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Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls Paperback – March 1, 2004

4.3 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

"To know New England well, one must know its stone walls," writes the author of this authoritative paean to the structures he calls the "signatures of rural New England." There were once approximately 240,000 miles of stone walls in New England, and Thorson, a professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Connecticut, combines natural history and human history as he tells the story of the walls and how they were built. In his geo-archeological study, he begins by exploring how the stones, formed deep within the earth, were shaped and scattered by glaciation, buried under forest and soil buildup, brought to the surface after the New England pioneers cut down the trees and exposed the soil to frost heave, and tossed to the sides of their fields by early farmers clearing the land. He finds these tossed walls, which make up the majority of stone walls in New England, as aesthetically pleasing as the carefully constructed walls that came later. Every type of stone wall fascinates him. He extols their color, form and texture, the sounds they make, the shelter they provide for animals, their beauty as they disintegrate. As agriculture declined in the region, the walls were neglected, and today they are "almost as sad as they are simple," he says, for they are evidence of a lost Yankee culture. Now most of the walls have been abandoned, and their stones have become a cash crop to be sold and often carried far away from their original locations, which Thorson considers an "environmental tragedy." His book covers much technical material, but his enthusiasm for the subject brings it to life. Copious notes, extensive bibliography and an appendix with geologic time lines are included. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

As Thorson writes in his introduction, "Abandoned stone walls are the signatures of rural New England." The only national fencing census, made in 1871, estimated that there were approximately 240,000 miles of these "signatures." In telling their story, Thorson (geology and geophysics, Univ. of Connecticut) weaves together cultural and environmental histories with geography and natural science. With explanations written for a general rather than an academic readership, the author describes how the size, shape, and color of stones indicate how and where they were formed. These stones, as a natural resource of New England, shaped the culture of the region, beginning with the soil movement that yielded the stones from the ground. The resulting walls created microclimates and supported plant life while delineating property boundaries of the small family farms. Thorson traces the growth and decline of the farms and discusses the technological changes that resulted in the transition from an agricultural to an industrial nation. The author knows his subject thoroughly and communicates his enthusiasm. His intriguing book is best suited to public libraries and essential for libraries in New England.
Denise Hamilton, Franklin Pierce Coll. Lib., Rindge, NH
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; Reprint edition (March 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802776876
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802776877
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.8 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,849 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
When I picked up this book I thought: "How can an entire book be written about stones walls?" As it turns out the author did not write an entire book about stone walls.
The author gives us the hisory of stone walls starting with the formation of the earth, through formation of rocks, the ice age and finally American history. There is actually more about geology that stone walls themselves, although the author tried mightily to write a few hundred pages about them.
The geology and history is well-written and interesting. I learned quite about when walls were generally built and how the stones came to be that comprised them. However, the last third or so of the book - that part devoted to the walls themselves was often redundant. It seemed the author was searching for words to fill the pages and stretching - like the last pages of a term paper you know should be eight pages but you have to make the assigned ten pages.
A chapter on builders and technique would have been more useful than the stretched parts.
There are pearls of interesting history and I am not sorry I read the book. I just wished it had been shorter by an excision of the redundancies and "stretches".
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
"The stone walls of New England stand guard against a future
that seems to be coming too quickly. They urge us to slow down
and to recall the past."
This is only one of the many observations that Professor Thorson
concludes his marvelous book with. I must admit that his final,
summarizing chapter actually brought a tear to my eye - hardly
to be expected from a book on geology and regional history
mixed with, amongst other topics, some anthropology.
In other words this book has enough of everything to satisfy
every curiosity you might have about those tumbled down rows
of stones found in just about every New England forest and
suburb. A surprising wealth of information on numerous topics.
Fascinating scientific and cultural and historical background -
far more than one would ever expect to encounter considering
the topic. And Professor Thorson's writing style is commendably
clear and readable, with a poet's affection for his topic.
Quite simply one of the best nonfiction books I think I have ever
read (and I read quite a lot), for its perfect fusion of research, understanding and sentiment.
Almost an answer to my prayers during so many long, wandering and wondering forest walks.
I encourage you to read this book.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a book that I would like to give 5 stars, but then what would I give a book like Brothers Karamazov? Although written by a geologist, this is not a textbook for Physical Geology 101. In addition to the obligatory couple of chapters on formation of the rocks, which are exceptionally well-written, this book describes the cultural history and settlement of New England from the Pilgrims to the present day with interesting sidebars on ecology, agriculture, the environment, physics, and even poetry and painting.
A geologist has the remarkable ability to take small outcrop and reconstruct an intricate and detailed geologic history, often rich with mountains, volcanoes, former ocean basins, earthquakes, extinct creatures, and the like. Thorson applies this storytelling ability, which combines art and science, to stonewalls, but he never strays so far from the facts that any of his conjectures become unbelievable.
As a farmer, I am impressed with Thorson's thorough and accurate understanding of agriculture from the past up to the present day. This is important since agricultural development was the reason that the stones became so abundant and the walls were built. The book also contains some interesting discussions on urban verses rural life, including the recent development of "ruburbia", a blend of the suburbs and country that is taking over rural New England (including the town in which I live).
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Format: Hardcover
Thorson presents his case for the annual crop of stones on New England farms from an historical perspective and from his expertise in geophysics and geology. The writing style is clear but repeats information from one chapter to another. The basic premises are implied but not precisely stated and enlarged upon -1. Early settlers and farmers wanted land for growing food; stones "heaved" up every year on the land were looked upon as trash. The more land cleared of trees and brush, the more land available for growing food BUT the clearing added impetus to stones being heaved up. Settlers piled stones on boundaries of their fields, often leaving space between two lines of stones where brush and other trash was tossed. 2. The marks on these stones are not glyphs or any form of record, they are merely stress marks.
Thorson's book is fun to read on two levels - first as a scholarly "comeback" meant to take the wind out of the sails of high-flown rhetoric on the ethnic and socio-economic origins and meanings of stone fences. Second, the bits of history and geological information are just enough to allow the reader to understand without being overwhelmed ala James Michener.
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