ON THE ISLE OF ROCKSby Sabine Heinlein
I only noticed that fall had arrived when my fingertips, less active during the final review of a major, yearlong project, felt stiff and icy. I knew it was time to call the old project complete and start a new one. This time I wanted to write about something that had nothing to do with ex-cons, cops, or homeless alcoholics (all topics I had previously tackled). But my unruly mind countered any idea that presented itself with Bartleby the Scrivener’s words, “I would prefer not to.”
I began to tumble downhill. The fall days became shorter and cooler and each hour was met with greater resistance. My mind had a dismal quote for every possible scenario. My favorite was Janet Malcolm’s from The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”
For weeks I sat motionless and cold on my brown couch, wallowing in romantic clichés. My enthusiasm for the craft and my curiosity for the other had suddenly vanished.
My husband kept nagging that I should get off my ass and write—anything—or go see a doctor. Or better yet, both.
Flipping through the Woodside Herald, my local community paper, on one of those hapless afternoons, I came across a photo of a car parked on top of a boulder in Long Island City. A “glacial erratic,” it read underneath. I felt the sharp pain of relief. I was finally out of excuses, out of quotes. Stone was boring, silent, and undemanding. It was outside of my head, outside of my cluttered office. Stone could be researched and written about with limited or no social interaction.
Or so I thought.
My research yielded that a boulder is a piece of stone bigger than a head. If the stone is the size of an orange, geologists call it a cobble. If it is between an orange and a peanut, it’s a pebble.
Any piece of rock that broke off a mountain and remains close to its source is called a boulder. But erratics are special boulders. They are travelers, immigrants who left their original bedrock. “Errare” is Latin and means “to wander, to roam.” Accordingly, glacial erratics come from afar and differ from the bedrock where they came to rest. Not every stone can become an erratic. Glacial erratics are hard stones, like granite, pegmatite, and gneiss. Limestone, for example, is too soft to arrive at its destination in one large boulder-sized piece.
The erratic narrative goes something like this: A large piece of rock broke off a mountain during the Pleistocene, the most recent Ice Age, which lasted until 12,000 years ago. Together with sand, gravel and clay, the rock inched along at the excruciatingly slow speed of one foot a year. Embedded in the gigantic ice sheets that covered two thirds of the United States, the erratic’s sharp, angular surface slowly rounded and smoothed on its journey. When the ice began to melt and retreat, it left behind glacial deposits. Almost all of Long Island’s upper layer, up to 600 feet deep, consists of glacial sediment. In Brooklyn and Queens we are quite literally living, walking, and building atop of glacial erratics.
The beginnings of my quest for Shelter Rock, Long Island’s biggest erratic, were anything but promising. After some unsuccessful online research and some further sitting on the brown couch, I dragged myself to call North Hempstead’s public information office.
I asked officer Sid Nathan, who picked up the phone, if he could help me locate the five-million pound granite rock. As if we were talking nuclear waste, Nathan suspiciously noted down my name and the publication in which I intended to publish my boulder story.
This was exactly the kind of situation I wanted to avoid: Here I was again, questioning people who knew more than me, but didn’t want to share their knowledge; exposing my funny accent, and with it my foreign provenance. My heart sunk. Nathan disappeared from the phone for a minute. Then he returned to give me directions to the boulder and, in what I interpreted as a paternal gesture, his cell phone number in case I got lost. Nathan said to take the Shelter Rock Road exit off the Long Island Expressway, go one and a half miles north and look for the big rock on my left. If I had to make a U-turn, the rock would be on my right, he added.
Shelter Rock Road is lined with big churches and rows of gated communities that, at this time of year, peek through leafless trees. The communities carry such pastoral names as Gracewood, Stone Hill, and Spruce Ponds. Nathan said that if I passed a memorial on my right I had missed the rock on my left. I saw the memorial but no rock and decided to pull my Zipcar, the awkwardly alliterated Yaris Yurovic, into the parking lot of the just as awkwardly alliterated King Kullen Supermarket.
“I’m looking for Shelter Rock? The boulder?” I asked one of the shoppers. As long as I didn’t identify myself as a writer, things would be alright, I thought.
“I know where Shelter Rock Road is,” the shopper said triumphantly.
I went inside and tried the King Kullen greeter. The retiree waved me off like I was a niggling insect. Pointing at the store’s courtesy desk, he said, Hilda* knew EVERYTHING because she was born and raised in this area. Born here or not, Hilda didn’t know a thing. She didn’t even know what a boulder was, let alone a glacial erratic. She shook her thin, permed hair. “A what?” she kept saying. “Since when’s it been there? Do you mean that tall thing they just built by the side of the road?”
