Monday, July 02, 2007

A science being born

It's fun to watch someone invent a branch of knowledge. Yes, this does happen, quite often actually. When people consider what is in front of them so commonplace that they don't notice it, they feel no need to study or categorize it. But when someone notices a feature of the landscape (or a feature of a society) and creates a descriptive language and a history of the feature, all of a sudden a "science," a knowing, has been birthed.

Robert Thorson is a Professor of Geology at the University of Connecticut -- and he is inventing a science of stone walls. These ubiquitous New England features have been overlooked -- every kind appears on surveyors' maps with the same symbol, when in fact the varieties are significant, expressing local folk cultures. Archeologists don't consider them -- they imagine evidence of older cultures to be hidden underground, not sitting there in plain sight.

Last week I heard a lecture and looked at some walls in the company of Professor Thorson. He expounds on the history of stone walls: broadly they began as piles of unwanted stones, became a way of getting impediments out of cultivated fields, then served as boundary markers, and now, when agricultural land has been abandoned, act as regional folk art.

Thorson is an enthusiast. He speaks with vast excitement and delight about the objects of his study. He has developed a set of labels for wall stone sizes (one-handers, two-handers, assisted, etc.) and a taxonomy of the walls themselves (carefully laid, simply piled, mortared, etc.).

The elements of Thorson's new branch of knowledge are available online from the Stone Wall Initiative. If interested, read up there and take a look at Thorson's several popular descriptive books.

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