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The Princeton Anthology of Writing:
Favorite Pieces by the Ferris/McGraw Writers at Princeton University
Edited by John McPhee & Carol Rigolot
With a Preface by John McPhee

Book Description | Reviews | Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 2001, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

"Travels of the Rock" by John McPhee

Plymouth Rock is a glacial erratic at rest in exotic terrane. When Mayflower, an English merchant ship, approached the rock, in 1620, the rock, like the ship, had recently been somewhere else. Heaven knew where. Some geologists have said that the rock is Laurentian granite, from north of the St. Lawrence River (Loring, 1920). Most American geologists have preferred a provenance closer to home: Cape Ann, for example, north of Boston (Carnegie Institution, 1923); or the region of Cohasset, south of Boston (Shimer, 1951); or even the bed of Plymouth Bay (Mather, 1952). Wherever the boulder came from, it was many times larger in 1620 than it is today.

It was also in one piece. In 1774, the rock was split in two, horizontally, like a bagel. There were those who feared and those who hoped that the break in the rock portended an irreversible rupture between England and the American colonies. If so, the lower half was the Tory half, for it stayed behind, while the upper part was moved from the harborside to Liberty Pole Square for the specific purpose of stirring up lust for independence. Scarce was independence half a century old when a new portentous split occurred, in the upper, American, rock. It broke, vertically, into two principal parts, shedding fragments to the side. Eventually, the two halves of the upper part were rejoined by common mortar, containing glacial pebbles from countless sources, and the rock as a whole was reconstructed. The upper part was returned to the waterfront, where a thick filling of mortar was slathered on the lower part, and Plymouth Rock -- with its great sutured gash appearing like a surgical scar -- was reassembled so that it would be, to whatever extent remained possible, a simulacrum of the landmark that was there in 1620.

In the course of the twentieth century, the mortar did not hold. Pebbles fell out. Chunks. Despite a canopy over the rock (McKim, Mead & White, 1921), water got into the great crack, froze, and wedged against the bonding force with pressures as high as two thousand pounds per square inch. The rock could not stay whole, and on August 7, 1989, in an item disseminated by the Associated Press, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management announced that the oldest symbol of the New World was in dire need of a mason.


In the British merchant marine, Mayflowers were numerous. The one that approached the landmark in Plymouth Bay that December was twelve or so years old, and had, for the most part, carried wine to England from Bordeaux. Her new assignment was equally commercial. When she sailed from Devon, she was under instructions to go to the mouth of the Hudson River, where her passengers, under a seven-year contract with investors in London, would warehouse timber, furs, and fish. She was meant to land on New York rock, but she missed. After a crossing of nine stormy weeks, she came upon Cape Cod. She dropped anchor in the cape's sheltered bay and spent a month there while a number of passengers, including William Bradford, went ashore to reconnoitre the cape's resources. In the woods one day, Bradford noticed a sapling bent over like a dancer touching the ground. Acorns were strewn beneath the sapling. Bradford moved close, too close, and "it gave a sudden jerk up, and he was immediately caught by the leg" (Mourt, 1622). The noose that caught him was state of the art by English standards, and so was the rope. In their searches the explorers found stored corn in buried baskets, which they took for their own use. They opened the grave of a child. "About the legs and other parts of it was bound strings and bracelets of fine white beads; there was also by it a little bow, about three quarters long, and some other odd knacks. We brought sundry of the prettiest things away with us, and covered the corpse up again." Before the sun had set four times, "arrows came flying amongst us."

In a small sloop, a scouting party sailed west, into a gale that broke the boat's rudder and shattered the mast. Nonetheless, they found what is now Plymouth Harbor, climbed to the high defendable ground behind it, discovered a sweet brook and deserted fields. This was not the "rockbound coast" that poetry and fiction would claim it to be. The shore was sandy. It was a beach. It was a long strand of wave-sorted till with almost no rocks of any size. A most notable exception was a big boulder of more than two hundred tons, alternately washed and abandoned by the cycle of the tides -- a rock so prominently alone that from across water it would have looked like a house.

Bradford, Carver, Standish, Winslow, Howland, and the others -- the exploring party -- sailed back to Cape Cod to inform the Mayflower company that they had chosen a site for the plantation. They learned that Bradford's wife, Dorothy, had gone over the side of the ship and had drowned. She was one of four who died before the ship reached Plymouth. To get ashore on the cape, the people had to wade in several feet of water. Temperatures were often below the freeze point. Rain and spray formed ice on their clothing. Most of the children as well as the adults had colds, coughs, pneumonic symptoms that plunged into scurvy. On that gray water under gray sky -- under wind and through snow -- the land around them must have seemed less than promised. Dorothy Bradford was an apparent suicide. There had been a hundred and two passengers in all. One by one, across the next few months, forty-seven more would die.

A few days before Christmas, the ship entered Plymouth Harbor and approached the site near the mouth of the brook, the landmark rock below the foot of the hill. Most of the people lived on the ship until the end of March, routinely coming and going to trap or hunt or work on the initial construction. The brook, entering the bay, had cut a channel in the otherwise shallow water. The channel turned north, paralleled the shore, and ran close to the seaward side of the great rock. For two hundred years, oceangoing vessels would use this channel.


After the theory of continental glaciation was developed and accepted, in the nineteenth century, geologists reviewing the story of Plymouth took pleasure in pointing out that the rock had travelled, too: "The Pilgrims' Rock is . . . itself an older pilgrim than those who landed on it" (Adams, 1882). "Plymouth Rock is a bowlder from the vicinity of Boston, having accomplished its pilgrimage long before the departure of the Mayflower from Holland" (Wright, 1905, "The Ice Age in North America and Its Bearings Upon the Antiquity of Man").

