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Thorson notes in “Exploring Stone Walls,” his 2005 field guide, that January is one of the best times in southern New England for stone wall viewing.
“Like a negative to a photograph,” he writes, “walls are most visible when life is most invisible.
Heating an average-sized New England farmhouse during the late 18th and early 19th centuries — which coincided with the waning years of the “Little Ice Age,” the unusually cool climatic period that lasted from the mid-1300s to the mid-1800s — required burning up to 35 cords of cut wood a year.
(Some of these so-called “dumped walls” would later be relaid more intentionally when improved tools and equipment made rebuilding easier.) In the early days, artistry in stone wall building had to wait.
Casually wondering what had happened to the farms led to a journey of discovery through the forests and fields of New England.
My journey started with the book “Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History of New England’s Stone Walls” by University of Connecticut geology professor Robert M. Thorson — known to colleagues and friends as “Thor” — says he was “smitten” by the stone walls after moving his family from Alaska to Connecticut in 1984. I ran a lab with graduate students and had funded projects ...
In his “Travels in North America,” Kalm observed of its forest soils, “[T]he Europeans coming to America found a rich, fine soil before them, lying loose between the trees as the best in a garden.
They had nothing to do but to cut down the wood, put it up in heaps, and to clear the dead leaves away.” Likewise, Colonial-era books on farming, encyclopedias and recorded observations do not mention stone walls, Thorson notes.
Widespread deforestation exposed New England’s soils to winter cold — scientists estimate winter was 1 to 1.5 degrees Celsius colder on average during the Little Ice Age than it is today — causing them to freeze deeper than they had before.