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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Erratic boulders

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In September 2004, local artist Maura Doyle had a nine-tonne rock moved from its resting place in the Kawartha Lakes to the Toronto Sculpture Garden at the corner of King and Church. For the next six months, less than a blink of an eye for a billion-year-old granite boulder, it would sit at the heart of downtown Toronto as part of Doyle's art project "There's a New Boulder in Town."

The project is more than just the six-month exhibit at the Toronto Sculpture Garden; her work also includes a map and guidebook which catalogue 20 erratic boulders scattered all over downtown Toronto. Doyle wants to get us to pay attention to these rocks, something she has been doing since 1997, when she began taking photos of boulders she found interesting. The guide also gets us thinking on a larger scale — these rocks are links to a history that precedes our existence as a species, and in fact the existence of most species on this planet.

"[Erratic boulders] are like leftovers from a time before, most of them from the ice age. You don't really think of those rocks, especially in the city. I always wondered whether this rock was there before the city? Who put this rock here? You can get some clues just by looking at them but I wanted to know whether the rock accommodated the city or the city accommodated the rock," Doyle says.

Like most Canadian cities, Toronto has a rich geologic history. James Brenan, a University of Toronto Geology Professor who advised Doyle on her project, explains that most of the boulders found naturally in the GTA were originally part of the Central Gneiss or Central Metasedimentary Belt that covers most of Ontario and is part of the Canadian Shield. The rocks from this region could be as old as 1.8 billion years, but most of them would have been left here in the last 12,000 years by the receding glaciers of the Wisconsin ice age. "A glacier over a relatively long time scale actually flows over the Earth's surface. It's like a streambed, it's actually scouring and it can dislodge stuff and leave it behind when it melts," Brenan explains.

Doyle lists several of these ice-age remnants around the University of Toronto's downtown campus. A black boulder sits right outside Lord Landsdowne Public School on Spadina Crescent. Another sits outside Woodsworth College, and a pair that probably travelled together found themselves, appropriately, in front of the Mining Building at U of T.

Equally interesting are the rocks that have been moved here by people. The most dramatic example of this are the huge boulders moved to Devonian Square at Ryerson University in the 1970s. Today students can skate around these rocks, some of which weigh up to 100 tonnes. Other boulders have been used as tombstones or, more mundanely, to stop garbage trucks from backing up onto someone's front lawn.

In Doyle's hands these rocks are no longer anonymous. The guidebook gives them a recent history and maps out their relationships with humans. Doyle's favourite boulder, a large one at the back of the Oak Leaf Steam Baths, provides an example. While examining the rock with James Brenan and a group of geology students she bumped into an employee from the Oak Leaf. "We were all sort of just standing around this rock. We're all interested in this rock for different reasons but we were all pretty excited," she says. The Oak Leaf, it turns out, had been collecting these rocks to use in the sauna since 1939. "That one was too big, it didn't fit through the door, but he showed us the other rocks scattered around the back that they'd used. They can only use them in the sauna for about a year before they start to disintegrate. We started to laugh that these rocks are a billion years old and after a year in the sauna they start to disintegrate."