A headline in the New York Times of October 25, 1923, said:


What followed was a summary of confident assertions emanating from the Geology Department of the University of Rochester. The news caused the Acting Governor of Massachusetts to schedule hearings. The news caused Charles E. Munroe, the chairman of the Committee on Explosives Investigations, of the National Research Council, in Washington, to write a " PERSONAL -- Confidential" letter to Robert Lincoln O'Brien, the editor of the Boston Herald, seeking his assistance in developing an investigation that would yield "more complete knowledge of the rock" and, fortuitously, "trace its origin to some other locality than Canada, thus greatly relieving the minds and assuaging the feelings of many, not only within New England but without."

What Munroe wanted was a piece of the rock. He wanted to place a hand specimen in the hand of Henry S. Washington, petrologist, geologist, geochemist, of the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory. O'Brien, in turn, put the request to Arthur Lord, the president of the Pilgrim Society, in Plymouth. Lord replied that the rock had been studied by geologists and identified as syenite. Syenite? said Munroe to Henry Washington. Where could that be from? Montreal, said Henry Washington. Or half a dozen places in Ontario. He also identified possible sources in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts, including Cape Ann. Cape Ann was the likeliest of this lot. Large boulders glacially transported are seldom moved very far.

When the theory of plate tectonics congealed in the late nineteen-sixties, it opened corridors of thought that have led to a complete revision of the geologic history of New England, where, it now appears, there is enough alien rock to effect the total detonation of the late chairman of the Committee on Explosives Investigations if he were here to hear about it. The short travels of glacial boulders are ignored by these new insights. In present theory, New England's very bedrock has come from overseas.

In Reston. Virginia, not long ago, at the headquarters of the United States Geological Survey, E-an Zen invited me to have a look at a snapshot taken from a space shuttle a hundred and sixty miles above Plymouth. The picture was nine inches high and eighteen wide. It had been made with a Large Format Camera. As with the old view cameras from the era of Mathew Brady, the negative was as large as the print. With a casual glance, you could see at once the region the picture covered. You could see Lake George, in the Adirondacks. You could see Vermont lakes, the Connecticut River, Narragansett Bay, and Cape Cod. But the picture was of such small scale -- from eight hundred and forty-five thousand feet -- that most of it seemed to the unaided eye a swirl of white patches in varying abstracts of gray. It covered, after all, at least twenty-four thousand square miles. Zen handed me a Hastings Triplet, a ten-power lens that geologists hold close to outcrops and specimens in order to study crystals. He put his finger on the edge of Massachusetts Bay, and said, "Look there." I leaned close to the photograph, as if it were a rock, and saw stripes at the head of a runway at Logan Airport. Moving the lens down the coast, I saw the breakwater in Plymouth Harbor. I saw Town Brook, Town Wharf, State Pier, and Coles Hill. I did not see Plymouth Rock, because of the canopy above it. On the shore of a Vermont lake I saw a small outcrop called White Rock, which I knew from childhood. Zen also had a picture that reached from Montreal to the Maine coast. I saw the house of a friend of mine on Mount Desert Island. I saw a fourteen-acre island in Lake Winnipesaukee, where I fish for chain pickerel in the fall. I saw smoke drifting away from the weather station at the summit of Mt. Washington.

After I put down the hand lens and leaned back, Zen asked if I could discern in the unmagnified pictures variations in texture from one area to another. I said I could. The country east of the Penobscot River, for example, differed from the country to the west as, say, burlap differs from tweed. Most variations were more subtle. On those pictures, from that altitude, the differences were no greater than the differences that sometimes occur on the surface of a calm lake. But the differences were there. New England appeared to consist of several swaths, as much as a hundred miles wide and more or less parallel to the seacoast. Zen was sporting a pleased grin. The large-format photographs seemed to illustrate conclusions he had reached from paleomagnetic, petrologic, structural, and seismic data interpreted in the light of plate tectonics, and in no way refuted by paleontology. Placing a finger on each side of the Penobscot River, he said those differing textural bands were exotic terranes.

As plate theorists reconstruct plate motions backward through time, they see landmasses now represented by Europe and Africa closing together with North America during the Paleozoic Era. These were the assembling motions that produced the great continent Pangaea. Much more recently, western Pangaea split apart to form the Atlantic Ocean, which is young, and is widening still. The ocean that was closed out in the making of Pangaea -- the older ocean, the ancestral Atlantic, which used to be approximately where the Atlantic is now -- is commonly called Iapetus, since Iapetus was the father of Atlas, and plate theorists, in studied humility, thus record their debt to mythology. The collision, as Zen and others see it in the rock they study and the data they otherwise collect, was not a simple suture of the two great sides. There were islands involved, and island arcs -- Madagascars, New Zealands, Sumatras, Japans. "They were large islands in an ocean of unspecified size," he said. "Islands like Newfoundland." Some of them may have amalgamated while still standing off in the ocean. Some not. In one way or another, they were eventually laminated into Pangaea, and slathered like mortar between the huger bodies of rock.

A couple of hundred million years later, as the Atlantic opened, bits and pieces of original America stuck to Europe and rode east. The Outer Hebrides, for example, are said to derive from the northern North American continental core.


The converse was true as well. Stuck to North America, fragments of Europe stayed behind. Baltimore, for example. Nova Scotia. A piece of Staten Island. The part of Massachusetts that includes Plymouth and Boston is now understood to derive from overseas. If from Europe, part of New England could be part of Old England, a New Old England in an Old New England or an Old Old England in a New New England. The Mayflower people landed where they left.


