Rusty artifacts

Biographic Sketch

Written to be cherry-picked by those needing background information for media articles and speaker introductions. Though autobiographical, I write in third person for the convenience of the cherry-pickers.

Robert Thorson  was born in 1951 as the second of seven children in a Scandinavian-American family – hence the nickname “Thor.”  In sequence, he lived in Wisconsin, North Dakota, and Illinois before moving to Minnesota where he attended high school and the local state college. His earliest memories at age four were riding in a manure spreader watching dead fetal pigs fly through the air and sneaking away to climb the windmill.

Graduating in 1973 with a teaching degree, he left for Alaska to train as an exploration geologist. Having earned an MS degree from the University of Alaska in 1975, he worked as a full-time geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in  Alaska, Menlo Park, California, and Seattle, Washington through 1979. While working for the USGS in Seattle, he earned a PhD from the University of Washington.  Becoming an academic, he held assistant professorships at the University of Wisconsin  (Oskhosh) and at the University of Alaska (Fairbanks).  During this interval, he also contracted with various international, national, state, and local agencies and consulted for organizations ranging from the National Geographic Society to the Japanese Ministry of Culture.

In 1984, he moved to New England with his wife and two young sons to join the faculty of the University of Connecticut in the Department of Geology & Geophysics.  During the 1990s, he held visiting faculty appointments in the History Department at Yale University (1990), the Geography Department at Dartmouth College (1992), the Departamento de Obras Civiles (Civil Engineering) at the Universidad Tecnica de Federico Santa Maria, in Valparaiso, Chile (1999), where he was a senior Fulbright Scholar.  His most recent visiting appointment was with the American Studies program at Harvard University (2012-2013).

During his first twenty years at UConn, his appointment was with the Department of Geology & Geophysics, where he ran a grant-funded research lab with graduate students, and where his undergraduate teaching responsibilities included glacial geology, surface processes, dinosaurs, and introductory geology.  Following dissolution of that department in 2004, he held appointments Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Anthropology, with research and teaching commitments to Center for Integrative Geosciences, and the Honors Program.

His academic career took an expected turn in 2002 with publication of his first book on signature landforms: Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls (NYC: Walker/Bloomsbury, 2002). This nonfiction bestseller went through multiple printings in hardcover and softcover, won the 2003 Connecticut Book Award (a Library of Congress Program), and inaugurated nearly two decades of advocacy for historic landscape conservation. He’s given uncounted (>1000) presentations at venues ranging from tiny historical societies to the NASA Engineering Colloquium in Washington D.C.  In 2004, the Geoscience Directorate of the National Science Foundation funded his project to develop elementary- and middle-school geoscience curricula based on Stone Wall Secrets (Tilbury House, 1998), an illustrated children’s book coauthored with Kristine Thorson and cited by the Smithsonian Institution as one of its Notable Books for Children.  His  third book on stone walls, Exploring Stone Walls (Walker, 2005) was the first-ever field guide to the phenomenon.

During the dissolution of the Department of Geology & Geophysics, his scholarship shifted away from data-driven field research to journalism and science communication, writing a regular weekly opinion column on science policy, environment, and education for the Hartford Courant, the state’s flagship metropolitan, capital city daily. The end result after 15 years was a portfolio of more than 500 newspaper essays and columns in outlets ranging from the New York Times to the Block Island Times and more than a dozen freelanced magazine articles. To stay active in journalism, he publishes book reivews for The Wall Street Journal, the scholarly journal Environmental History, and Orion.

Thorson’s second book on signature landforms — Beyond Walden: The Hidden History of America’s Kettle Lakes and Ponds — precipitated keynote speeches to national lake management meetings and a freshwater road-trip-blog titled “Walden to Wobegon” book-ended by National Public Radio coverage in Boston and Minneapolis.  During this process, the intellectual black hole of Walden Pond sucked him in so deeply that he published two scholarly books on Henry David Thoreau for Harvard University Press. Walden’s Shore: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth Century Science (2014) was marketed and catalogued as literary criticism.  The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years (2017) was marketed and catalogued as biography and history. It features the mature (post-Walden) Thoreau working on the most analytically rigorous scientific project of his life.  Thorson’s most recent book, The Guide to Walden Pond, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Thoreau’s publisher, 2018) was  the first guide to this international shrine, a place visited by more than half a million people each year.  A present book is underway at Princeton University Press, scheduled for publication in summer 2025. 

Professor Thorson lives a quiet life in southern New England, where he is an active grandparent for 5 children. His hobbies are Nature, reading, writing, cooking, walking beaches, and watching public television.  After 21 continuous years of meeting a series of school busses for four children at the end of a long gravel driveway, and after maintaining a 5 acre property and falling-down house, he and his wife of 40+ years downsized to an energy-efficient townhouse in the walkable village of Storrs Center, CT . His pedestrian commute is now a trail through the woods above a small pond that crosses a bouldery stream.

Photo:  Rusted implements dug up during the restoration of Henry D. Thoreau’s birthplace on Virginia Road. We are all conglomerates of specific items in our past, whether physical artifacts or psychological memories.