Few things captured my childhood imagination more than rocks. I spent hours searching the roadsides for quartz pebbles. I collected ripple marks and treasured the small, imperfect fossils I found on the railroad tracks. I saved the pieces of coal I found in the path of the town plow. But best of all were the large, exotic boulders in the pastures and woods where we hiked and played.
Recently my cousin Bob took us on a walk to find “the meteorite”—a fabled rock from our childhoods—on his mother’s old farm in Rock Valley. My aunt’s family had found this rock in the woods while picking berries one summer. They had never noticed it before and due to its size, dark color (and I presume their vivid, H.G. Wells-infused imaginations), they speculated that it was a meteor fallen from the sky.
It was a playful fiction—the kind that families concoct for themselves—and the rock continued to be known as “the meteorite” (or “the meteor”) even after pieces of it were chipped off and analyzed. It became a place of pilgrimage in the summers when we helped with haying in the surrounding fields.
“The meteorite” is not a star from light-years years away, but it is a relic of the vast sheet of ice that once covered most of North America.
“A glacier is a rock conveyor belt,” we were taught in earth science class. And “the meteorite” and the moraines of Rock Valley are left from the last ice age which ended about 22,000 years ago.
My cousin, Bob Dirig, has supplied me with this detailed description of this type of black rock recorded by William L. Dix, a botanist who grew up across the river from us in the settlement of Lake Shehawken in Wayne County, PA. In Dix’s paper entitled “Ferns of Lake Shehawken and Vicinity, Wayne County, Pennsylvania,” published in the American Fern Journal in 1939, he states: “The rocks of this region are entirely sedimentary sandstone of the Upper Devonian period… Another peculiar rock locally called ‘niggerhead’ occurs in great numbers ranging in size from two to 10 feet. None of these apparently occur in beds, but have been scattered glacially. They consist of small angular fragments of quartz, and often contain numerous small pockets of a dark gray shale. When weathered, these rocks are black, and have a curious pockmarked appearance due to uneven decomposition. Geologically they are known as calcareous breccias.”
In honor of William Dix, I will also add that our walk was also a veritable “bioblitz” of ferns. We saw interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and bracken. Of course there was Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and great waves of hay-scented fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula). Also narrow-leaved spleenwort (Diplazium pycnocarpon), cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum) and Goldie’s fern (Dryopteris goldiana). As well as my favorite: the elegant, fan-like maiden’s hair (Adiantum) fern.
We had tried a few times before to find “the meteorite” using maps Bob had drawn but had been unsuccessful. Our old farms are growing up around us—turning back to the wild. And still, it is hard to believe we could once again miss such a spectacular boulder in our own backyard.