Around eight one morning in mid-November of 1989, Paul Choquette, of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts, who had been selected only three days earlier as Mason to the Rock, arrived in Plymouth under considerable pressure to get the repair work done well before Thanksgiving, which was eight days away. He showed up in a U-Haul truck with Nebraska license plates and this message emblazoned on the sides: "ONE-WAY & LOCAL/ADVENTURE IN MOVING."

Choquette was a trim man in his forties, with green eyes, dense brown hair, a loose, lean frame, and the serious look of a concentrating golfer. There was, as well, resemblance to a golfer in his roomily draped wine-red sweater, in his striped collar hanging free, less so in his bluejeans and his white running shoes. He had with him his entire family and then some. He had Jonathan, Jennifer, Elizabeth, and Tim -- his children, twelve to twenty-one. He had his brother-in-law, Richard Langlois, and Richard's six-year-old, Ian, who said, "Why is this important? There's no such thing as Pilgrims."

Mark Cullinan, the chief engineer of the Department of Environmental Management, remarked that Choquette's task would be something like taking the tonsils out of the President of the United States -- a relatively minor operation that nonetheless required someone of more than ordinary skill in the art. Moreover, the work would be accomplished with a lot of people watching: the public and the media, not to mention Paul Botelho, Cullinan's assistant chief engineer; Ruth Teixeira, the Region 1 regional engineer; Ronald Hirschfeld, a geotechnical consulting engineer; Chris Green, a landscape architect of the Office of Cultural and Historic Landscapes of the Department of Environmental Management; Peter O'Neil, the departmental press secretary; Shelley Beeby, the deputy commissioner of communications; and Donald Matinzi, of Plymouth, the park supervisor.

This was a day of chilling, intermittently heavy rain, and no one was sorry to be standing inside the McKim, Mead & White portico, which is locally known as the cage. It's a bit like a Bernese bear pit. Granite walls enclose the rock on three sides. The fourth side, through iron grillwork, is open to the sea. The entablature is supported on twelve tall columns, and is six feet thick, or thick enough to block rain. Under it, visitors stand behind iron railings looking down at the rock on its patch of beach.

The rock has become fairly round and has a diameter varying from five and a half to six and a half feet. Early in the eighteenth century, it was measured for purposes of a town plat, with the resulting description that the "Grate Rock yt lyeth below Ye sd Way from ye stone at ye foot of The hill neare the Southerly Corner of John Ward's land is :30: foot in width" (Plymouth Records, 17l5-16). What you see now weighs only four tons. The lower, buried part is larger. Spring tides climb into the cage and far up the rock. Nor'easters drive seas against it as well. When trucks go by on Water Street, the rock shakes.

The rock is filled with xenoliths -- alien and black. They are stones, cobbles, hunks of older rock that fell into the larger mass while it was still molten or, if cooler than that, sufficiently yielding to be receptive. The xenoliths are like raisins in a matrix of bread. The rock is crisscrossed with very narrow, very straight veins of quartz. At some point in the nineteenth century, it cracked along one or two of these veins.

On the seaward side, the old repair was in particular need of attention. The national treasure looked sorry indeed, like twice-broken crockery. After the news of its condition went out on the A.P., epoxy-makers all over the country offered their expertise free of charge. But Cullinan decided that high-strength epoxy was too much of a high-tech solution. To get rid of it, if that should ever be necessary, you would have to destroy rock.

Mortars can be mixed that look like stone. In other words, despite the fact that the great crack was as wide as a python, an effort could be made to fool the public into thinking it wasn't there. Cullinan rejected that idea, too. The remaining choice -- other than leaving the rock alone -- was to chip out the old mortar and replace it.

Choquette climbed down into the cage with so many others that they did suggest a surgical team. He had his duckbill chisel, his cold chisels, his brick hammer, his five-pound hammer, his three-pound hammer, his paintbrushes, his wire brushes, his cord, his trowels, his wrenches, and his two sons. His brother-in-law stacked three planks against the iron grillwork on the seaward side and wrapped a rubber sheet around them in anticipation of the rising tide. It was a day of full moon.

Choquette went at the crack with a chisel. Tap. Tap. Ta-tap-tap-tump. He said, "Listen to that void!" Bits of mortar flew away. The opening widened. After a couple of hundred taps, he reached in and pulled seaweed out of Plymouth Rock. It was dry, and looked like twigs and straw. It came out of the interior like mattress stuffing.

He said the old mortar was very hard -- "a lot of Portland and not much lime." In replacing it, he would use four parts pulverized stone and four parts aggregate with one part lime (for plasticity). He would clean the crack with Detergent 600. He would put his new mortar in and, twenty minutes later, wash it with a hose and brush it. This would get rid of lime that tends to come to the surface. It would make the mortar darker, and also cause it to blend better into the pores of the rock.

To show to anyone who might be interested, he had a yogurt cup full of the pulverized stone. It came from a quarry in Acushnet, he said. Acushnet, Massachusetts, next to New Bedford, sits on hundreds of feet of long-transport glacial till. It is probable that the shards of rock going into Choquette's mortar came from three or four New England states and much of eastern Canada, and, in turn, from almost any Old World country south of Lapland. If a corner of the Old World was missing in the pulverized till, it might well be represented among the small angular stones that Choquette had brought from his own property, in South Dartmouth, to match the aggregate in the existing mortar. Steadily tapping, he continued to clean out the rock.

From above, someone in the gathering crowd asked him why he was attracted to this sort of specialty.

He said, "It intrigues me. Everything today is fast track. You know -- you work it up and say, 'Where's the check?'"

