poetry and prose about place

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burrballs, weedballs and manganese concretions

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As I slowly clean out my office in preparation for my retirement, I am encountering the collected mementoes of 33 years of work.  One of the oddest items I kept through the years is a plastic case filled with six hard black gobs, about 4 to 6 centimetres in diameter.  They look like burnt chocolate chip cookies, but I assure you, even my baking is not that bad!

These are called iron-manganese concretions.  They were found in the late 1990’s on the bottom of a lake in New Brunswick.

The occurrence of ‘balls’ in lakes and other bodies of water has been an interest of mine.  In my experience, and in the reading I have done, I have encountered three different natural spherical formations in the Maritime Provinces.  One of these is found along the ocean shore.  The other two are found on the bottoms of lakes.

These are:

Water-rolled Weed Balls:

This was A.H. MacKay’s suggested name for ‘sea-balls’, compact balls of seaweeds and other materials found on a beach near Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.  MacKay wrote a paper about these balls for the Transactions of the Nova Scotia Institute of Science in 1906.  These strange formations were first reported by a teacher, Mary Bowers, who wrote to MacKay about their occurrence on a beach at Upper Kingsburg, along the mouth of the LaHave River.  She wrote: “I have seen up to 200 balls on a short strip of beach…”     MacKay described them as 1 ½ to 5 inches in diameter, composed of rolled-up remains of brown algae.  The balls also incorporated red seaweeds, sea sponges, and small sea shells.  MacKay wrote: “…Their structure in the different forms examined suggest their formation from light ridges of algae left by the retreating tide on flat sandy shallows. Under the sun, the weeds curl and lock into masses which, when moved over the sand by alternate tides and winds, occasionally produce very round balls.”

Kedron Balls:

These spherical balls of organic matter, a natural formation on the bottom of Little Kedron Lake, near Oromocto Lake in York County, New Brunswick, were described in 1904 by the naturalist William Ganong.  Needles of fir and spruce from the forest surrounding the lake roll together with twigs, sandy silt and other vegetable matter on the lake bottom, gradually forming these soft compact spheres.

In his book Walden, Thoreau describes similar balls of organic matter from Sandy Pond in Lincoln, Massachusetts: “… I have found, in considerable quantities, curious balls, composed apparently of fine grass or roots, of pipewort, perhaps, from half an inch to four inches in diameter, and perfectly spherical.  These wash back and forth in shallow water on a sandy bottom, and are sometimes cast on the shore.”

Iron-Manganese Concretions:

The examples I have were given to me by a friend who collected them at Balls Lake, a small lake near Cape Spencer in Saint John County, New Brunswick.    These are natural formations, known as polymetallic or manganese nodules, built in successive layers of iron and manganese hydroxides around a core.  The result is a spherical formation, rough and knobby on the surface.  The concretions range in size, but most, like the specimens I have, are the size of a small potato.  Manganese concretions form in both lakes and salt-water.




water-rolled weeds


begin with

a pinch of sand

a thread

a gesture, word

a fir leans

over the lake edge

drops a single leaf


layers spool

from chemistry of water


or a fluff of needles

quilting, quilting

soft balls wind

forward and back


gather, gather

while sunreels

ravel scene by scene

a bobbin

accepts the thread

and first line

builds to story



©  Jane Tims  2012



Some reading about burrballs and weedballs:

W.F. Ganong. 1904. ‘On Vegetable-, or Burr-, Balls from Little Kedron Lake, New Brunswick’. Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick v: 304.

A.H. MacKay.  1906.  ‘Water-Rolled Weed Balls’. Transactions of the Nova Scotia Institute of Science XI: 667-670.  Available on-line at:  Accessed February 28, 2012.

Henry David Thoreau. 1954. ‘Ponds’, Walden or Life in the Woods.  Pennsylvania State University, 154.

Written by jane tims

April 4, 2012 at 6:43 am

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