Gifts from the glaciers
As I was walking with my brother along a high, narrow ridge along the Tiasquam River, we came upon a boulder about seven feet high, next to the path.
"Wow," my brother exclaimed. "That's a rock big enough to have a name."
I smiled, because I knew that a hundred yards down the hill is one a couple of feet higher. Rocks protruding above the ground in the six- to ten-foot range are actually quite common up-Island. "Why, you're right!" I said. "We call it 'The Big Rock.'"
I was kidding, but other big rocks on the Vineyard do have names.
Probably the tallest and most familiar is Waskosim's Rock, on the Land Bank reservation in Chilmark that bears its name. The impressive upright monolith is just below the top of the reservation's highest hill. The rock, 14 feet tall and twice as long, is split diagonally from top to bottom. Next to it is a low, irregular rock about ten feet long with a flat surface. There is something spiritual about the isolated stones on the lonely hilltop, and the two rocks together suggest an ancient sanctuary with a natural stone altar.
In the 17th century, Waskosim's Rock was the centerpiece in a stone wall that marked the boundary between English and Wampanoag lands. According to the Wampanoag Tribe's web site, "waskosim" was not a person, but a word meaning "new stone" in Wampanoag. Later, Waskosim's Rock marked part of the eastern boundary of the town of Chilmark.
In the latter half of the 20th century as trees and brush grew up in what used to be sheep and cattle pastures across the Chilmark hills, most of modern Martha's Vineyard forgot Waskosim's Rock and its history. Occasionally hunters and picnickers visited the rock, which was on private property. It was hidden in a grove of oaks just under the brow of a hill, and the narrow path that led there through the sweet fern was indistinct and hard to find. In the 1960s, a few counterculture-culture trespassers learned the way there and held gatherings, leaving behind candle stubs and other treasures. However, toward the end of the century the Land Bank acquired and developed the 184-acre property as a reservation, and now Waskosim's Rock is marked on trail maps and easy to find.
Waskosim's Rock and other named rocks are anything but new stones. Scattered about the west end of Martha's Vineyard, they were left behind by the glaciers that formed Martha's Vineyard - the most recent 23,000 years ago. Geologists call them "erratics," because they are made of different materials from the sands and clays on which they have come to rest. Erratics are made of granite or basalt, materials hard enough to have survived being transported inside the crushing and grinding forces of a shifting mass of mile-thick ice.
In the 19th century, a trip from Vineyard Haven to Menemsha took most of a day in a horse-drawn wagon or buggy. There were few trees, because much of the area had been timbered off and tens of thousands of sheep and cattle kept the pastures open. A rider or driver would have to stop from time to time to open and close gates. In summer, it was a hot and dusty trip.
On the North Road, half-way up the last long hill before Menemsha, there is a big slab of stone leaning a few degrees toward the road. The side toward the road is as shear as a house wall, indicating that it is a portion of a larger boulder split off neatly along a fault line. Today the top is nine feet above the ground, but old timers remember that before it was paved, the dirt road was at least four feet lower than it is now, and the vertical face of the rock was tall enough to provide a good-sized shadow in a landscape where shade was scarce. Drivers would pull in next to the rock to rest the horses (and themselves) before completing the climb. They called it, sensibly, Shade Rock.
The Sugar Loaf
Sugar was once sold crystallized in truncated cones called loaves, from which a cook could shave off whatever was needed at the moment. Sugar loaves were easier to package, ship, and store than granulated or powdered sugar, because they didn't spill if the bag ripped and they were less vulnerable to moisture. The sugar loaf was the normal way to carry sugar on wagon trains headed west. However, by early in the 20th century, the sugar loaf had disappeared from store shelves, and the term survives today chiefly in the names of mountains and hills from Maine to Rio de Janeiro.
On Middle Road, not far from Beetlebung Corners, is an 11-foot erratic called the Sugar Loaf. The name dates to an era when everybody knew what a sugar loaf was. Not only is its shape a remarkably regular cone, but its granite is a very pale grey, nearly sugar-white in bright sunlight. In the days when Chilmark hills were sheep pastures, the gleaming white formation could be seen for miles and was a familiar part of the town landscape. Today, trees and houses have all but obscured it from view.
Photos by Dan Cabot
The Devil's Bed
Not far from Peaked Hill, The Devil's Bed is a rectangular rock 32 feet long and 15 feet wide. The nearly flat surface is only a foot or two out of the ground, and it really does resemble an enormous bed, complete with a swelling across the "head," as if blankets were drawn up over a low pillow. Smaller rocks nearby have drawn labels such as "The Toes" and "The Arm," but they seem a bit of a reach. The striking formation is the bed itself.
Toad Rock is only about six feet high, but of all the rocks described in this article, it is my favorite. It is astonishing that a natural formation could so capture the essence of a squatting toad. The broad and lumpy rear end suggests powerful hind legs, and the rock tapers to the broad head. Holes on either side of the head suggest eyes, though the left eye is smaller than the right, as if the toad were winking or squinting.
Tribal historian June Manning says that Toad Rock, near the eastern end of Moshup Trail, was a meeting place for Wampanoag settlements in Aquinnah and what is now Chilmark. Approximately equidistant from both, it was used as a letterbox where members of one group could leave messages for the other, perhaps in the eyes of the toad.
The name is an English translation of the Wampanoag words, but if a speaker of any language named the rock, it would be, in that language, Toad Rock.u
Thanks to Greg Mayhew and June Manning for help in preparing this article.
Directions. To visit Waskosim's Rock, park at the Land Bank trailhead on North Road, a few yards west of the Chilmark-West Tisbury town line. Follow the blue and then green hiking trails. The quickest way is to turn left just after the footbridge - it's about a mile to the rock - but that route is uneven underfoot in places, and one stretch is very steep.
The Shade Rock is on North Road a half mile west of Tabor House Road, on the left if you're traveling up-Island.
The Sugar Loaf and the Devil's Bed are on private property and not open to the public. Toad Rock has been acquired by the Land Bank, and a plan to open a public trail there is in the works.