Stone Walls and New England Culture

Betty and Ralph Sheffer Gallery
Saturday, June 18, 2:00 – 3:00 pm
$10.00 Members, $12:00 Non-Members
Light Refreshments will be served

Professor Thorson will present an overview of New England’s historic stone walls, explaining why they are the signature landforms of the region, and why convey to us such a visceral sense of place.  A special focus on southwestern  Connecticut will be included. Signed copies of his four books will be available for purchase and inscription.

Some of the interesting areas Professor Thorson will include are  answers to:

What is the oldest documented stone wall in New England?
How much fieldstone wall was originally present? And how much of that is left?
When, on average, were most stone walls built, and by whom?Can stone walls be considered works of folk art?
Why is New England so rich in historic stone walls, whereas other regions usually lack them?
How are the walls of Connecticut’s Gold Coast different from those further inland?
In art history, were they so unimportant to the Hudson River School but so critical to the American impressionists?

Robert Thorson was born in 1951 as the second of seven children from a Scandinavian-American family with roots in Minnesota and North Dakota. In sequence, he lived in Wisconsin, Illinois, North Dakota, and Minnesota before leaving for Alaska in 1973. After eleven years of adventure, which included having two children born in the far north, he moved to New England in 1984. Along the way, he earned an M.S. (1975) from the University of Alaska, a Ph.D (1979) from the University of Washington (Seattle), spent five years in California and Washington with the U.S. Geological Survey (1975-1980), and contracted with international, federal, state, and private agencies ranging from the the Japanese Ministry of Culture to the National Geographic Society.

Prior to joining the faculty of the University of Connecticut, he served on the faculty at the University of Alaska (1980-84, Fairbanks) where he established center for ice-age (Quaternary) science, and at the University of Wisconsin (1979-80, Oshkosh), where he exerimented with rural living in a farmhouse on a kettle moraine. Visiting faculty appointments were with the History Department at Yale University (1990), the Geography Department at Dartmouth College (1992), and El Departamento de Obras Civiles (Civil Engineering) at the Universidad Tecnica de Federico Santa Maria, in Valapariso, Chile (1999), where he was a senior Fulbright Scholar. During his last sabatical leave (2006) he diappeared to Conanicut Island (Jamestown) in Naragansett Bay, where he wrote his most recent book, Beyond Walden.

During the first twenty years at UConn, his appointment was with the Department of Geology and Geophysics. In 2005, he joined the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Anthropology (Archaeology), with additional commitments to the Honors Program and the Center for Integrated Geosciences.

His academic career took an expected turn in 2002 after publication of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls. Within a year, it had become a regional bestseller and had won the Connecticut Book Award for nonfiction. Within a year, this accidental writer had also become a stump speaker, ultimately giving over 500 hundred talks at venues ranging from small historical societies to the NASA Engineering Colloquium. He also became an accidental journalist as a regular contributor to the Hartford Courant’s Place, its nationally award-winning Sunday commentary section. By early 2004 he was a weekly opinion columnist, with a beat dominated by science, environment, and education, publishing over 300 columns and essays including invited freelanced magazine pieces. Beginning in 2005, joined the Advisory Board for the Connecticut Center for the Book (a Library of Congress Program), chairing its nonfiction jury for three years. By 2006, he had published his third book on stone walls, Exploring Stone Walls, and had been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to develop curriculum based on Stone Wall Secrets, (coauthored with Kristine Thorson in 1998), cited by the Smithsonian Institution as a Notable Book for Children. In 2009 he published his second book on signature landforms, — Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lakes and Ponds. It precipitated a freshwater road trip titled Walden to Wobegon, the creation of a website in support of small lake conservation, and a commitment to scholarly work at Walden Pond.

Professor Thorson lives a largely settled (middle-age, middle-career, middle-income) life southern New England, where his hobbies are reading, writing, cooking, walking beaches, and learning the rules of journalism through trial and error.  He and his wife of 34 years, Kristine, now empty-nesters, raised four children together.

Link to a childhood photo as an early naturalist.