"Are you ready for the Liberty Bell?"

"If you give me a shot at it, I'll try." Tap. Ta-tap-tap tump. "This rock is already eighty per cent gone. Even if we can preserve ten per cent of it, we should preserve it. What matters is what it means."

The Department of Environmental Management had sought an expert mason who had experience with historic masonry. The Historic Commissions of five states were asked for recommendations. This produced a short list of eight masons, including the restorer of Belvedere Castle, in Manhattan's Central Park, and the restorer of Austin Block, in the Charlestown section of Boston -- a three-story granite building made of rock from an island in Boston Harbor. Seven years earlier, Choquette had reached his decision that there had to be more in masonry than trowelling together new buildings. Venturing into restoration as often as he got a chance, he had done the exterior of the Academy of Music Theatre, in Northampton, the exterior of a church in New Bedford, and various lithic antiquities on Nantucket. As masons were evaluated for the Plymouth assignment, they were asked in formal interviews what approach they would take to the problem --to say in detail just how they would think through and plan the work. Among the candidates was one who replied, "You wanta me to fix the crack, right? I do a good job. It take an hour." The finalists were Steve Striebel, of Gill, Massachusetts, and Paul Choquette. The job then went to bids. Striebel's bid was a hundred times as high as Choquette's. So Choquette got the job. He bid a dollar.


In November and December of 1620, Mayflower people landed (and slept) in half a dozen places before reaching and settling in Plymouth. In the two contemporary accounts of the Plymouth landings -- the several landings of the exploring sloop, and the arrival of the ship itself -- nowhere is it mentioned, or obliquely suggested, that anyone set foot on a rock (Mourt, 1622; Bradford, 1630-50). Yet by 1820 the rock was set in the diadem of the republic. Daniel Webster, as the principal speaker on Forefathers' Day, on the two-hundredth anniversary of the Plymouth settlement, said, "Beneath us is the rock on which New England received the feet of the Pilgrims." He continued for an hour, his eloquent images provoking tears, and no one seemed to doubt him. The media had long since accepted the story. "The Federalists toasted their ancestors with the hope that the empire which sprung from their labors be as permanent as the rock of their landing" (Colombian Sentinel, December 22, 1798). And when Plymouth's first official history was published it said, "The identical rock, on which the sea-wearied Pilgrims first leaped . . . has never been a subject of doubtful designation" (Thacher, 1832). Foreign journalists covering the United States noted in conversations with Americans everywhere what "an object of veneration" the rock had become -- a reverence that was growing in inverse proportion to the size of the rock itself. "I saw bits of it carefully preserved in several towns of the Union.... Here is a stone which the feet of a few outcasts pressed for an instant, and the stone becomes famous; it is treasured by a great nation; its very dust is shared as a relic" (Tocqueville, 1835).

Inevitably, a shrine was built to enshrine it - a tall four-legged canopy reaching back in time to Trajan and the baldachino and forward to the missile silo. The designer was Hammatt Billings, the illustrator of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" "Mother Goose," and "Little Women." It stood for fiftv-three years before it was replaced by McKim, Mead & White. The rock that fitted into this ciborium not only had travelled across an ocean as bedrock and then an unknown distance as a glacial boulder but also had become remarkably mobile in Plymouth. When twenty yoke of oxen were brought to the site to move it, in 1774, pitonlike screws were put into it to assist the operation. The splitting occurred as if in a quarry, and the oxen went off with half a rock. On the Fourth of July, 1834, that upper half was moved several blocks, from the town square to the yard of Pilgrim Hall. In a two-wheeled cart, it was drawn through Plymouth as if it were the bull Ferdinand. It was escorted by the Plymouth Band, the Standish Guards, and half a dozen youths hauling behind them a model of the Mayflower. A story has come down from that parade to the effect that a pin came out of the bed of the cart, causing it to tilt, and -- with the whole town of Plymouth looking on -- the rock crashed to earth and broke into several pieces. Of the crisscrossing quartz veins in Plymouth Rock, each is a healed crack. The cracking and the healing could be associated with its original cooling (when its temperature got down to about a thousand degrees Fahrenheit), or with tectonic activity (anything from local faulting to pervasive plate motions) that heated it up. In either case, the quartz seams are planes of weakness -- quarrymen call them sap streaks -- and the break that Paul Choquette would one day be asked to fix followed such a vein. Since the story of the parade accident lacks convincing roots, it is probable that the rock's famous crack was made over years by rainwater, penetrating along a vein, freezing, wedging.

Meanwhile, the lower half of the rock remained at the waterfront, and actually served as a part of the surface of a commercial wharf, with iron-tired carts rolling over it filled with fish or lobsters, timber, coal. In the mud-traceried right-of-way, it bloomed like a plantar wart. It was a few feet from the front step of a grocery. When tourists came to see the rock, the grocer swept it clean, saying that he was "brushing off the cornerstone of the nation," and if anyone wanted a souvenir there was a hammer and chisel near the door. While Billings' canopy was under construction, the lower-half rock was hoisted up and placed to one side. As it sat there for some years exposed, it lost considerable weight. Large pieces were broken off and stolen. Some were rebroken into small pieces that were individually sold or, in one case, used as aggregate in making a concrete floor. A few large hunks went into a pickle barrel to weigh down corning beef. A piece that weighed four hundred pounds became a doorstep.

In 1867, when the lower half of the original rock was placed in its new setting, it did not fit. It was too long and thick for the display purposes the designer had in mind. So the rock was trimmed and planed. Its upper surface was lowered, as chips flew.