Then the man waiting behind me, started to rattle down some boulder facts, apparently to impress Hilda. “Right across the street from the memorial… big rock… Ice Age… thousands of years… Indians seeking shelter from the rain…” He tried. “Why do you think the road is called Shelter Rock Road?” he finally barked. Hilda stared with mouth agape as if she had just stumbled into an Ice Age fairytale in her own backyard.
I was so excited when I backed out my Yaris Yurovic that I almost ran over a skinny teenager with glasses and braces wearing a parka with “Members Only” written across its back. He cursed at me, waving his skinny fist in the air.
A traffic light had been strategically placed to help the hobby patriot-cum-geologist get from Patriots’ Park—“A Tribute to All Who Were a Part of America. Some gave all. All gave some.”—to Shelter Rock.
Driven by a sudden burst of energy I ran across the four busy lanes ignoring the light.
Behind an iron fence, about 30 feet below street level, laid Shelter Rock, humongous and heavy—and slightly wet. Covered with moss and yellow leaves and surrounded by skeletal trees, it glistened in the bright autumn sun. Its surface looked jagged, brutal almost. Although mysterious and gigantic, I found the rock humble and unassuming.
The rock has a 30-foot overhang supposedly once used by Indians for shelter. Legend has it that a young soldier who ran off with an Indian girl was struck by arrows before he could reach the rock’s shelter. Romantic.
According to Amanda Bielskas, a librarian at Columbia’s Geology Library who intensely researched the rock’s history, the archeologists Carlyle S. Smith and Ralph Solecki dug out the following artifacts at the site: Nine small pottery shards, native American in origin; 27 whole and fragmentary projectile points; three fragments of chipped stone knife blades; hammer stones; and broken animal bones. Here we go again: injured, broken, jagged, shattered, chipped, and fragmented.
Traffic rushed by behind me. Where were all those people going? It was noon. They couldn’t possibly all be going to work. They must be going shopping for groceries and clothes for their suburban families. Maybe they were on their way to the doctor. Maybe I should go to the doctor? Maybe I would be a happier person if I enjoyed shopping and family life or if I went to the doctor more often. But I hated shopping, families, and doctors. That’s why I had to entertain myself by looking for big, inanimate objects by the side of the road. Pathetic! For a brief moment I wished myself back onto the brown couch where time stood still and nothing could move or embarrass me. Slowly I made my way back to the car and toward Alley Pond Park, where more boulders had apparently ended their glacial journey.
At the first traffic light the man in the car next to me urged me to roll down my window.
“Hey!” he yelled. “Do all Zipcars have that huge sticker on the side?”
“I believe so,” I said and rolled the window back up. Cheeky!
At Alley Pond Park I wandered about but couldn’t find any boulders. The park rangers had gone out for lunch. I made my way up the hill, assuming that the ice sheet had dropped the erratics on the other side. (The logistics of glacial movement will always remain an enigma to me.)
“Excuse me, sir,” I approached a retiree on the wooded path. “Have you seen any boulders around here?”
“Good afternoon,” the old man said leisurely. (He had time on his hands!) “Seen what?”
“Boulders,” I said. “Rocks, big rocks. Glacial erratics,” I added, just in case.
He looked at me from top to toe and shook his head.
“Nothing to speak of,” he said.
I liked his response because it implied that we should speak of something else. He pointed me to an area that may have—he didn’t quite remember—some boulders of “insignificant size.” Together we started to walk toward a field with screaming children who were pushing each other onto the muddy ground. By the time we had reached the field, the soiled children had thankfully left and silence had returned to the forest.
My new companion Hans* was an immigrant who had come from Friedrichshaven 51 years ago. I had come from Hamburg eight years ago. Here our conversation about provenance petered out.
“Where are you from?” had echoed in our ears since we arrived in this country. Our accents will always reveal us as travelers at best, immigrants at worst. (And if not the accent, the answer to the question will.)
Hans carried a large, transparent trash bag filled with empty cans. He said that he returned to the park every day to pick up people’s garbage. “People...” he said, and I understood.
On the other side of the hill I found a couple of boulders, which, though bigger than a head, were indeed of insignificant size. They laid motionless as if taking a break on a long trip. Their surface was smooth and rounded, which meant they had come from afar, from New England, the Palisades, or Canada maybe.
