For a visit
to Boston's Prudential Tower Skywalk last fall, James W. Skehan,
SJ, brought along a thick stack of papers: the corrected galleys
of his upcoming 400-page Roadside Geology of Massachusetts.
The volume, published last month by Mountain Press, is part of a
series that will include Connecticut and Rhode Island, he hopes -- "if
I can get some funding . . . and the vitamins hold out." Skehan,
now 77, is contemplating retirement from his post as director of
Weston Observatory to make more time for writing. This trip downtown
was to serve as a dry run for a tour he is organizing for the Geological
Society of America's annual meeting, in Boston next fall.
"All those islands out there are drumlins," he said, pointing a
beefy and well-weathered hand beyond the financial district's pristine
skyscrapers toward the harbor islands. Skehan bears more than a
passing resemblance to the comedian Jonathan Winters, although his
humor is kinder: "A hill of a lot of till," he'd joked when asked
to define drumlin. As the glaciers receded, he went on to explain,
they sometimes deposited huge mounds of unsorted material called
till -- clay mixed with gravel and stones -- which often settled in the
shape of a football bisected lengthwise. Unprotected, the outer
islands -- "the Brewsters and the Graves and so forth" -- were "washed
clean of the glacial deposits, so they are bedrock," he said. "But
you see all those islands in the harbor? All drumlins. Those islands
were left here about 150,000 years ago."
Fr. Skehan, a.k.a. Rocky, pulled out a booklet he'd written in 1976
called Puddingstone, Drumlins, and Ancient Volcanoes. He
opened it to a map of Boston as it appeared when the first English
settlers arrived in 1630, superimposed on a modern-day street map.
"See Washington Street?" he asked, turning a few degrees
to the east and pointing down to the swarming maze below us. "By
Boston City Hospital?" The original peninsula on which the
city was founded was tiny -- barely a third of the current downtown
landmass -- and was reached by a long, slender neck along what is
now Washington Street: "Just 150 feet wide in some places,"
Skehan noted. "Originally Boston had three hills -- Beacon Hill,
Pemberton Hill, and . . . " He drew a blank, then shrugged.
"Anyway, they called it the Trimountain, that's where you get
Tremont Street. The settlers planed down all but Beacon Hill and
used the material to fill in the harbor.
"The early geologists," he said with apparent delight, "thought
Beacon Hill was a drumlin. But that's because they weren't paying
any attention to history." Pointing northwest out the window, he
located Charles Street along the base of Beacon Hill. "That would
be Acorn Street, right about there, just to the right of that white
tower. That's about where William Blaxton was dickering with Governor
Winthrop for water rights." Blaxton, the first Englishman to settle
on the peninsula, later invited the Massachusetts Bay Company over
from Charlestown when its water supply went bad. "The best water
was located on the north side of Beacon Hill," Skehan continued,
pointing toward Spring Lane, just off Washington Mall, where the
first town well was dug. "There was water all over this hill," he
said. If the geologists had read their history, they would never
have called Beacon Hill a drumlin, because drumlins are dry.
Skehan went into lecture mode: "Basically, you take a quart jar,
put pebbles in there, and then pour water in. Pebbles and sand and
things like that will contain a lot of water, so you can pour the
water out of the sand and gravel. Now suppose you fill it with sand
and gravel and clay -- all mixed together. The clay is impervious.
It's too fine-grained, so it will clog up the system. You don't
get water out of a drumlin." He pulled out another diagram -- this
one a cross-section of Beacon Hill, sliced along its north-south
axis and stripped of the State House's golden dome and the crust
of houses and lanes and sidewalks that form its human skin. He held
the diagram parallel to the hill and interpreted: "On top, this
is till. However, beneath the till there are these slabs of sand
and gravel that were frozen and then pushed by the glacier, imbricated
like shingle blocks, and these contain abundant water. But the early
geologists were fooled by the shape of the hill and the till on
the top." During digging for the Boston Common garage, developers
expected a dry excavation, "but they found a tremendous abundance
of water, which they didn't want. They lost their shirts."
Fr. Skehan had arranged a tour of four dioramas in the lobby of
New England Financial -- the old New England Life building -- for later
that morning, so we hustled a few blocks down Boylston Street. Passing
the Boston Public Library, he paused to admire it: "Medfield
granite. See that pink cast? It's distinctive. Lovely stuff."
As we walked, he described another book he'd just written, Praying
with Teilhard (St. Mary's Press, January 2001), meditations
on the life and thought of his fellow Jesuit, the paleontologist
Teilhard de Chardin.
When we reached the New England Life building Fr. Skehan's maroon-and-gold
Boston College scarf and his safari hat and vest must have stood
out, for the security guard immediately identified him by name and
phoned the archivist down to meet us. Before long, Fr. Skehan was
chatting pleasantly about the geological subtext of a diorama depicting
the Reverend Blaxton negotiating water rights with Governor Winthrop.
As we left the building he gestured toward the foyer's stonework.
"This is Italian, from the north of Italy . . . I should know where
. . . " He shook his head.
Back on Boylston Street, he regained his stride. Then, spotting
something on the ground, he brightened and stopped short: "You know
where this is from?" he asked, gesturing toward the sidewalk. "I
think this is Deer Isle [Maine] granite. See the feldspar?" We crouched
to get a better view and he pointed out the pale nuggets of feldspar
scattered like loose change through what had once been magma. People
sidestepped us, yakking into their cell phones and racing to lunch
appointments. Some of the feldspar chunks are surrounded with a
rim, Fr. Skehan said, tracing the pattern with a fingertip. "It's
caused by changing conditions in the magma, and maybe other materials
have come into the magma." He paused and stood up. "Lovely stuff,"
he said. "Just lovely."
Charlotte Bruce Harvey
Bruce Harvey is a writer in Westwood, Massachusetts. Her article
on the Arctic expedition of Daniel Linehan, SJ, appeared in the
Fall 2000 issue of BCM.
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