A skillful geo-archaeological study of New England’s stone walls.
Relics of a vanished agricultural civilization, the stone walls, in Thorson’s estimation, have transcended artifact to become landforms—high praise from a geologist. He hopes to bring readers up to speed on the physical properties that gave rise to the walls, especially the primitive, tossed rather than laid, ones. Which means that he starts at the beginning: how the rocks came to be where they were. He sketches the geological background of rock formation and transportation, along with changes in the lay of the land, then shifts to sociological factors that accounted for starting farms in upland regions—away from the coast, in tidewater estuaries and river valleys whose soil was mostly free of stones—where the combined forces of deforestation and frost heaving allowed farmers to harvest bountiful crops of fieldstones at a time when a burgeoning sense of private property gave the walls a purpose other than enclosure. Thorson’s writing is lively as he discusses the evolution of fences from wood to stone; wall types; the function and structure of walls; the degree of care that went into their construction (most were shabby affairs, farmers more interested in clearing than fencing); and the economic and geological forces of entropy that resulted in the walls’ collapse. Many are being rebuilt into more formal, well-ordered structures, though for Thorson (Geology/Univ. of Connecticut) they will never have the aura of the abandoned wall running through the woods. He gives a nod to the mythos of walls, calling in support from Robert Frost, Thoreau, J.B. Jackson, and Noel Perrin, but he saves his greatest enthusiasm for the ergonomics of wall building (“In carrying a stone, the ideal position with respect to the vertebrae . . .”) or about computer models determining optimum field size for fieldstones.
Fascinating—a fine adjunct to the art and poetry of the New England stone wall. (Photographs)