When I opened The New York Times the next morning, still undecided whether I should spend my day on the brown couch or continue my sluggish boulder investigation, I was shocked. Other journalists were able to travel so much farther and quicker than I! In this case, Joyce Wadler had published a story in the paper’s Home section about a very wealthy couple who had built a house in the Catskills around an eight-foot boulder. The boulder is now a conversation piece in the couple’s living room. The homeowner is described as “a pretty hip package” with “knee-high caramel-colored Le Chameau rubber boots, with a snappy zipper” and “two-tone butterscotch frame eyeglasses by Alan Mikli.” One his least favorite things is discussing money, according to Wadler. Looking at his wife’s picture I wondered whether I had met her at King Kullen or at the doctor.
Before I could run to the bathroom to throw up, I took another good look at the photo of the boulder I had clipped from my local paper. Clearly, Long Island City, not the Catskills, would be my next stop.
I didn’t dare park my Yaris Yurovic on top of the glacial erratic on 12th Street and 44th Avenue. The boulder’s bottom is embedded in asphalt and littered with trash, and only its top emerges beyond street level. It didn’t look, though, as if the City was trying to showcase the boulder. Here urban planning had surrendered to nature. Unless it would be decided to raise the surrounding street level, we would have to live with this gigantic speed bump until the next Ice Age leisurely carries it off.
I noticed a man sweeping the sidewalk across from the boulder. He smiled at me and we began to talk. People, Luis told me, come from afar to admire this boulder. Once he saw a man take pictures of a woman in a bear costume climbing on top of the boulder. He giggled. Then he belittled the boulder. Right now it didn’t even look that great, he said. I should see it when it is covered in snow. “Like in the mountains,” he said. His gaze wandered as he tried to recapture the alpine winter scene. This made me sad again and I had to leave for more cheerful grounds.
Until recently I lived in Brooklyn. I had never noticed any boulders there, let alone known that a boulder was used in 1769 to settle the century-old boundary dispute between Kings and Queens counties. The boulder was christened Arbitration Rock and rested at what is now the corner of Onderdonk and Flushing Avenues. In 2001 it was moved 297 feet uphill into the backyard of the Vander Ende-Onderdonk House, New York’s oldest Dutch colonial style house. Volunteers of the Greater Ridgewood Historical Society and the Onderdonk House took great care to ensure that the rock was dropped exactly on top of the old boundary line between Ridgewood, Queens, and Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Arbitration Rock resembles a five-foot tooth with its root buried in the “gums” of the earth. Surrounded by a three-foot high white picket fence, it looks like it is wearing braces. George Miller, one of the volunteers, told me of some possible dangers threatening the rock: Children may climb on it and delivery trucks may accidentally hit it.
Considering its smooth surface, the rock’s been dragged through the ice over many more miles than any truck driver could handle. It scraped along gravel, pebbles, cobbles, sand and other boulders. I’m sure it bumped into much worse on its journey than a delivery truck. Besides, what wimpy delivery truck could be stopped by a picket fence? I felt a sudden urge to tie George to the Arbitration Rock, give it a firm push and have it roll down the hill with its protective little helper. At the same time I was glad that a fence prevented howling, mud-covered children from climbing the rock. My nerves! Maybe I should go to the doctor. And maybe the volunteer should volunteer to come along. I could feel my mood brighten ever so lightly.
The last stop on my slow journey to recovery was Boulder Bridge in Prospect Park. The bridge’s approximate location was noted on the map, but when I came close to it, I didn’t know whether I had to go straight or make a right. I asked a young hipster couple for directions to the bridge. They stared at me out of thick-framed glasses and said they were new here. New to Brooklyn Boulder Country, just like me.
I opted for straight.
Ladies and gentlemen, save your trip to the doctor, the bridge is magnificent. Hidden in a valley of untamed forest there are masses of glacial erratics of all different shapes and sizes. You may climb, balance, walk, sit, and maybe even...
A group of teenagers sat on top of the rocks, noodling on their guitars. “Why did you guys—” I started when I noticed that one of them tried to hide a joint in the palm of his hand. “—decide to hang out on the bridge here?” I finished. “No worries about the joint,” I added. “I don’t care if you’re getting stoned.” The young man holding the roach grinned.
“The waterfall…” the girl said drowsily, pointing behind her.
“It is romantic,” I admitted, a little embarrassed.
I ventured on because, despite the magical atmosphere and the herb’s seductive smell, this valley was far too dark to spend the last warm and sunny day of the year in.
*I opted for pseudonyms for the sources I didn’t inform that I was a writer.
SABINE HEINLEIN is a freelance journalist, radio producer, and photographer who lives in Brooklyn. Her website is www.sabineheinlein.org.