Book Review: Stone by Stone by Robert Thorson

Author: Robert Thorson
TitleStone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls
Publication Info: New York : Walker & Company, 2002.

I grew up in New England, and as a child who liked to wander in the woods, I often came upon stone walls.  Even alongside the parkways of Connecticut, I could see from the car window the long stone walls that once divided up farms now claimed by forests and suburban subdivisions.  When I moved to Virginia in my teenage years, I noticed the absence of stone walls.

Stone by Stone is the most thorough examination of New England’s stone walls I can imagine. Thorson begins with the geological processes that created New England’s rock landscape before detailing the history of the stone wall’s creation, use, readaptation, and eventual disintegration.  Along the way he dispels some myths.  For example, most stone walls were not built during colonial times.  This is because early settlements were built along the coast and in river valleys where the soil wasn’t rocky, but in the early 1800s the forests of inland New England were cleared and stones were unearthed.  The processing of clearing forests also made possible the cycle of frosts that caused many stones to rise through the surface through frost upheaval.  And while new stones needed to be cleared each year, the rocks were not limitless and the upheaval of new stones would end after about 50 years of clearing.  By this time though the land may have already lost it’s productivity for growing crops and reused for another purpose.

There’s an intense amount of detail in this book and I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone except those with nerdiest interest in the topic.  But Thorson does have a way with words that makes the book quite engaging, as you’ll see in the excerpts below.

Favorite Passages:

“Conventional histories correctly describe how New England’s stone walls were built by farmers who patiently cleared glacier-dropped stones from their fields.  But this story alone cannot account for the magnitude of the phenomenon, or for their structure — thick, low, and crudely stacked.  To understand the archetypal stone walls in New England – primitive, mortar-free, and “tossed” rather than carefully laid — one must turn to the techniques of the natural sciences, in which observation, induction, and analysis carry more weight than quasimythic tales of early America.

The story of stone walls is a very old one, and is appropriately told by a geologist, whose job is to reconstruct the history of the Earth.  The emergence and decay of New England’s stone walls falls under the domain of geoarchaeology, a subdiscipline whose goal is to interpret human artifacts within a broader geological perspective.  Consider this book a geoarchaeological study of stone walls, the first of its kind.” – p. 9

“However tidy well-built walls might appear, most functioned originally as linear landfills, built to hold nonbiodegradable agricultural refuse….

Stone walls not only transformed waste into something useful, they arguably “improved” the local wildlife habitat with respect to diversity.  Prior to wall construction, the dry-land habitats of cliffs and ledges were much more restricted in New England; animals and plants that had adapted to such terrain had a greater chance to survive because stone walls and stone ledges offered similar opportunities.” – p. 10

“Worms don’t actually create new mineral soil or organic matter.  But by constantly stirring the soil, they inevitably concentrate finer-grained material nearer the surface.  Everything too big for a worm to move will sink as a part of the stirring process, partly because it is dense than the surrounding loosened soil.  The primary reason, however, is that stones either remain where they are or move downward, whereas the finer-grain materials can move either up or down.  The net effect is to sink coarse fragments.

Sandier soils, which are common throughout New England, especially when beneath conifers, are too acidic for significant earthworm activity.  In these soils, ants are the most important agent in stirring soils. Several species of ants not only survive New England’s harsh winter, but reproducing at astonishing rates.  They are constantly busy within the soil, bringing fine-grained material to the surface and in the process, sinking the stones.  Building on Darwin’s work, and focusing on ants, the nineteenth-century Harvard geology professor Nathaniel Shaler examined a four-acre field in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  He estimated that common ants brought enough particles to the surface that, if spread out evenly, would cover the entire field at a rate of ‘a fifth of an inch’ each year.” – p. 45

“New England statutes still specify the appointment, jurisdiction, and duties of the fence viewer, although their  power is much diminished and hardly noticed.  But in the late colonial period, they would cruise rural land like the state troopers of today, looking for trouble and writing citations.” – p. 56

“When the farmer walked away from his stone wall for the last time, the human forces that caused the walls to be built up in the first place were replaced by the forces of nature, which will take them down.  The forward part of this reversible ecological reaction – the construction of walls – was powered by solar energy, which was captured via photosynthesis in crops that were eaten and converted to mechanical energy  in the stomachs of the farmers and their stock.  The deconstruction of walls is also being powered by the sun.  In this latter case, however, the solar energy is captured and converted to mechanical energy via wind storms, tree roots, animal burrowing, chemical disintegration, running water, and seasonal frost.  Given enough time, and if left alone, the stones that were once concentrated in the form of the wall must eventually be dispersed back to the field. There, they will be further dispersed into the volume of the soil, buried once again by soil processes, making it appear as if the land had never been cleared.” – p. 93


Recommended books:

Rating: ***