Geography Lessons

GEOGRAPHY LESSONS

I.“Great deposits of till and boulder clay that lay beneath the glaciers were abandoned in situ, and remain as an unsorted mixture of large boulders, pebbles and mingled fragments, embedded in clay or sand. The moraines were stranded were they sank as the ice disappeared…and remain as a permanent record of former conditions found in much earlier times.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 13th ed. (1926), s.v, “Glacier.”

I’m hanging out the wash. It’s cold for this place and although I would like to hurry, I cannot. The job has taken me longer than usual, partly because my fingers are clumsy, partly because the wash has frozen to the large rock where it rests. Each piece needs to be worked free before it can be pinned to the line, socks pried from towels’ grasp, t-shirts and boxers coaxed apart.

The rock has been here a long time and cares not that I am slow. Dragged from somewhere during the Pleistocene era, it slid along on an ice sheet until settling here. About the size of a refrigerator tipped on its side, it serves as a “permanent record …of much earlier [and chillier] times.” Wherever it came from the rock is now part of eastern Long Island’s glacial moraine, the highest point in my backyard, and the place where I rest the wash most mornings, no matter how cold.

How did I get here? Harder to say. Smaller than a refrigerator, I slid along nonetheless until it was time for my sons to start school. And then, like the rock, I began to feel the ride was over; like the rock, I wanted a place to stay. I imagined roses and apple trees. On the strength of this vision we abandoned the giddy momentum of ice-sliders and bought a house.

II.“During the melting of the ice, morainic material is dispersed by the inequalities produced…until the whole surface is strewn with stones and debris, and presents an exceedingly dirty appearance.” Ibid.

Friends were skeptical; apparently no one else could see the trees or the roses. They saw what was really there: a small house on a hill surrounded by rocks. Lots and lots of rocks presenting an “exceedingly dirty appearance.” My husband gave me a pair of work gloves for a housewarming present. Elbow-high and supple (you’ve seen them in the catalogs) those elegant goatskin gauntlets made me feel like chasing dragons. And against dragons they might have worked, but they were no match for the rocks. The gloves soon wore out, followed by countless others (none elegant), three pairs of work boots, two shovels, and five empty plaster buckets used for hauling the smaller rocks to a wooded patch of the backyard.

I soon became discouraged, but kept moving rocks. I grew to wish we had moved somewhere else, but kept moving rocks. I groaned and sometimes cried. The rocks said nothing, but I learned to pay attention to them anyway. Smooth rocks were usually heavier that jagged ones and harder to grab, they were better rolled away. Shimmery mica caused the worst scrapes, granite the worst bruises.

I found an arrowhead, a steel button, shards from a blue willow plate. I told myself stories about the people who dropped these things, things made of rock and sand; it helped pass the time. And I began to wonder about other movers of stone, ancient builders of pyramids, cromlechs, tumuli, dolmens, stelai, cairns. It occurred to me that these structures were all grave markers. But I kept moving rocks. After all, even Sisyphus, that clever king of Corinth, cheated death twice before Hades caught up to him and he was forced to roll a rock forever—maybe not such a bad bargain.

Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and I can move the world.” But he didn’t say where. Doorstops. Drainstops. Paperweights. I’ve used rocks to hammer nails, grind spices, and to weight slabs of homemade cured salmon. My sons used them to fashion amulets and catapults of various designs. Some rocks broke windows; one caused the loss of my youngest son’s front teeth. (I am still unsure of the details, which involved, I am told, a bike, two hockey sticks, and the law of gravity.) A piece of quartz roughly the heft and color of a raw roasting chicken was polished and put in a Plexiglas box in someone else’s house. It’s their only rock.

I am making progress. I don’t cry anymore, and I only groan when the size of the rock demands it. The pile of rubble in the woods is softened by each autumn’s falling leaves. There are rose bushes and small apple trees. The rocks are still here, but so am I.

III.“The surface of the ground in all these places was modified…with many puzzling deposits that are clearly due to some feature of ice-work not thoroughly understood.” Ibid.

This fascination with landforms is not exactly new. In grade school, geography was my favorite subject. I was partial to the maps, the crenelated mountains, curving rivers, the gradated blues of a deepening sea. I found spelling a lot less interesting, stubbornly resisting the standard mnemonic for spelling Geography: George Edward’s Old Grandmother Rode A Pig Home Yesterday. Really? Who were these people? And what part did they play in the luminous world that spread across my textbook like bolts of silk unfurling?

I lost interest in George Edward; my guess is that he was the too-young monarch of a small kingdom whose borders have since been realigned. But I’ve come to love his grandmother; it’s not a pig at all that she rides, but a wild boar. The Druids wreathed her in oak and acorn, and I’ve heard her called Gaia. In this place where I now sit and write she was once known as Ts’its’naku, Spider-Woman, whose dreams gave the world shape and form, who made rocks from stories, and stories from rocks. Wherever she passed “the surface of the ground was modified.”

IV.“Much difference of opinion exists as to the potency of a glacier to alter features, some maintaining that it is extraordinarily effective…in any case striking results are manifest in any formerly glaciated region.” Ibid.

I roll rocks, my neighbor races pigeons. He, no rolling stone, has lived here all his life. “They made it back all the way from Throgs Neck,” he tells me as we stand together under the pigeons’ collective shadow. It’s not the distance traveled but the fact of return that impresses me. Who called them back to this place? They must remember the old songs well enough to do it themselves; I need always to be reminded.

One hot night as my husband and I lay awake in bed, we heard the sound of a rusty swing set, which shifted to the call of a whippoorwill, a lawn mower, a screech owl: a mockingbird singing its chorus of chaos and beauty. As we listened the bird added a new phrase, a guttural clunk elided with a harsh raspy breath. “That’s you,” laughed my husband, “putting rocks into a bucket and shaking them down to make room for more.”

I snorted and rolled over. The mockingbird continued to sing. Maybe he was thinking of apple trees and roses. Who knows, maybe he was singing about the rocks. One thing is certain: he sang of this place, and his song was “extraordinarily effective.” The whir of the motors, the murmur of whippoorwills, the owls, my neighbors, me. The mockingbird called us all into being.

Who called him forth? Mockingbirds are ground nesters, so it could have been the rocks. As far as I can tell these stones are quiet now, but at one time they must have sung. Some in celebration of the slide, other screaming as they were cleft from ancient allegiances. What of the spaces left behind? Hollows fill with rainwater. Caribou drink from the hollows. Hunters follow the caribou. Some pass by, others stay; on a large rock somewhere north of here a woman rests a pile of wet wash on a large rock and scans the sky for signs.

V.“The cause of the move is pressure upon a yielding mass; the nature of the movement is still under discussion.” Ibid.

It’s cold today. Too cold to move rocks, but spring is coming. I know that when the ground thaws more rocks will be heaved to the surface. Some will be beautiful, catching the light, small rainbows gathered in their fissures. Most will just need to be moved. The apple trees may blossom this year, certainly next, their roots twining around rocks I’ve left behind; it’s too late now to separate one from the other. I gather up the last few socks and clip them to the line.