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.
Summary/Review:

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: ***

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Photopost: Old Sturbridge Village


To celebrate the beautiful weather our autumnal holiday, I wanted to get out of the city, get the kids outdoors, and enjoy some foliage. We go to do all three with a visit to Old Sturbridge Village, where we also witnessed an ox plowing competition, rode on a stagecoach, watched a musketry demonstration, and was amazed by a potter at at work at the wheel, among other things.

Here are some highlights of a most photogenic day.

Massachusetts 351


I’ve lived in Massachusetts for nearly 19 years (and in a bordering state for 15 years when I was younger), but despite it being a small state I feel that I have not seen much of Massachusetts.  I am the stereotype of the Boston urbanite who rarely ventures outside the confines of the Rt. 128 beltway and certainly never go Westa Wistah.

There are 351 cities and towns in the Bay State and with a handy list on Wikipedia, I was able to determine how many of them I’ve visited.  I left out any place I merely passed through – whether in a car, bus, train, or bike – and focus on the places I have a concrete memory of visiting.

In alphabetical order, here’s the list:

Amherst
Aquinnah
Arlington
Belchertown
Belmont
Beverly
Boston
Braintree
Brookline
Cambridge
Canton
Carver
Chelsea
Chilmark
Concord
Danvers
Dedham
Eastham
Edgartown
Essex
Everett
Falmouth
Foxborough
Framingham
Gloucester
Haverhill
Hingham
Holyoke
Hull
Ipswich
Kingston
Lexington
Lincoln
Littleton
Lowell
Malden
Manchester-by-the-Sea
Marblehead
Marlborough
Maynard
Medford
Melrose
Nantucket
Natick
Needham
New Bedford
Newburyport
Newton
North Andover
North Reading
Northampton
Norwood
Oak Bluffs
Peabody
Plymouth
Provincetown
Quincy
Reading
Revere
Rockport
Salem
Sharon
Shelburne
Somerville
Southborough
Stockbridge
Stoneham
Stoughton
Sturbridge
Tisbury
Topsfield
Wakefield
Waltham
Watertown
Wayland
Wellesley
West Tisbury
Westford
Weston
Westwood
Wilmington
Winchester
Woburn
Worcester

So there we go, 84 Massachusetts’ cities and towns, about a quarter of the total of 351.  What I’m going to do is try to make an effort to visit all 351 municipalities, take a picture of myself by a local landmark, and post it here.  I don’t know how long this will take (and I’m not even sure how one gets to Gosnold, the smallest community in Massachusetts), but I’ll do my best.

Edit on 1/11/2016: Thinking of some places I’ve been on outdoor adventures in western Massachusetts and realizing I can add a few more municipalities to the list.

Charlemont (Mohawk Trail State Forest)
Lenox (Tanglewood Music Center)
Mt. Washington (Bash Bish Falls)

There are probably others that I will add if I remember them, but this brings the list to 87!

Do you live in Massachusetts?  Tell me about your city or town? What local place should I not miss when I come to visit?

Book Review: Mysterious New England by Austin N. Stevens


Author: Austin N. Stevens
Title:Mysterious New England
Publication Info: Dublin, NH: Yankee Incorporated, 1971
Summary/Review:

On a visit to Brattleboro this summer I was reminded of the story “Wings Over Brattleboro” from this compilation of stories from Yankee Magazine about the creepy, weird, and unusual in New England.  I remember enjoying these stories as a preteen – although I probably never read the book end to end – so I decided to check it out for some spooky October reading. I was a bit disappointed, as many of the stories are written in the bland, straightforward prose of mid-century magazine writers that don’t do justice to their subject.  But many stories stick out, some I remember from decades ago, and some are new delights.  These include the wandering Old Leather Man,  some eerie ghost tales, Micah Rood’s blood-stained apples, the loss of the Willey Family to a landslide that spared their house,  lots of unusual carvings and structures that predate European colonialism, ghost towns, the Borden family murders, and  of course, a violent bird war over Brattleboro.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving


Author: John Irving
TitleLast Night in Twisted River
Narrator: Arthur Morey
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:
Previously read by the same author:

Another sprawling, epic novel by John Irving.  I haven’t read one in a long time.  This one tells the story of Dominic, the cook at a logging camp, and his son Daniel, who grows up to be an author.  Irving frequently refers to them as the Cook and the Writer.  After an accidental murder at the camp, the father and son are forced to flee and the novel follows them throughout their lives from Boston’s North End to Iowa City to Brattleboro, VT and finally to Toronto.  All through this time they keep in touch with the gruff logger Ketchum, who looks out for their pursuer. Along the way there are common Irving themes of coming of age, sexuality, unhappy relationships, and unpleasant people. Daniel’s life as an author strongly parallels Irvings, and Irving seems to be trolling his readers to make one think that this is autobiographical.  But there’s also a lot of insight into creativity and the writing process as well.  Despite being the putative central character, Daniel isn’t particularly interesting or well-defined (perhaps purposefully).  Dominic and Ketchum and various minor characters  provide a number of entertaining scenes and tangents.  Overall this is an enjoyable novel, but like many of Irving’s works could deal with some heavy pruning and more of a sense of purpose.
Rating: ***

Beer Review: Harpoon Grateful Harvest Ale


Beer: Grateful Harvest Ale
Brewer: Harpoon Brewery
Source:  12 oz. bottle
Rating: ** (6.0 of 10)
Comments: This unique beer pours out amber in color with a foamy head.  The cranberry is definitely there in the aroma and flavor.  The taste is a bit week, with unfortunate overly sweet undertones, but the aftertaste is good.  For a seasonal beer with a unique New England twist, it’s worth trying, but overall this is a so-so beer.

Note: Grateful Harvest benefits Harpoon Helps the philanthropic wing of Harpoon Brewery which supports New England Charities like The Greater Boston Food Bank.  Even if you’re not interested in the beer consider making a donation to GBFB or your local food bank.

 

Beer Review: Jack’s Abby Smoke & Dagger


Beer: Smoke & Dagger
Brewer: Jack’s Abby Brewing, Llc
Source:  Cask
Rating: *** (7.8 of 10)
Comments: The beer has a dark stout color with a thin, cream-colored head.  The smoke is readily apparent with a sniff or a sip, balanced with a sweet vanilla aroma, chocolate malts and earthy burnt aftertaste.  It’s like a peat fire in a glass.  This beer warms the soul.

 

Beer Review: Long Trail Imperial Pumpkin Ale


Beer: Imperial Pumpkin Ale
Brewer: Long Trail Brewing Co.
Source:  22 oz bottle
Rating: *** (7.5 of 10)
Comments: Part of the Brush & Barrel series, this beer is an orange-brown and frothy.  The sweet and spicy are well-balanced in the aroma and flavor and there’s a fruity pumpkiness.  Overall this a tasty beer with an alcoholic kick.   Forget what I said before, this is the best pumpkin beer I’ve had this year.

 

Beer Review: Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale


Beer: Wolaver’s Pumpkin Ale
Brewer: Otter Creek Brewing Co.
Source: 12 oz bottle
Rating:  ***(7.4 of 10)
Comments: It’s the time of year for pumpkin beer, and this one did not disappoint.  The beer is a deep orange with a thin head and a spicy aroma with sweet hints of cinnamon.  The beer is refreshing and not over the top with pumpkin spice flavors.  Generous lacing lines the glass after quaff.  One of the best pumpkin beers I’ve had this year.