Jerry Nelson: Rocky relationships with stones

Jerry Nelson Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

Stones have always been a part of my life. The Rolling Stones, rock and roll, Sly and the Family Stone, Neil Diamond. But some of my relationships with stones have been, well, rocky.

As a kid, I was forced to participate in the springtime ritual of picking rocks. I saw this chore as a form of torture that should have been banned by the Geneva Conventions.

Rocks were the one crop that we could always depend upon. Each winter’s frost would heave up a new set of stones for us to harvest. As Dad often said, you can either spend time picking rocks or you can spend time fixing machinery.

Dad also said that a person should never pick rock on rented land. I guess this was similar to the idea that nobody ever washes a rented car. But Dad was never one to follow axioms (even his own), so we would pick rock each spring on all of our farmland, both rented and owned.

One spring when I was a teenager, Dad and I were grunting the latest crop of rocks into the loader bucket of our “M” Farmall when he paused to rub the small of his back. He told me that he had heard of a farmer who had hired a bulldozer to come out to his place to bury some junk. When the job was finished, the farmer told the dozer guy that there was a rock out in the middle of his field that he couldn’t move. The farmer was tired of farming around that stone and asked the dozer operator to dig it out and get rid of it once and for all.

After half an hour of digging, the dozer still hadn’t found the bottom of the rock. The hole beside the stone was so deep that the farmer couldn’t even see the dozer’s smokestack. Fearing that the bulldozer would hit China before it uncovered the lower reaches of the rock, the farmer admitted defeat and told the dozer guy to quit digging and refill the hole.

My secret shame was that I had been surreptitiously reading encyclopedias during spare moments at school. Because of this, I knew that the barn-sized rock Dad had described was known as an erratic. Eons ago, the boulder had been carried south from Canada inside the belly of a glacier. The stone became buried in the middle of a field where it waited patiently for a famer to come along and curse it every time he shattered a cultivator shank or bent a disc blade on its unforgiving surface.

Thanks to my covert reading, I also knew that French explorers had named the area where we live Coteau des Prairies. You must admit that the French have a knack for making almost anything sound exotic, as Coteau des Prairies roughly translates to “this area was really boring so we kept on moving.”

At the end of a summer day, after our family had finished chores and milking, I often biked up the township road to the hilltop that overlooks our farm. I would gaze out across the coteau and ruminate upon things.

The gravel that crunched beneath the bike’s tires had come from a local strip mine. Gravel that had began as stones which were ground into grit by mile-thick glaciers and deposited near the Earth’s surface for our convenience.

On a hot summer night when the corn was pollinating, the entire planet would smell like fresh sweet corn. It occurred to me that the luxurious cascades of blonde silk dangling from the budding ears were similar to Rapunzel letting down her hair for her clandestine lover.

I mused upon how the minerals that the corn plants were using to form the kernels that would nourish our cows and become part of the cattle – and, eventually, me – had started out as stones. Watching the corn grow was literally witnessing rocks coming to life.

As the evening deepened, I would become lost in thought (it was unfamiliar territory) and the lyrics of the Neil Diamond song “Stones” might pop, unbidden, into my noggin. “Stones would play inside her head, And where she slept, they made her bed.”

At least I didn’t have to sleep on stones. Although I can see how rocks could be something that could take up a lot of a person’s mental space, especially if the stones were the cause of an aching back and/ or busted farm equipment.

Pedaling down the long hill, I would thump over the large stone that has been embedded in the gravel road’s surface since forever.

Probably an erratic. Sort of like me.

If you’d like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at and at booksellers everywhere.