University of Connecticut University of UC Title Fallback Connecticut

Rusty artifacts

Biographic Sketch

Written to be cherry-picked by those needing background information for articles/introductions. Though this is 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 immigrant family – hence the nickname “Thor.”  In sequence, he lived in Wisconsin, Illinois, North Dakota, and Minnesota before graduating from college in 1973 and leaving immediately for Alaska to train as an exploration geologist. After earning an MS degree in 1975 from the University of Alaska, he worked as a full-time geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey until 1979. During employment with the USGS in Seattle, he earned a PhD from the University of Washington in 1979. Next he held assistant professorships at the University of Wisconsin and University of Alaska.  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 young family 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 joined the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and the Department of Anthropology (Archaeology), with research and teaching commitments to Center for Integrative Geosciences, and to the Honors Program to teach core courses involving the American landscape.

Thor’s 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 (Walker, 2002). This nonfiction bestseller won the Connecticut Book Award (a Library of Congress Program), went through multiple printings in hardcover and softcover, and inaugurated a decade of advocacy for preserving this aspect of the New England’s historic landscape.  During this phase, he gave more than  500 hundred presentations at venues ranging from small historical societies to the NASA Engineering Colloquium in Washington D.C.

During this phase, he was recruited as an essayist and opinion journalist for the Hartford Courant. By 2003 his scholarship began to emphasize science writing, highlighted by a regular weekly opinion column mainly on science policy, environment, and education.  The result was 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.  In 2004, the Geoscience Directorate of the National Science Foundation granted funds 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, that was 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.

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 powerful intellectual gravity 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) featured Thoreau as a pioneering physical scientist, yet is sold and catalogued as Literary Criticism because it’s a book about a book.  The Boatman: Henry David Thoreau’s River Years (2017is classified as American History and as Biography. It features the mature (post-Walden) Thoreau working on the most analytically rigorous scientific project of his life.  Thorson’s last book, The Guide to Walden Pond, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Thoreau’s publisher) was published on March 13, 2018, and is also the first guide to a place visited more than half a million times each year.

Professor Thorson lives a quiet life in southern New England, where his hobbies are Nature, reading, writing, cooking, walking beaches, and watching public television.  After meeting the school bus at the end of the driveway for 21 years, he and his wife of 40+ years downsized to village life in Storrs Center, CT. On his way to work he walks through the woods within sight of a small pond, and over two streams.

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.