In 1880, the halves were reunited. The upper half was hauled downhill and set on top of the piece in the canopy. Together, the two parts were about as stable now as an egg resting on an egg. They were chinked firm by imported rocks of no established pedigree. Into the upper half the date 1620 was chiselled boldly.

At the time of the tercentenary, the Plymouth shoreline was reconfigured, and some thousands of tons of largebroken rock were lined up as riprap on the once sandy beach. The old canopy was removed to make way for the new portico. As the national triolith was lifted by a crane, its repaired crack widened and the parts separated. The Obelisk Waterproofing Company, of New York City, was called in to waterproof the rock. This done, Plymouth Rock in its several parts was put on skids and hauled to a warehouse, where it remained until the portico was ready. In 1921, with mortar and trowel, the sculptor Cyrus Dallin reassembled the parts. His standing bronze figure of Chief Massasoit watched from Coles Hill, the high defendable ground above.

I am indebted to Julie Johnson, of Boston, who once studied Plymouth Rock for the Department of Environmental Management and whose specialty is historic preservation, for guiding me to a large part of this research, in the archives of Pilgrim Hall, in Plymouth.

The rock came to Plymouth about twenty thousand years ago. During the past couple of centuries, much of it has continued to travel, and some has recrossed the sea. A trimmed, squared hundred-pound piece long stood on a twenty-foot plinth in the courtyard of an inn at Immingham, in Lincolnshire, where, on the Humberside in 1607, the disaffected Puritans departed for Holland. There are pieces of Plymouth Rock at the Conoco refinery in Hull, Massachusetts. A piece of Plymouth Rock that weighs more than fifty pounds is in the Plymouth Congregational Church, on Schermerhorn Street, in Brooklyn. There is a piece of Plymouth Rock in Los Gatos, California. There is a piece of Plymouth Rock in the Nevada State Museum, in Carson City. In the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, is a piece of Plymouth Rock about twenty-two inches long and of such craggy beauty that it could serve the art of suiseki, in which it would be called a distant-mountain stone. In the nineteen-twenties, the Antiquarian Society of Plymouth sold pieces of the rock as paperweights. There have been tie tacks, pendants, earrings, cufflinks made from Plymouth Rock. In 1954, a patriotic citizen sent President Eisenhower a piece of Plymouth Rock with the message "Now, Mr. President, if there are times when the going is hard and you may be discouraged, just take this little stone in your hand and . . ." Ike wrote back to thank him.


E-an Zen, who is approximately as exotic as the rock he studies, was born in Peking in 1928 and came to the United States when he was eighteen years old. Educated at Cornell and Harvard, he has worked primarily in the northern Appalachians. He seems to know every outcrop, contour, brook, and village of New England. Zen is wiry, spare, compact. It is not unimaginable that the term "rock-ribbed" was coined so that it would exist to describe him. He is the editor of the geologic map of Massachusetts (Zen, Goldsmith, Ratcliffe, Robinson, Stanley, 1983). Among his benchmark papers is one that is titled "Exotic Terranes in the New England Appalachians" (1983). When I saw him in Reston, he had recently written a guidebook for the International Geological Congress, laying out a field trip across the complete aggregation of terranes from Saratoga County, New York, through Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts to the coast of Rhode Island. He showed me the map the field trip followed. Rutland and Bennington, in Vermont, and Williamstown and Stockbridge, in Massachusetts, were all lined up near the eastern edge of the old North American continent. Hanover, New Hampshire, and Brattleboro, Vermont, were in a sliver of country with an average width of scarcely twenty miles that Zen called the Brompton-Cameron Terrane. He said it was not exotic. It seemed to be "a distal part of North America that was pushed onto the continent like a floe in an ice-jam -- rammed in." Keene, New Hampshire, Amherst and Springfield, Massachusetts, and much of the Connecticut River lay in a swath about seventy miles wide that he thinks is truly exotic and is a southerly reach of the Central Maine Terrane. "It is from the other side of the ocean," Zen said. Its outer boundary runs through Fitchburg, Massachusetts, where it is welded to the country east of it by the Fitchburg Pluton, a granite batholith. The country east of it was the Massabesic-Merrimack Terrane (Portsmouth and Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire; Sturbridge, Massachusetts; Storrs, Connecticut), which also came over the Iapetus Ocean. East of that -- and including New London, Connecticut, and Worcester, Massachusetts -- was a bent, irregular piece of the world as little as two and as much as seventy miles wide, of which Zen remarked, "God knows where it came from. It's a big enigma. It has no fossil control. It could be delaminated basement of the Massabesic-Merrimack Terrane. It is known as Nashoba." And, finally, through Cape Ann, Salem, Lynn, and Boston, nearly as far west as Worcester, and including Newport, Providence, and Plymouth, was New England's "most distinctly and unequivocally exotic terrane," Atlantica.

Atlantica. Seaward of all the voyaging pieces that had collided in sequence, making mountains, Atlantica differed from the others in a clear and puzzling manner: it was not pervasively deformed. You don't crash head on into a continent and take the shock of the tectonics undeformed. The successive collisions that preceded the arrival of Atlantica, which are collectively known as the Acadian Orogeny, had folded, faulted, and profoundly metamorphosed all the other terranes. In Atlantica, by contrast, even the gas cavities in Precambrian volcanic rocks are undeformed. Tiny shards are recognizable in Precambrian ash. In Atlantica, Zen said, Ordovician plutonic rocks are as fresh as the plutonic rocks of the Sierra Nevada, which are four hundred million years younger. In Atlantica, Silurian-Devonian volcanic and sedimentary rocks are undeformed. "In Acadian time, they were not touched."

"So where was Atlantica during the Acadian events?" I asked him.

