1. Erratic (n.)
Erratics are misplaced stones. They are geological wanderers, vagrants, nomads, eccentrics that have been carried by ice from their birthplaces to unfamiliar surroundings, abandoned by a wasted glacier far from home. Many are very big, too big for man, beast, or machine to move, so they will remain in their strange places until the end of days or until the next ice age, whichever follows these hot anthropocene days.
The word itself comes to us from the Latin for “wandering, prone to wander.” As an English adjective, erratic was first used to describe moving stars. Geoffrey Chaucer called stars that tracked seemingly irregular and idiosyncratic paths through the night sky erratike sterres, though in reality they were neither erratic nor stars but planets orbiting the sun in long but regular ellipses.
Prior to widespread understanding about continental ice sheets, wonderful theories abounded to explain erratics’ presence in the landscape. Scientists had observed rocks frozen in glacial ice, and in the early nineteenth century, they hypothesized that Noah’s flood had calved rock-studded icebergs off of glaciers and then had floated them around the world. When the floodwaters subsided and the ice melted, so the theory went, the boulders were stranded far from their birthplaces.
The Swiss engineer Ignaz Venetz (1799-1859) was among the first to publish a description of continental glaciers that transformed large portions of Europe and North America. Most of the best scientists of the age, Louis Agassiz included, thought Venetez’s continental ice theory was ridiculous. Charles Darwin was a relatively early adapter of the continental ice sheet theory of erratic conveyance, and he pointed to the presence of erratics to explain the mystery of similar alpine flora thousands of miles apart, though he can’t seem to let go of the floating iceberg bit. “We have evidence of almost every conceivable kind, organic and inorganic, that within a very recent geological period, central Europe and North America suffered under an Arctic climate,” Darwin wrote in 1859,
the ruins of a house burnt by fire do not tell their tale more plainly, than do the mountains of Scotland and Wales, with their scored flanks, polished surfaces, and perched boulders, of the icy streams with which their valleys were lately filled. So greatly has the climate of Europe changed, that in Northern Italy, gigantic moraines, left by old glaciers, are now clothed by the vine and maize. Throughout a large part of the United States, erratic boulders, and rocks scored by drifted icebergs and coast-ice, plainly reveal a former cold period.
As with many other fashions, word of this new erratic, glacial, and climatological theory reached Wisconsin after other places, and well into the 1870s scientists were using the iceberg-flood theory to explain Wisconsin’s erratics.
The extent of my neighbor’s field used to be marked by a wonderful erratic. Most Wisconsin fields are defined by the range and township system that divided up the entire nation west of Ohio into one square mile blocks of land according to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. This erratic predated the Land Ordinances by 40,000 years and a little bit of mete and bounds land description seemed to have been grandfathered into the land division. Instead of this farm merely occupying the southeast quarter of section 32 of Dunkirk Township (SE ¼ 1-T05N-R11W), this farm simply stopped at the old boulder. A row of trees grew up along the irregular property line. After acquiring the neighboring field this spring, my neighbor cut down and burned the trees to make planting and harvesting easier. I was sad to see the trees go but recognize that he is a real farmer who has to make a real living for his family. I was more concerned about the fate of the erratic and have been checking on its fate most mornings. Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for my farmer neighbor, the stone seems too big to move without dynamite. With its curtain of trees removed, my neighbor’s erratic looks even more erratic. It also now looks a whole lot like it did when the glacier dropped it off into sterile, muddy till one early Holocene day.
nb. Care should be taken to emphasize the long Ā when pronouncing erratic lest an auditor’s ear confuse use of the word with its near homonym. This may well be a pronunciation problem in the UK or Boston, but almost never leads to confusion in Wisconsin where erratic, like most words is pronounced high in the nose. One morning on my commute to work many years ago I heard an NPR report that a beloved elephant at the Seattle Zoo had to be put down because its increasingly “erotic behavior” had zoo keepers fearing for their safety. The reporter’s error was definitely a malaproprism rather than a pronunciation problem though.