Why does a pile of boulders in a farmer’s front yard in Caroline County, on the road between Denton and Easton, bring an inquiring smile to my face?
Here’s one explanation, involving ice ages, glaciers, millions of years and geologic history.
When you’re heating rods of iron in a coal-fired forge, then hammering them on an anvil into useful and decorative shapes, you can’t be in a hurry. I’m pretty sure that’s why my friend the blacksmith has often said that the key to happiness is slow.
If that’s the case, then geologists must be among the happiest of people. Geological time, after all, is real slow, and that’s the world in which they delve.
One geological source, for example, tells us that the Appalachian mountains millions of years ago butted right up against the mid-Atlantic coast. That made for a rocky shoreline as exists today in New England and northward. But their studies show that the Appalachians, in tectonic fashion, have been migrating westward annually at about the same pace as the growth of our fingernails.
That kind of slow breeds a happiness that can’t help but morph into contentment.
If you, like millions of others, are content to sit on one of the Delmarva Peninsula’s miles and miles of sandy beaches, watching the waves pushing sand back and forth between sea and dunes, you can thank the Appalachians. Their slow migration made way for development of the fertile coastal plain, in general, and the Delmarva Peninsula specifically.
Over millions of years, and one ice age after another, eroding mountains sent sand seaward down rivers and streams until the gravitational flow eased. Sand settled out and piled up as it met the incessant power of the ocean. Together, sand and sediment rolling out of the great and ancient Susquehanna and Delaware rivers eventually formed this long spit of land that we now call the Delmarva Peninsula, and its beaches, between the flooded Chesapeake and Delaware bay estuaries.
Flat and fertile, the peninsula has proven commodious for human habitation since the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. ‘The land of pleasant living,’ as Delmarva is often called.
But boulders, like those along the road in Caroline County, were not part of the general equation that formed Delmarva. Farmers here don’t typically work around rocks and boulders in their fields. So what gives?
University of Delaware geologist Kelvin Ramsey provided the answer to that mystery a few decades back when I was reporting on the finding of a boulder about the size of a Volkswagen beetle. A farmer disking a field in late spring, outside Milton and near Delaware Bay, struck the boulder and gave me a call.
Such boulders, Ramsey said, amount to geological debris left behind by receding glaciers melting away at the end of the last ice age. Encapsulated in ice as glaciers formed, boulders moved forward with the ice.
Or, he said, they could have been tangled in tree roots and were rushed over the peninsula when melting glaciers spawned powerful floods in the big rivers. When those floods subsided, the trees, and boulders they pushed along, eventually fell out. The trees rotted away. The boulders endured.
“They’re probably quartz or sandstone,” said Ramsey of the Caroline County boulders. “In the hilly country of Pennsylvania and New York you’ll find boulders, like those, at the tops of ridges. Durable and hard, they last. Transported by ice or flooding rivers, they would hold up.”
Receding glaciers and associated flooding also probably explain the gravel in the sand pit where the boulders were discovered.
Bruce Miller owns the farm where the boulders now live, not far from the sand pit. He has used them over the years for an informal fence along the road and to border his wife’s rose garden. He’s grown fond of them. Geological happiness abides.
When he makes a planned move to Delaware, the boulders will go with him. “They’re a connection to my dad. He brought them to me.”
Dennis Forney has been a publisher, journalist and columnist on the Delmarva Peninsula since 1972. He writes from his home on Grace Creek in Bozman.