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Fall 2002 Lecture

Stone by Stone
The Magnificant History in New England's Stone Walls

Robert Thorson
Geologist

November 19, 2002

Although there are old stone walls located across the United States, onlyin New England do they rise to the status of landforms. Laid end-to-end, these walls, built mostly between 1750 and 1850, would have encircled the globe ten times and New England's landscape, then and now, would simply not be the same without them. According to Robert M. Thorson, professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Connecticut, the stone wall is the key that links the natural history and the human history of New England. "Although most of these stone walls are crumbling, they connect a magnificent scientific and cultural story about the forces that formed their stones, the movements that brought them to the surface, the glacial tide that broke them apart, and about the humans that built them," Thorson notes. "The archetypal stone walls of New England--primitive, mortar-free, and 'tossed' rather than carefully laid--give us a clock by which we can judge the passage of almost unimaginable time."

In his new book, STONE BY STONE: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls (Walker & Company, 2002), Thorson begins with an exploration of rock formation and transportation and moves to cultural factors, such as deforestation and farming, that allowed for the harvesting of heavy stones. Like Russian dolls, Thorson notes, stones layer time, with their smallest elements reflecting the longest spans. "Each stone has its own story," he says, "that link geological history to the early American experience."

First and foremost, Thorson notes, walls were not fences that separated neighbors nor were they a monument to thriftiness and hard work. "Stone walls were a necessary response to the environmental change from forest to farm." The ecological catastrophe of colonial farming, he says, caused frost-heaving on compacted soils, brought stones to the surface, and created rain-washed refule that could not biodegrade. These fieldstones were carted away by hand or with the assistance of oxen and draft horses, and seldom further than necessary. Stacked upward, the elongated piles of stones created permanent reminders and enduring symbols. The walls, Thorson says, draw our attention to the edge of what the farmer really cared about--the fields we can no longer see. "By studying stone walls, you'll see the unending struggle of Yankee farmers," he says. "You'll find signs of the melting and carving that have shaped the earth. You'll see what underlies all life."

A lively examination of stone wall types, their function and structure, their construction, and their collapse, STONE BY STONE is nothing less than the story of how New England was formed and is a fascinating picture of the land the Pilgrims settled.

About the Speaker
Robert M. Thorson is a Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Connecticut, where he holds a joint appointment in the Department of Anthropology. Dr. Thorson received a Ph. D. in Geology from the University of Washington in Seattle for his research on glaciation and earthquake hazards of the Pacific Northwest. He holds an M. S. degree in Geology from the University of Alaska, granted for his work on Paleolithic archaeological site in the Alaska Range. His B. S. degree is in Earth Science Teaching from Bemidji State College in Minnesota.

Dr. Thorson began his career as a field assistant with the U. S. Geological Survey, where he participated in projects involving geologic hazards, glaciology, and paleontology in Alaska. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he worked as a Research Associate for the archaeological projects funded by the National Geographic Society and the National Park Service. In 1984, he directed the first detailed excavation of a frozen mammoth in Alaska, and has since dissected New England's largest sand dune, built by ice-age winds, and most of the wetlands in the colonial town of Lebanon, Connecticut.

As a visiting faculty fellow in the Department of History at Yale University, Thorson participated in an interdisciplinary environmental seminar that helped forge the ideas in STONE BY STONE. Later, he spent a year-long sabbatical leave at Dartmouth College where he had access to the archives of early New England agricultural history and to the U. S. Army's Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory. During his leave, he led an Earthwatch expedition to examine the walls of a pioneering homestead in New Hampshire and since then, he has spent many years studying walls in the forests of New England and observing them from his kitchen window in Connecticut. His latest sabbatical was to Chile, where he worked on seismic hazards mapping, and when free, explored stone walls.


 

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