He said, "I wish I knew. It's entirely conceivable that at the end of Acadian time you could have walked dry-shod from the Adirondacks to Atlantica -- to Boston, but not where Boston is now. It would have been some hundreds of kilometres away; my prejudice would be to the south -- a prejudice based on paleomagnetic data."

When the Acadian events were over and the mountains stood high, Atlantica, to remain undeformed, must have come sliding in along a transform fault, like southwestern New Zealand along the Alpine Fault, like southwestern California along the San Andreas Fault. Thus arrived Atlantica, from whose bedrock the ice sheet almost surely plucked up what became Plymouth Rock, and where, in any case, the Mayflower landed.

I said, "If you had to make a choice, where would you say Atlantica came from?"

He said, "Africa."


The rock reassembled is not a perfect fit, because so much of it is missing. On the seaward side, the walls of the great crack diverge concavely, like a clamshell. Cleaning out the old mortar, Choquette opened a space deep enough to hide a football. When he worked far inside, his entire forearm was in the rock. Also, he removed rotten mortar from the top of the buried portion -- the cushioning mattress beneath the two joined segments that are visible to the visiting public. Sparks jumped from the cutting edge of his chisel. The visiting public, now two and three deep around the railings above, had come to Plymouth to see a cold, silent stone and were watching the trajectories of sparks. A man in a bright-red jacket with an American flag on one shoulder snapped the rock with a Japanese camera and said to his wife, "They're looking for fossils."

Plymouth is a red-brick-and-white-clapboard town that has cheerfully shouldered the burdens of its negotiable antiquity. Outside one store, the words "KARATE CHECHI" appear on an eighteenth-century oval wooden sign. Ye Olde Town Crier is some doors away from Hair Illusions. There are houses that were known to the original people (1640, 1666). The streets are neat, the park is attractive under Coles Hill beside the bay, where the rock in the cage reposes. The Mayflower in replica -- a hundred and six feet long, a hundred and eighty-one tons, with a very high and narrow stern -- floats at a pier nearby: a gift from the City of Plymouth in Devon. Plymouth, Massachusetts, averages something like three thousand visitors a day -- ten thousand on Thanksgiving, and scarcely a slack moment in any part of the year. Ruth Walker, a retired science teacher who works for the state as an interpreter of the rock, once told me some of the questions that visitors frequently ask:

"How did he get all those animals on that boat?"

"Where are the Nina and the Pinta?"

"Why doesn't the rock say '1492'?"

"Where is the sword?"

A man once appeared with a boxer on a leash and asked if it would be all right if the dog "marked the rock."

A descendant will blush modestly, rub one Reebok against another, and announce that his name is Howland. With a glance over a shoulder at the hill above the rock, another man says his name is Coles. His billowing sports shirt cannot drape the fact that since 1620 he has eaten very well. A Soule says hello, he's related to George. Descendants seem to appear by the shipload. In their sneakers, their cowboy boots, their leather jackets and one-way shades, they are Fullers, Winslows, Whites, Brewsters, Billingtons, Warrens, Browns, Aldens, and mixed collaterals.

Someone tells the story that as Massasoit watched the ship arrive he said, "There goes the neighborhood."

A great many people are disillusioned when they see the size of the rock. At some level of consciousness they have confused it with Gibraltar. If they are asked what they expected, a high percentage of them will actually mention Gibraltar. The extent of the letdown is this: Gibraltar is thirty million times as large as Plymouth's potato-like boulder. Visitors have called it "the biggest disappointment in New England." When Jim Jenkins, of Greensboro, North Carolina, saw it, he said, "I've turned over bigger rocks than this mowing grass."

Don Matinzi, who grew up in Plymouth, said, "I get very defensive about the rock. People ask, 'What did the Pilgrims do, fall over it?' They say, 'It's a pebble.' And so forth. I'd like to have some of these people experience the privation the Pilgrims did. Instead, they ask, 'Where's the sword?' " Matinzi --young, with rimless glasses and brown shoulder-length hair -- is an artist, a photographer, and a graduate of the Art Institute in Boston, and helps to support himself as the park supervisor, watching over the rock.

When I asked him one day if he knew of many other erratics bestrewn through the Plymouth woods, he thought for a while and counted few. The great Laurentide Ice Sheet had not, in this region, been generous with large boulders. There was one on Sandwich Road called Sacrifice Rock. It was sacred to the Wampanoags, of whom Massasoit was chief. Even today, offerings will appear from time to time on Sacrifice Rock -- handfuls of pebbles, branches of trees. Its actual name is Manitou Asseinah (God's Rock). It sits by the roadside unfenced. When we went to see it, Matinzi said, with some ambiguity, "This is the only rock that does have a history that relates to the area." The boulder had come to rest six and a half miles from Plymouth Rock. Coarse-grained, with large crystals of pink feldspar, it may have derived from greater depth.

Now in Plymouth, as a rising tide was threatening the efforts of Choquette, Matinzi was saying that an amazingly large percentage of the rock's annual visitors were from other nations. Among all the categories of people who come to Plymouth, non-Americans are an even larger group than retired people, schoolchildren, or Mayflower descendants. The cage at the moment was full of children. By the schoolbusload, kids in great numbers had been coming and going all morning: BEDFORD CHARTER SERVICE, BIDDEFORD SCHOOL DEPT, BOSTON PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Matinzi said, too, that since his own schooldays, in Plymouth, he had seen the rock shrink. "It has shrunk six to ten inches from each end in my lifetime," he remarked. It was Matinzi who had noticed the disintegration of the old patchwork mortar and reported the need for repair.

