On A Moraine by Charles D. Stewart

Upon the shoulder of a terminal moraine was a barley-field whose fence was to furnish me with stone; and I prospected its beauties with a six-pound sledge. "Hardheads" many of them [the stones] were called, and they let fly enough sparks that summer to light the fire for a thousand years. They were igneous rocks, and they responded in terms of fire.

Such rocks! Rag-carpets woven in garnet and topaz; petrified Oriental rugs; granites in endless designs of Scotch mixture, as if each bowlder were wearing the plaid of its clan; big, uncouth, scabiose, ignorant-looking hardheads that opened with a heart of rose,—each one a separate album opening to a sample from a different quarry. I have seen cloven field-stone that deserved a hinge and a gold clasp; I have one in sight now which is such a delicate contrast of faintest rose and mere spiritual green that it is like the first blush of dawn. Imagine smiting a rock until the fragments sting you in the face, and then seeing it calmly unfold the two wings of a moth! I have broken into a rock which pleased me so well that I held it in mind in order to match it; but though I had the pick of a hundred and sixty loads that summer I never found another. There is "individuality" for you.

Some of them are "niggerheads." These are the hardest rock known to practical experience. There are those that have refused to succumb to the strongest hitters in the country. Some of them will break and others will not; the only way is to try. Fortunately I had had some early training as a blacksmith; but this was as if the smith were trying to break his anvil. I have seen the steel face of a hammer chip off without making a mark on one. And yet the glaciers wore them off to make soil and left them rounded like big pebbles! I never realized what ground is, till I became acquainted with the stones that did the grinding.

My fence was eight to ten feet in thickness and shoulder high; and similar windrows of rock ran over the moraine in all directions, like a range upon a range. It is, of course, valuable land that warrants a wall like that. The barley-field might easily have defied a siege-gun on all four sides, for it had had so many bowlders on it that they had been built up into more of a rampart than a windrow. On a near-by field from which the timber had been removed, but which, notwithstanding, was far from "cleared," it looked as if it had hailed bowlders. You could have forded your way across it without putting a foot to ground. I have seen places where the glaciers had deposited rocks in surprising uniformity of size, and as thick as the heads of an audience (a comparison that means no harm, I trust).

Because of my encounters with "niggerheads," and other layerless or massive rock, I had difficulty in getting a handle which would not give out. Not that I broke them with mislicks, but the sudden bounce of the steel jolts the grain of the wood apart, and then a split begins to work its way up the handle. After this happens a man will not try to crack many bowlders, for the split hickory vibrates in a way that hurts. That sudden sting and numbing of the arm is the only sensation I ever came across that resembles the sting of a Texas scorpion; and that is an injection of liquid lighting that suffuses the membranes from hand to shoulder, and dwells a while and fades away. I might say here that the sting of the dreaded scorpion is harmless, like that of the tarantula, as any one with a few experiences knows. A wrong-headed bowlder that has kept itself intact for ages and spits fire at you, and then takes measures to protect itself, is far more dangerous. One of them shot off a piece with such force that it went through my clothing and made a respectable wound. This, however, is just what is needed to rouse you up and make you hit back; and when you have had success with this one you are sure to pass on to another.

There is an enticement in their secret, locked-up beauty that lures you on from rock to rock till nightfall. Thus you are kept at it, till some day you find you have become a slave of the exercise habit; you are addicted to sunshine and sweat and cool spring water; your nose, so long a disadvantage to you, comes to life and discovers so many varieties of fresh air that every breath has a different flavor to it. As for myself, I rather prefer to take wild plum or clover in my atmosphere—or a good whiff of must off the barley-field. Along in July it is excellent to work somewhere in the jurisdiction of a basswood tree. Compare this with the office-building or the street-car, where the only obtainable breath is second-hand. Nobody could now coax you back to where people have eyes that see not, tongues that taste not, and noses that smell not unless they have to. I have experienced smells in a city that would make a baby cry....

And this reminds me to conclude—where possibly I should have begun—with the remarkable pedigree of the state itself. Stretching across Canada, north of the St. Lawrence, and ending in the regions about the source of the Mississippi, is a range of low granite hills called the Laurentian Highlands. These hills are really mountains that are almost worn out, for they are the oldest land in America, and, according to Agassiz, the oldest in the world. In the days when there was nothing but water on the face of the globe, these mountains came up—a long island of primitive rock with universal ocean chafing against its shores. None of the other continents had put in their appearance at the time America was thus looking up. The United States began to come to light by the gradual uplifting of this land to the north and the appearance of the tops of the Alleghanies, which were the next in order. Later, the Rockies started up. The United States grew southward from Wisconsin and westward from Blue Ridge. An early view of the country would have shown a large island which is now northern Wisconsin, and a long, thin tongue of this primitive rock sticking down from Canada into Minnesota, and these two growing states looking out over the waters at the mere beginnings of mountain-ranges east and west. They were waiting for the rest of the United States to appear.

As the heated interior of the earth continued to cool and contract, and the water-covered crust sank in some places, and kept bulging up higher in others, the island of northern Wisconsin continued to grow, and the Alleghanies came up with quite a strip of territory at their base. The western mountains made no progress whatever; it was as if they had some doubt about the matter. A view at another stage of progress would have shown Wisconsin and Minnesota entirely out, and pulling up with them the edges of adjoining states, and a strip along the Atlantic about half as wide as New York or Pennsylvania. Still no United States. There was water between these two sections and some islands scattered about in the south. The western mountains had not been progressing at all; they lagged behind for aeons. These two sections, beginning with Wisconsin and Minnesota in the west and the Alleghanies in the east, kept reaching out till they made continuous land; and thus Ohio and all those states between are some ages younger. But they are much older than the west; for at a time when the whole eastern half of the continent had long appeared, the Gulf Stream was flowing across the west, and the waters were depositing the small sea-shells which make the calcareous matter under Kansas loam. All that country is much younger, and the western mountains are as big as they are simply because they have not had time to become worn down. As to Florida, it was a mere afterthought, an addition built on by coral insects.

The whole story of those east-central and southern states—how Pennsylvania and Ohio and Illinois got their coal, and Michigan her salt—would make a lengthy narrative; I have mentioned just enough to show the age of Wisconsin and the still greater age of some of that glacial matter that came down from the direction of the Laurentian Highlands. It is the oldest land in the world; and the other states, I am sure, will not resent my taking out the state's pedigree and showing it. Wisconsin took part with the east in what geologists call the Appalachian Revolution,—is a veritable Daughter of the Revolution. I mention it merely because I think it greatly to the credit of a dairy state that, at a time so early in the world's morning, she was up and doing.