Thorson Talk at Historical Society
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)
Westport, CT – In a literal sense, Professor Robert Thorson rocked his audience with a stimulating talk Saturday afternoon about the stone walls of New England.
Presenting in the Sheffer Gallery at the Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place, the professor of geology at the University of Connecticut and leading authority on stone walls spoke about the charms of the region’s historic ruins, the challenges of maintaining them and his surprising evolution as a writer on the subject. Over 30 people, the gallery’s seated capacity, attended the session.
“This is an adjunct to our current ‘Back to our Roots’ farm exhibit and particularly aligns with our ‘Rock On’ display about Westport’s stone wall story,” said the Society’s Executive Director Sue Gold. “Stone walls were integral to farms. When early settlers first arrived and started clearing land, they piled stones up in lines along the perimeters of areas they were plowing. They weren’t really property dividers initially. It’s been fascinating learning more about area stone walls and the many different types.”
Included in the Rock On exhibit, in fact, was a list that Thorson had developed of the different types of walls, which were defined by the names freestanding, flanking, raising, impoundment, foundation and confinement.
Regarding the list, Thorson said, “I’ve really developed classifications for stone walls – these did not exist anywhere, except in anecdotal expression or European cultural typology.”
The gregarious academic and holder of a PhD in geology from the University of Washington referred to himself as a Wisconsin-born “sodbuster” with Norwegian and Swedish roots. By way of Alaska, he moved to Storrs, CT in 1984 to work at UConn and, ironically, until that point, hadn’t really seen a rural stone wall. “As my role was to teach the geology of landscapes, I figured I better go look at some,” he said.
In Natchaug State Forest in the northeastern corner of Connecticut he had his first encounters with rural stone walls. “They struck me as landforms in the woodlands,” he said. “Once you start examining them more closely, you don’t stop pursuing them. They are so evocative and fascinating.”
He recorded some of his first impressions in “Stone Wall Secrets”, a thinly veiled illustrated geology book he produced with his wife Kristine in 1998. To his surprise, it was picked as a Smithsonian Book for Children.
Over the next decade, he continued to visit, research and compile notes and photographs about stone walls to produce a second book, “Stone By Stone”, in 2002. It, too, was recognized, with the State Book Award for Non-Fiction. “That was amazing,” said Thorson, “as I hadn’t set out to be a writer.”
His publisher then asked him to write a field guide. The result was “Exploring Stone Walls.” Thorson said that, these days, he gives at least one talk a week several months out of a year. “There’s no funding for me to do these – I break even – but I consider it a university outreach opportunity and form of scholarly engagement.”
Calling himself a “stump evangelist” about conservation of stone walls, Thorson decried the practice of strip mining, wherein landscapers solicit or poach from old farmsteads and repurpose the wall stones as landscaping materials. “These are signature land forms that must be preserved,” he said.
In speaking about stone walls in general, Thorson felt it important to define the difference between rock and stone, terms often misused. “Stone is an object made of rock,” he said. “We don’t call a gravestone a graverock, or cobblestone cobblerock.”
And just who built New England’s stone walls? “Slaves, prisoners, children,” he said. “People connected to farms and mostly before the Civil War.”
Thorson defined the epicenter of the stone walls in New England as Worcester, Mass. and said it is estimated that 240,000 miles of walls were initially built in the region, of which 120,000 miles remain. He added that the oldest on record was built in 1607 in Kennebunk, Maine, and that most were built in the period 1775 – 1825, after the Revolutionary War and up to the period when the railroad came into play.
With regard to why there are so many walls in New England, Thorson points to three key factors – the presence of hard rocks, glacial soils and farm/livestock tillage culture.
Among the area walls, the professor said there is variation in texture and composition, but also variability from town to town. “Westport sits in a nice glacial valley and is a wonderful place for a guy that likes stone walls,” he said. “Honor the archaeology and the architecture.”