Great Nonfiction: Stone by Stone, by Robert M. Thorson

Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone WallsA clock by which we can judge the passage of almost unimaginable time.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Robert M. Thorson is a geologist, and he truly loves stone. His deep regard for the substance shines through in Stone by Stone. Anyone who’s been to rural New England is familiar with the scene – low, tumbled, gray walls snaking through just about any “undeveloped” patch of woods. While it’s true that these structures were “built” by farmers, it was surprising to learn that the walls aren’t all that ancient. Contrary to popular belief, the soils of New England were not stony and inhospitable when the first settlers emigrated from Old England. As it turns out, the rocks rose to the surface only after a century or so, the natural outcome of deforestation and continuous tilling practices. As 19th century farmers hauled them to the edges of their fields, and tossed them along the perimeter, the walls developed and served as boundaries.

Stone by Stone is much more than a dry history. Thorson is a wonderful writer, and he brings geology, archaeology, history, sociology, and poetry to his subject. How and when the rocks were made and came to be there, what types of stones make up the walls, the forces of entropy that cause them to fall, and the physical demands of building, and the mythos of the New England farmer are all covered. Liberally dispersed throughout the text are illustrations and photos, quotes from other authors, and snippets of lyrical poetry that do as much to illuminate as his competent prose. He closes with an eloquent essay on nature, history, and the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that governs everything on our planet.

Well conceived, well executed, informative, and a pleasure to read.

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