Thorson, Robert M. 1951-
THORSON, Robert M. 1951-
PERSONAL: Born October 6, 1951, in Edgerton, WI; son of Theodore W. and Margaret (Andersen) Thorson; married Kristine Elizabeth Hoy, August 21, 1977; children: Karsten Adam, Tyler Curtis, Kevin Jacob. Education: Bemidji State University, B.S., 1973; University of Alaska, M.S., 1975; University of Washington, Ph.D. (summa cum laude), 1979. Hobbies and other interests: Reading, cooking, walking beaches, growing pumpkins.
ADDRESSES: Home—CT. Offıce—University of Connecticut, Department of Geology and Geophysics, Box U-2045, 354 Mansfield Road, Storrs, CT 06269-2045. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Scientist, teacher, and writer. University of Alaska—Fairbanks, Department of Geology, teaching assistant, 1973-75; Branch of Alaskan Geology, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, CA, Earthquake Hazards Project, 1975, geologist, Arctic Environmental Project, 1975-77; North Alaska Range Early Man Research Project, National Geographic Society and National Park Service, Washington, DC, research associate, 1978; Puget Sound Earth Sciences Applications Project, U.S. Geological Survey, Seattle, WA, geologist, 1977-79; University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh, assistant professor, 1979; WAE Status, Branch of Western Environmental Geology, U.S. Geological Survey, Menlo Park, geologist, 1979-81; University of Alaska, assistant professor of geology and geophysics, 1980-84, director, University of Alaska Museum, Earth Sciences Division, head, research affiliate in surficial geology, and director of Alaska Tephrochronology Center and Alaska Quaternary Center, 1982-84; University of Connecticut, Storrs, associate professor, 1987-95, professor of geology and geophysics, 1996—, Department of Anthropology, associate professor, 1999-2000. Visiting appointments at Yale University, 1990, Dartmouth College, 1992, and the Universidad Tecnica de Federico Santa Maria, Valapariso, Chile, 1999.
MEMBER: American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, Geological Society of America (chairman and member of management board, Archaeological Geology Division, 1989-90), Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences.
AWARDS, HONORS: Penrose Bequest grant, Geological Society of America, 1974; Special Achievement Award, University of Connecticut, 1986, 1990; Outstanding Alumni Award, Bemidji State University, 1998; Smithsonian Institution Notable Children's Books, 1998, for Stone Wall Secrets; Fulbright Scholar to Santiago, Chile, 1999.
(Editor, with Katherine M. Reed) Glaciation in Alaska: the Geologic Record, Alaska Geological Society (Anchorage, AK), 1986.
Interior Alaska: A Journey through Time, Alaska Geological Society (Anchorage, AK), c. 1986.
(With Kristine Thorson) Stone Wall Secrets, illustrated by Gustav Moore, Tilbury House (Gardiner, ME), 1998.
Author of numerous book chapters and journal articles.
SIDELIGHTS: An expert in surficial (surface) geology, Robert M. Thorson has taught at universities for more than twenty-five years and conducted extensive geological research both in Alaska and New England. Thorson has had a special interest in the old New England stone walls first built by European pioneers. This interest has led him to write both a children's book and a comprehensive geological and cultural history of New England's stone walls.
In addition to the five years he spent with the U.S. Geological Survey working primarily in Alaska and Washington State, Thorson has taught at the University of Alaska, University of Wisconsin, and the University of Connecticut. He has also served as a consultant in such areas as engineering geology and wildlife conservation, advised various conservation groups on hydrology and wetlands issues, and worked on archeological research projects with the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council, for which he also conceived and designed the "Ice Age" and "Explore the Core" exhibits at the Pequot Museum and Research Center. He was also named a Fulbright Scholar, working in Chile with the U.S. Embassy and various Chilean educational institutions.
