Author/educator Robert Thorson romancing the stone - walls, that is

By Denise Coffey - Staff Writer
Killingly - posted Mon., Apr. 8, 2013
Robert Thorson is a man in love with stone walls. Photos by D. Coffey.
Robert Thorson is a man in love with stone walls. Photos by D. Coffey.

Copies of Robert Thorson's books were on display outside the Killingly High School auditorium on April 2 when the geologist gave a talk on New England stone walls. Besides his academic writing, Thorson has written three books on stone walls since 2003; the children's book he wrote with his wife, “Stone Wall Secrets,” and two popular nonfiction books, “Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England Stone Walls” and “Exploring Stone Walls: a Field guide to New England Stone Walls.” 

Right beside the books were two big stones: a beach cobble that had been rotated on a beach until it was uniformly smooth and a salmon-colored, spotted piece of granite. Sometimes Thorson will put the granite on a piece of lettuce with a plastic knife beside it. “It looks like a piece of salmon,” he said.

Thorson is a man who loves stones. “I love them. I capital 'L' love them,” he said. He speaks like a recent convert, seeing wonder in things many New Englanders take for granted: the ubiquitousness of stone walls. It's no wonder, given that he was born and raised in Minnesota and North Dakota, regions known for wide prairies and farmland. He spent years studying glacial Alaska. So when he came to the University of Connecticut in 1984, the sheer number of stone walls in the area impressed him beyond measure.

He estimates there are 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England. “The moon is 239,000 miles away,” he said. “That's a lot of stone wall in this area.”

But Thorson isn't just a geologist. His tenure at UConn has included stints in the geology, geophysics and anthropology departments including the American studies and honors programs. He is currently professor in the department of ecology and environmental biology, as well as the anthropology department. “When people ask what I do, the answer is complicated,” he said.

Call him a Renaissance man anchored to a love of stone, a geologist who waxes poetic when he speaks of the story each stone tells, a philosopher and artist and theologian all in one. When he teaches, he brings history to bear on the lessons. Stone walls not only mark off fields and properties, they recount the history of the country, he said. Periods of settlement and migration, wars, changes brought about by the industrial revolution, all these things can be read in those walls. Even their neglect is telling.

"New England learned to love stone walls as memorials rather than fences,” he said. Poet Robert Frost helped weave stone walls into the consciousness of the region, according to Thorson. And so the geologist has turned his love of stone into American studies courses weaving together literature, philosophy, religion and science.

Thorson was preaching to the choir at KHS. People lined up after his talk to ask him questions or to have him sign their books. Clark LaPorte waited in line to talk with him about the stone walls on his Killingly property. He estimates there is about 2,000 feet worth. Some of the walls are connected and some are not. The builder had to break through one stone wall when constructing his house. He's currently trying to rebuild and reconnect portions of the walls. “We want to know why they are there,” he said.

Thompson resident Clarence Ballard bought Thorson's field guide to stone walls prior to the lecture. “I like the permanence of them,” Ballard said. He's built his own but marvels at the work that went into the miles of stone walls just in northeastern Connecticut. “I don't know how they did it,” he said.

For more information on Thorson, go to robertthorson.uconn.edu.


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