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Stone by Stone


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Robert M. Thorson--scientist, teacher, writer-- is Professor of Geology at the University of Connecticut, where he holds a joint appointment between the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and the Department of Anthropology, with additional responsibilities to the Honors Program and the Integrated Geosciences Program. He teaches courses, advises students, performs sponsored research, serves on committees, and provides articles, reviews and interviews. Beyond the classroom, he writes a weekly Thursday column for The Hartford Courant, and coordinates the Stone Wall Initiative, now in the process of being incorporated into the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History (Connecticut Archaeology Center). He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, The Geological Society of America, and the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Science.


As Thorson writes in his introduction, "Abandoned stone walls are the signatures of rural New England." The only national fencing census, made in 1871, estimated that there were approximately 240,000 miles of these "signatures." In telling their story, Thorson (geology and geophysics, Univ. of Connecticut) weaves together cultural and environmental histories with geography and natural science. With explanations written for a general rather than an academic readership, the author describes how the size, shape, and color of stones indicate how and where they were formed. These stones, as a natural resource of New England, shaped the culture of the region, beginning with the soil movement that yielded the stones from the ground. The resulting walls created microclimates and supported plant life while delineating property boundaries of the small family farms. Thorson traces the growth and decline of the farms and discusses the technological changes that resulted in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation. The author knows his subject thoroughly and communicates his enthusiasm. His intriguing book is best suited to public libraries and essential for libraries in New England.-Denise Hamilton, Franklin Pierce Coll. Lib., Rindge, NH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"To know New England well, one must know its stone walls," writes the author of this authoritative paean to the structures he calls the "signatures of rural New England." There were once approximately 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, and Thorson, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Connecticut, combines natural history and human history as he tells the story of the walls and how they were built. In his geo-archeological study, he begins by exploring how the stones, formed deep within the earth, were shaped and scattered by glaciation, buried under forest and soil buildup, brought to the surface after the New England pioneers cut down the trees and exposed the soil to frost heave, and tossed to the sides of their fields by early farmers clearing the land. He finds these tossed walls, which make up the majority of stone walls in New England, as aesthetically pleasing as the carefully constructed walls that came later. Every type of stone wall fascinates him. He extols their color, form and texture, the sounds they make, the shelter they provide for animals, their beauty as they disintegrate. As agriculture declined in the region, the walls were neglected, and today they are "almost as sad as they are simple," he says, for they are evidence of a lost Yankee culture. Now most of the walls have been abandoned, and their stones have become a cash crop to be sold and often carried far away from their original locations, which Thorson considers an "environmental tragedy." His book covers much technical material, but his enthusiasm for the subject brings it to life. Copious notes, extensive bibliography and an appendix with geologic time lines are included. Illus. not seen by PW. (Sept.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

"Now I know about a thousand interesting details that shed illuminating light on the human history of this sweet region."

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