Rural New England is estimated to once have had 240,000 miles of stone walls, and many segments of them can still be found throughout the countryside. Although fascinated with the walls, Thorson gained a bit of scientific notoriety when he stated that his research indicated that many of New England's stone walls were actually a kind of "garbage heap" made by pioneer families. According to Thorson, the early farmers merely piled up rocks pushed up by frost because the ground's natural insulation had been destroyed by earlier deforestation of the land for farming. In a New York Times article by Keith Schneider, Thorson stated, "They're waste piles, the refuse of an agricultural age." According to Schneider, "At the center of Dr. Thorson's explanation of stone walls is the phenomenon of frost heave." For Thorson, however, there was a bigger issue to his research and theory. As Schneider explained, "Thorson's research, using archeology and physics as well as geology, could be influential in modern environmental struggles by helping to set higher standards of evidence and drawing more accurate conclusions about human effects on the surroundings."
Despite his assertion that many of New England's walls are not really "walls" at all, Thorson's fascination with them led him to cowrite a children's book about the walls with his wife Kristine Thorson. InStone Wall Secrets, the authors collaborate with illustrator Gustav Moore to tell the story of what old stone walls can reveal about the area's geological history and the effects of volcanoes, glaciers, and weather. They also discuss what they can reveal about the people who built them. The story is told through an elderly man who enlists the aid of his grandson in repairing some of the old walls and, in the process, provides the boy with both a geological and family history. "From shale formed beneath prehistoric seas to the campfires of Paleoindians to the oxen teams and stone sleds of the European pioneers and his own boyhood, the elderly man gently presents a panorama spanning eons," remarked Patricia Manning in the School Library Journal. Manning also noted that the book is "didactic in tone" and may not be for the "casual reader." A contributor to Publishers Weekly commented that the "book has an intriguing premise but loses its potential in a scattered focus and overburdened text." Nevertheless, a contributor to Science Activities observed "Stone Wall Secrets is an intriguing and beautiful story that is the perfect foundation for teaching students many basic earth science concepts." The reviewer went on to comment that the husband and wife authors "have mastered the art of imparting information to 8-to 12-year olds, while entertaining them through an engaging writing style."
Three years after the publication of Stone Wall Secrets in 1998, Thorson's extensive history of New England's stone walls was published. In Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England's Stone Walls, Thorson's writes, "To know New England well, one must know its stone walls." He also notes, "The stone wall is the key that links the natural history and human history of New England." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews commented, "Relics of a vanished agricultural civilization, the stone walls, in Thorson's estimation, have transcended artifact to become landforms—high praise from a geologist." In the book, Thorson's wide ranging perspective covers the geological background of rock formation, including the geothermal forces that formed the stones in the walls, the tectonic movements that pushed them onto the surface, and the glacial tides that dispersed them. He also discusses the humans who ultimately used them for building, from the "tossed" walls of early pioneers who cleared the land for farming to the more carefully planned and esthetic walls that came much later. "He extols their color, form and texture, the sounds they make, the shelter they provide for animals, their beauty as they disintegrate," noted a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Calling the book an "authoritative paean," the reviewer also commented, "His book covers much technical material, but his enthusiasm for the subject brings it to life." In Kirkus Reviews, a reviewer commented, "Thorson's writing is lively as he discusses the evolution of fences from wood to stone; wall types; the function and structure of walls, the degree of care that went into their construction . . . and the economic and geological forces of entropy that resulted in the walls' collapse."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England's Stone Walls, p. 1019.
New York Times, November 17, 1991, Keith Schneider, "Scholar Looks at Quaint Stone Walls and Sees Pioneers' Garbage Heaps," p. 26.
Publishers Weekly, August 3, 1998, review of Stone Wall Secrets, p. 85; July 22, 2002, review of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England's Stone Walls, pp. 166-67.
School Library Journal, November 1, 1998, Patricia Manning, review of Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England's Stone Walls, p. 98.
Science Activities, winter, 1999, review of Stone Wall Secrets, p. 41.
Skipping Stones, September-October, 1998, review of Stone Wall Secrets, p. 32.
Robert Thorson's Home Page,http://sp.uconn.edu/~thorson (October 23, 2002).
Bemidji State University Web site,http://info.bemidji.msus.edu/ (October 23, 2002), "1998 Outstanding Alumni Awards Recipients."*