'A necessity for ruins': Expert speaks on New England's stone walls

Apr 4, 2016

Stone walls are near and dear to the hearts of Marion residents, as was evidenced by the sizable crowd that gathered to hear Professor Robert Thorson’s lecture on them Friday night.

Thorson, a geologist, author of numerous books on stone walls and University of Connecticut professor, spoke at the Marion Natural History Museum.

“There’s something about them that makes us feel better, and I don’t know why,” he said.

Thorson went on to speak about the history, utility, beauty and mystery of New England’s stone walls.

He said Ralph Waldo Emerson helped launch the transcendentalist movement through his essay “Nature,” which was penned while overlooking the stone wall from the Old Manse in Concord, a wall built for military purposes.

Most walls, however, were created out of utility since there were so many stones.

The oldest known wall was build 13 years before the Pilgrims arrived in the short-lived colony of Jamestown in present day Maine, circa 1607. But peak wall building occurred after the Revolutionary War, from 1175 to 1825, according to Thorson.

During that post-war time, forests were cleared to make way for farmland, which brought billions of stones to the surface. At first the stones were put aside, but later they served as good and free material for walls.

These walls inadvertently became a dividing point for plant species.

“There’s a mosaic to the landscape in New England that wouldn’t be there without the walls,” Thorson said.

The look of the walls varies some by location. Thorson said the lace walls of Chillmark have more light peeking through than some more tightly designed walls, but no one knows why.

He said he’s heard many a “just so story” as to the reason: It could be because the wind can blow through the walls, and thus keep them from falling over, or to appease Native American spirits.

“I think it has a lot to do with physics,” said Thorson. “I know of no definite answer. That’s why it’s fun to study.”

He also said Marion's rock walls look a lot like those on Block Island because the ice sheet that originally carried them across the land also made its way to the nearby isle.

The stones may be thousands of years old, but the walls have been subject to history and modernity like everything else.

Thorson said originally New England had an estimated 240,000 miles of stone walls. Now, that number has been reduced to less than half, with around 110,000 miles ­– due in part to strip miners and new roads.

To that end, Thorson and friends started the Stone Wall Initiative to educate the public and preserve the historic walls. He called on the audience gathered at the museum to join the effort.

“We have a necessity for ruins,” he said. “Disorder can be very beautiful.”

This program was supported in part by a grant from the Marion Cultural Council, a local agency that is supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.