As Choquette tapped with his chisel, his twelve-year-old, Jonathan, stood with a hand on one end of the rock. He said, "This thing here, Daddy, it's vibrating very much." With a hose, Choquette had from time to time been flushing out the chiselled bed of mortar from beneath the upper half. In his application interview, many weeks earlier, he had told the engineers that he thought the upper and lower halves made such an ill fit that with the rotten mortar gone at least three feet of the upper half would be cantilevered, and now he was proving himself right. He washed out so much mortar that eight inches of space separated a considerable area of the upper rock from the Tory basement. A couple of tons, including the celebrated vertical crack that Choquette was meant to repair, was projecting in air. Jonathan felt the rock rocking. It was obvious now that steel pins or steel staples must be holding the upper part together, for mortar alone could not retain so much suspended weight.

Lest the rock split and crash while the schoolchildren watched, Choquette supported it with riprap from the shore, and refused to continue until the state provided a couple of tons of three-quarter-inch bluestone to pack in as a new bed for the upper rock. The tide was stopping him anyway. Evading the rubber barricade, it came up through the sand. It just developed around his feet and was soon on its way to his knees. Matinzi said that the midday rise the day before had been the highest non-storm tide in years. Today's would be much the same. Choquette climbed out of the cage. By noon, the rock was almost underwater.


Anne, another merchant ship, arrived in Plymouth in 1623, with something like sixty passengers, one of whom was John Faunce. He remained in Plymouth and raised a family, including a son named Thomas, who was born in 1647. The Old Comers, or First Comers, as the Mayflower people were called, were still very much around, and the young Faunce could not have helped knowing them. Myles Standish died when Thomas Faunce was nine years old,

William Bradford when Faunce was ten, John Howland when Faunce was twenty-six, and John Alden when Faunce was forty. By then, Faunce was keeper of the Plymouth Records, a job he performed for thirty-eight years. He also became the ruling elder of Plymouth's First Church. His mother's brother, Nathaniel Morton, was the colony historian. Thomas Faunce was what geologists call autochthonous; that is, he originated in Plymouth and he never moved. He was literally immobile -- enfeebled, ninety-four years old -- when the day came that the facts of his life assembled here acquired their collective relevance. Someone told Faunce that the big boulder on the harbor shore would soon be buried.

Faunce had himself driven downtown and carried the final distance sitting in a chair. The chair was set beside the boulder. In 1741, this was enough to attract a crowd. Like the countless thousands of historic objects that would be lost forever in coming years, the rock was scheduled to disappear in the foundations of a wharf. Faunce was there to prevent that. He told his listeners not to forget that this was the landing rock of the Old Comers. They would do well to show it appropriate respect.

Faunce had grown up on this story. And history selected him as the earliest person to mention it. In a hundred and twenty-one years, the boulder's role in the American narrative had in no surviving way been reported to the future. The first-rate and firsthand accounts in "Mourt's Relation" (1622) overlooked it. In a hundred and fifty thousand words William Bradford does not mention it -- a fact that would carry more weight if Bradford had mentioned the Mayflower.

A couple of centuries of reverence rest on the hearsay of Thomas Faunce. People who believe in the rock say there is no obvious reason that any of his predecessors would mention it. And, besides, it was a Bradford characteristic to be aloof from details. More than twenty times its present size, the boulder was near the edge of the channel; the settlers may have connected it to the shore with planks and used it often. Believers align what few facts they can in a generally positive direction. Skeptics do the reverse. The middle ground does not seem crowded.

The late Samuel Eliot Morison, of Harvard, once Harmsworth Professor of American History at Oxford, and the editor of Bradford's journal (Knopf, 1952), received a letter in 1953 from Rose Briggs, a Plymouth regional historian, asking his help with a monograph she was preparing on the story of the rock. What to say about "the Elder Faunce tradition"? she wrote. "He could have known; he may have been senile. Clearly the town believed him."

By return mail came a note from Morison, written in a hand sufficiently illegible to have qualified him as a physician:

I see no reason to go back on Elder Faunce now. The American Neptune chart of P. Hbr 1780 . . . shows a l-fm. channel coming up to the shore there. The Rock, at 1/2 tide could have been a convenient place from which to lay logs or hewn planks to high water mark for a dry landing of people and goods -- very important in "that could countrie."
I do hope however that you will point out that the Rock as a landing applies only to Mayflower arriving . . . not to the Exploring Expedition....
In an address I shall give to naval officers in Jan. I am going to compare the (hypothetical) logs or planks laid from Rock to shore, to the pontoon causeways we had to use on shelving landing beaches in World War II to land vehicles from LSTs.

Sincerely yours,



By two in the afternoon, the tide was in retreat, but the water was slow to leave the cage. It ponded there, higher than the surface of the harbor. Mark Cullinan, in hip waders, went down into the cage to bail out the rock. Paul Choquette, in twelve-inch yellow boots, joined him with another bucket. As they moved about, long microphone booms followed them, sparring over their heads. They were entertaining not only children now but ABC, NBC, CNN, and CBS. One mike was kept in a fixed position close to the top of the rock, not to miss a syllable if the rock had something to say.

When Choquette was able to resume work, he threw coffee into the small cavern he had opened, and watched it drip down the sides. Where mortar remained, the coffee turned the lime green. Choquette went after it with his chisel. Like a dentist doing his best with a split and cavitied tooth, he worked primarily on the inside, where he needed to prepare a clean, dry surface completely free of the old mortar. Jonathan held a flashlight for him, and together they created an odd tableau: a twelve-year-old boy shining a flashlight into the innards of Plymouth Rock while his father knelt beside him with both arms inserted to the elbows.

