Twenty thousand years ago, the place where I grew up was covered in a thick sheet of ice. The massive cloak that covered almost the entire surface area that is now Canada gouged and scoured the granodiorite mountains of the Coast Range Batholith and carried chunks of rock over what is now the Fraser Valley. When the ice melted and retreated, these rocks – ranging in size from small stones to boulders as big as living room furniture – were deposited wherever they fell from the icy clutches. The largest of these is the famous white rock of White Rock Beach. The boulder is three metres high or so and perhaps four metres in girth. Originally a natural granite white with flecks of black feldspar, the rock was spray painted with graffiti in the fifties and subsequently painted white, and since then a battle between the vandals and the white washers has continued long enough that the once glorious and awesome testament to the ice age has now received so many coats of paint that its roughness has become smooth and it is nearly impossible to climb.
I grew up on an acre of land that was home to a few comfortably sizable boulders. Most memorable for me was a decent sized rock that sat off to one side of the garden that followed the edge of our land. Big enough to seat two children, my friend and I thought we had seen a snake slither under it and we proud serpent hunters found that by rocking this great stone we could get it to move in its bed. The stone at last rolled over the lip of its shallow nest and began rolling down slope with little me standing right in front. Somehow I ended up bouncing on top of the rock rather than flattened under it. After a metre’s tumble, it struck a log that my father had placed at the border of garden and lawn and I was thrown onto the grass. I recall being quick to get to my feet and look back at my aggressor, ready to fly from the path of danger, and then seeing that the rolling stone had been stilled, the end of the log now five centimetres lower than its adjoining neighbour’s.
The boulders were also in the woodlots where we played and surely we stood on top of them and called out, “I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal.” In later years I recall setting up and empty wine bottle on one boulder and stood by with my camera waiting for the moment of shattering as a friend hurled stones at the glass.
The boulders were so common that many yards on our street had in their lawns an island of garden space surrounding a boulder and that any land that was dug up for development produced many large rocks and a couple of boulders as well. It never occurred to me that there was anything else other than woodlots and yards with giant granite eggs until I learned about my area’s ice age history. Even then, the boulders only became more special.
Fast forward to the Christmas/New Year’s holidays of 2011-12 and find me back at home, three years after my last visit when there was an unusual heaping of snow. With two small children, my plans did not go far beyond meeting up with friends and enjoying time with my parents and sister. But a couple of mornings had me up and out, enjoying a walk around the neighbourhood. And as I came to an undeveloped lot I found nestled in the forlorn blades of grass, browned bracken and defiant blackberry bushes two large boulders – one of granodiorite and the other of a rock I couldn’t identify but guessed was likely the basement rock that existed prior to the igneous intrusion that produced what we now see as the North Shore Mountains.
In the three years that I was away I had developed a renewed love for the landscapes of my homeland and I wrote an essay about alpine glaciers for the Society for Scientific Photography in Japan and produced my book of southwestern British Columbia, This Little Corner. I was ever so glad to see the alder trees and western yellow cedar from the taxi window as we drove from the airport through a misty drizzle past the bleak and dark-looking landscape. I was inspired to shoot scenes in a local park and around that undeveloped lot with my iPhone. And the occasional views of the mountains when the rain abated showed clearly where enormous tongues of ice had licked away U-shaped valleys in between the mountains. It was good to be home, but more than all that, those two boulders said something to me. As I walked through a wooded park with a pond and spied a few more boulders it struck me more than ever before how special it was to be living where the ice age had left clear footprints behind. Somehow those huge rocks, which likely made little impression on all other passers-by, told me I was back home in the landscape where I had been raised. In Japan where I now live, boulders of metamorphic rock with beautiful convoluted striations are extracted with great expense from the ravines in the mountains and good money is paid to have them adorn gardens. Agricultural land in the flood plains produces no ice age remnants, and the only glacial erratics to be found in Japan are high in the Japanese Alps. It is a hollow and sad feeling to realize that I really am so far from home.
Perhaps there are many reasons behind this revelation. I always defended my desire to stay in Japan because there were always, “things I had yet to do.” But with two small children there is little time and less money to do those things. Perhaps it was the illusionary sense of freedom that comes with being on holiday but somehow I felt that being back home again wouldn’t be such a bad thing and that if there were only a gainful employment opportunity for me I would seriously consider returning. My friend showed me photos of his hikes in the local mountains and I felt them to be more accessible than ever before. Could I go back? Realistically, it will not happen. Too much is already in motion that is carrying me towards a different future.
But there was something that those boulders were saying to me. I cannot forget the boulders…