John Burroughs and Sierra Nevada Drift Boulders

By Mathew Tekulsky

In his essay “The Friendly Rocks,” John Burroughs refers to a class of rock called the drift boulder. These boulders, he writes, “have a story to tell” and “have drifted about upon a sea of change, slow and unwilling voyagers from the North many tens of thousands of years ago; now they lie here in the fields and on the hills, shipwrecked mariners, in some cases hundreds of miles from home. But usually they have been plucked from the neighboring ledges or mountains, and shoved or transported to where they now lie. In nearly all cases the sharp points and angles have been rubbed down, as with most travelers, and they lie about the fields like cattle ruminating upon the ground.”         

In the Sierra Nevada, there are many of these drift boulders, caused by the glaciers as these masses of ice thousands of feet thick carved their way through the granite as a knife cuts through butter, only a lot slower. They are like old friends, these glacial erratics, waiting for you when you visit a meadow or a river, looking back at you from the ice age. My favorite drift boulder sits in the Merced River in Yosemite National Park, along the Big Oak Flat Road just after the turnoff from Northside Drive. This dome-shaped rock first burst into my consciousness one autumn, as I gazed out over the river. I photographed it along with its reflection


A short while later, as I perused Ansel Adams’s book Yosemite and the Range of Light,  I noticed something familiar in his photograph entitled “Rock, Merced River, Autumn, Yosemite Valley c.1962.” It was my rock! I could tell by the profile of its dome and the hairline crack on the left side. But the lower section of Adams’s rock was complete, whereas my rock had a gaping hole in the same place. Part of the rock, along another hairline fracture visible in Adams’ photograph, had broken off and drifted to the right side of the boulder. Somehow, in the intervening forty-five years since Adams photographed the boulder, the forces of nature had altered its shape.

As Burroughs writes, “The rocks have a history; gray and weather-worn, they are veterans of many battles; they have most of them marched in the ranks of vast stone brigades during the ice age; they have been torn from the hills, recruited from the mountain-tops, and marshaled on the plains and in the valleys; and now the elemental war is over, there they lie waging a gentle but incessant warfare with time, and slowly, oh, so slowly, yielding to its attacks!”

The following summer, I made a special point of visiting Adams Rock again. (I had named it by now.) This time, I took hundreds of photographs of the rock, from many different angles. And then it hit me! Why not replicate Adams’s photograph? So I placed the rock in the upper right corner of the frame and clicked away (see photo 2). I’m quite pleased with the result, and comparing it with Adams’s photograph, you can really see the way the rock has changed.


            The discovery of that rock inspired me to photograph drift boulders throughout the Sierra Nevada. One of my favorites is a massive specimen sitting in a clump of trees just off the trail from Camp Curry to Happy Isles in Yosemite National Park. In this case, the forest has grown up around the boulder. An incredible sight, to be sure (see photo 3).


On another summer day, I decided to pay a visit to Globe Rock, which sits on its natural pedestal in the Sierra National Forest just south of Yosemite (see photo 4). This drift boulder is easily accessible, as it lies just off the road on the Sierra Vista Scenic Byway.


            In the Eastern Sierra, just before reaching Lake Sabrina on the road west of Bishop, sitting in the middle of Bishop Creek, is a masterpiece of glacial sculpture—a drift boulder that looks as if it were painted gray (see photo 5). I chanced upon this traveler on a sunny September day on my way to the Bishop Pass Trailhead. A short way up the trail, I encountered a relative of our Bishop Creek friend, towering above me on the trail (see photo 6). As Burroughs writes, “‘The shadow of a great rock in a weary land’ is pretty sure to be the shadow of a drift boulder. . . . We pause beside the huge boulder, or rest upon it and survey the landscape from its coign of vantage; we lay our hand upon it as upon some curious relic from a world that we know not of.           


Not to be left out, Sequoia National Park has its share of drift boulders. I discovered one of them at the trailhead for the Long Meadow Loop one autumn day (see photo 7). I marveled at the fragments of the boulder that were strewn around its base, caused by the freezing and thawing of water. This boulder is a work-in-progress; it has not attained the roundness of Globe Rock—but give it time!


            These are just a few of the drift boulders that I have observed in the Sierra Nevada, and I look forward to discovering many more of these magnificent rocks that were formed in the ice age. I look at them as talisman of the trails, markers, guideposts, objects on which to lean and rest your weary soul when the world gets to be too much for you. They represent the durability of nature as well as its changeability. How human is that?

            According to Burroughs, “The rocks are not so close akin to us as the soil; they are one more remove from us; but they lie back of all, and are the final source of all. I do not suppose they attract us on this account, but on quite other grounds. Rocks do not recommend the land to the tiller of the soil, but they recommend it to those who reap a harvest of another sort—the artist, the poet, the walker, the student and lover of all primitive open-air things.”

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