than, the Bioblitz last April.

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  12. There’d be a LOT of unhappy salamanders around here if that sort of thing were done in the spring, though only for a moment until the lids were lowered back down. I can’t move anything around here in the springtime without having the feeling I’m murdering salamanders. According to the salamanders each old half sunk railroad tie, or oak pallet left out over winter is a where it is by necessity of life and death. Wonder what has become of those salamanders in this dry time, verging on drought.

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  13. Cool — I’ll have to suggest this amusement next time I’m out with my niece & nephews (ranging 3-8yo)!

    Bill: Yeah, life sucks when you’re that small! I remember seeing the classic orange guys all over in various forests in my childhood, but I haven’t seen too many recently. I’ll be looking aroung here (VA) this autumn, though!

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  14. Bill – They go down deep, just like the crayfish. That’s why clearcutting is fatal for them, in fact – if their instict was to wander rather than to burrow and wait for the return of the wet, they’d be O.K.

    But it’s interesting that you mention salamanders. More so even than finding ant colonies, finding salamanders is a great way to get kids interested in being in the woods, we’ve found.

    David – Let us know how it goes!

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