During this effort far within, the chisel removed a couple of flakes of the rock itself -- fractions of an ounce. I asked for the flakes and Cullinan gave them to me. I wanted to take them to geologists at Princeton University and the United States Geological Survey to see what might be learned about the nature and origin of the boulder. In this era, a piece of rock of remarkably small size will serve the purposes of chemical and mineralogical analysis. In 1969, moon rocks as small as pinheads were sent to selected petrologists.

In Princeton, I took a flake to Douglas Johnson, the departmental lapidarian, who removed some crystals and also sawed off a piece of the rock a thousandth of an inch thick. This so-called thin section, mounted on a glass slide and readied for a microscope, was added to a collection of thin sections that Johnson had made from rocks I had gathered in various localities north of Plymouth -- Cape Ann, for example, the region of Cohasset, and Kingston, on the edge of Plymouth Bay. Romantically, I hoped for a matchup in the thin sections -- for a strong indication of a place or places where the ice sheet could have ripped out the bedrock that it carried to Plymouth, fashioning en route the national boulder.

I sent the entire kit -- all the thin sections and a smidgen of Plymouth Rock -- to E-an Zen, in Reston. The rock travelled Federal Express. In the morning, Zen looked at it with a hand lens and a microscope, called me on the telephone, and told me what he saw. First of all, Plymouth Rock was granite. It appeared to be Dedham granite, a major component of the Atlantica Terrane.

"I'm convinced that it is a piece of the Dedham," he said. "Where the rock is freshest, the feldspar is distinctly pink, which is characteristic of the Dedham. The thin section shows a wedge-shaped crystal that is brownish blood red. That is a crystal of sphene. The blood-red sphene is distinctive of the Dedham. There are two distinct original feldspars. The potassium feldspar is in a form called perthite, and the plagioclase feldspar has become a highly altered saussurite, rimmed by an inclusion-free zone of sodium-rich plagioclase, all of which is also characteristic of the Dedham."

For reasons unfathomable, I had hoped that one of my numerous samples from the plutons of Cape Ann would match up with Plymouth Rock, like two setts of the same tartan. If so, the boulder could be said to have derived from the bedrock of Gloucester and traversed what is now Massachusetts Bay to come to rest in Plymouth. In Zen's lineup, however, all those samples were clear losers. "The Cape Ann granite contains only one feldspar," he said. "Like the Peabody granite and, for that matter, the Quincy granite. Moreover, they are gray granites. You never see pinkish feldspar in the surface of those granites. Plymouth Rock is not one of them."

He said, incidentally, that the quartz in Plymouth Rock had been "deformed very thoroughly."

I recalled his telling me that the Atlantica Terrane was undeformed.

"Atlantica is shot through with local faults," he said. "Plymouth Rock could have sheared along a fault zone. In almost any outcrop of the Dedham, you can see that. Plymouth Rock is a piece of the Dedham that has deformed in the solid state. This is not a pervasive deformation. It's a local fault, a crushing of the rock rather than a plastic deformation. If you go to Minute Man National Historical Park, where the Battle of Lexington was fought, you see Dedham granite that was very much sheared up in the Bloody Bluff Fault Zone. Plymouth Rock is locally sheared more than usual. Almost surely, when the boulder cracked it broke naturally along a weak zone formed by the shears. That is what the mason was repairing."

Looking further into the Plymouth thin section, he discerned that the biotite in the original granite had been recrystallized in the fault zone, becoming sugary and smoky green. There was also a lot of epidote. He said, "Epidote, saussuritized plagioclase, potassic feldspar, and the presence of sphene are distinctive of late Precambrian granitic rocks in the Boston area, of which the Dedham is an example."

So where did E-an Zen think Plymouth Rock derived from?

He said, "Somewhere between Boston and Plymouth Bay, I would guess. The ice direction was south-southeast. So the rock would have come north by northwest."

Within any large body of granite, there are countless minor variations. Compared with Plymouth Rock, the samples I had taken south of Boston from the Cohasset region through Weymouth to Kingston were close in nature but not identical.

I said, "How far northwest?"

"You cannot go beyond Concord and Lexington, because there you leave Atlantica," he said. "There is no rock like this except in Atlantica. It's a very, very distinctive rock."


The Dedham granite, Zen added, had been radiometrically dated at six hundred and eight million years. That was when, in some far-distant land, the cooling magma froze as rock -- a date that could be looked upon as accurate within seventeen million years.

In Plymouth, that week before Thanksgiving, darkness came early and quickly, and it left the television crews with nothing to see. They departed, but the visiting public kept arriving, even after dusk. They had not come to be on television or to witness the master Choquette. They knew nothing about the repair. They were drawn, like everyone else in all seasons, by the stone that is treasured by a great nation, its very dust shared as a relic. They were surprised, all of them, to find so much activity in a place that ordinarily has the aspect of a tomb. I remember particularly a young man from Florida and his companion, a woman from California, who clambered down the riprap to the harbor shore, the better to peer into the cage. The sound of the chisel was as rhythmic as a drum. The flashlight brightened in the growing darkness. The young man from Florida had shoulder-length gray hair. His friend was a waist-length-waterfall blonde and wore a black leather coat that nearly reached her shoes. He was wearing a Christmas-red sweatshirt decorated with large script that said "Dear Santa, I want it all." Apparently, it all was in Plymouth. He was exuberant. "What luck! What luck!" he kept saying. "What luck to find all this going on! My girlfriend wanted to stop here. I didn't. We argued in the car. She insisted that we come. And I said to her, 'It's a rock! Nothing ever happens to it.'"

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