The story behind Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls. Written by the author on December 1, 2003.
CITY HALL, HARTFORD
On Sunday afternoon, November 16th, 2003, I heard my name being called out from the speaker’s podium in the atrium of City Hall, Hartford, Connecticut. Stone by Stone, had just won the Connecticut Book Award for nonfiction.
For my readers, this was probably the correct category. For those closest to me, however, it might have been equally valid to win the category for “lifetime achievement. ” Indeed, the book took what seemed like a lifetime of effort to produce. Its dedication reads “To my family for being patient.” In fact, the youngest member of my family, now eleven years old, joined us AFTER I began editing the text. Her father is “always writing about stone walls.”
Somewhere along the process, I created a title page called “draft by draft,” just to remind my editor how much paper had been consumed in working and reworking material that was ten years old. The award followed a year “on the road” with the book and its ideas. With my fall schedule of speaking engagements coming to a close, with a companion volume being written, with the adrenaline subsiding, and because I was asked to by several readers, I finally decided that I ought to spend a few hours writing down my version of the history of the book project, before I forget it.
Draft by Draft is the acceptance speech I would have given, had they given me an hour or so to tell the full story. Before I commence, however, I must remind the reader that the award is not to the author, but to the book itself, which, was published by Walker & Company, New York. It was they that took the risk in financing a project that had had failed twice before, first while under contract to Houghton & Mifflin of Boston, and second (five years earlier), while under review at the University Press of New England. George Gibson, publisher, took that risk and expertly managed the whole process. My editor at Walker, Jackie Johnson, wore out so many pencils and gave me so much advice — step by step — as to almost qualify as co-author. They, along with the others at Walker who design, print, copy-edit, design, ship, publicize, market, and physically carry the books, deserve at least as much credit as the author!
A FEW YEARS EARLIER
Stone by Stone resulted from an unusual set of life circumstances that predated the actual writing. Chief among them were several events: Most important, I wasn’t born here and didn’t even set foot in New England until I was an adult. Second, in my youth, I hauled plenty of stone in North Dakota, a place that gives new meaning to the New England euphemism “open space.” Third was my observation of dozens of stone walls in England and Scotland, many of which were likely a thousand years old, few of which looked like those in New England. Finally, was my introduction to New England stone walls as an adult trained in the ways of science.
All of these gave me an objectivity and psychological remove necessary to observe, then rethink the phenomenon. That would have been enough had I been a decent writer to begin with. I wasn’t. That ability would come slowly, ever so slowly as I worked on a children’s book, Stone Wall Secrets, with my wife, Kristine, which used the traditional story of stone walls to teach young people about the hidden values they contain. She held out for a higher standard than typically passes in academia. The “publish or perish” syndrome is alive and well in academia, as it should be. But with tens of thousands of journals out there (most are for-profit), and academic libraries sagging under the weight of books published annually, the goal of academic writing is to be merely acceptable, rather than to be the best it can be. In my field of science, the obsession is on the data, not on the delivery. After twenty years operating within that culture, it was a surprise to learn that getting the right word really did matter. My wife Kristine taught me that.
Stone by Stone began in earnest in late winter of 1992, in the basement of a house in Hanover, New Hampshire. I had just sat down to write up the introduction to a technical article for a journal that probably didn’t exist. My ideas about the “self-assembly of stone walls” had, thus far, been restricted to circuitry diagrams on drafting film (mylar), numerical simulation models inside of my Macintosh Classic (all within Microsoft Excel spreadsheet macros), and a fairly robust hypothesis that marginal agricultural sites settled late and abandoned early — would contain the best field test of authentic wall origin. All of these ideas were taped on the wall around my writing station, with my new computer in the center.
In my draft introduction, I was presenting my ideas as to why the overly romantic view of stone walls existed. I had concluded that New Englander’s had invented the “eastern cowboy,” a chimerical figure –a cross between a leatherstocking, a minuteman and a Yankee drover — who battled with an imaginary excess of stone and won. I had concluded that the poets had more to say about stone walls than the scientists. I had concluded that the walls had escaped the notice of archaeologists and historians, and geomorphologists for complex reasons. I was about to show, in an overly reductionist, almost antagonistic way, that the walls “had to be built” as a consequence of the woodland-to-pasture transition. Each was effectively a “linear landfill” a semi-organized stack of refuse that simply had to be gotten out of the way of scythes and plows, but which, lacking the “real” power of petroleum, couldn’t be moved too far.
This idea, of course, was not new. What was new, I later realized, was that I was the first to bring a reductionistic, mechanical, ergonomic, geometric, autonomic, and economic analysis to the subject. At the end of the first day I had an 85-page manuscript that almost wrote itself.
The next two of three days were repeat performances. Each day, I went down to the basement to write the technical matter, but what came out instead was the historiography and literary analysis. within a week I had an unplanned book-length manuscript. Although little of that original material remained, the final product,Stone by Stone, is the result of an ten-year effort to take a virtually incomprehensible auto-text and make it readable. The scientist in me never got past the introduction that would justify why my analytical approach was warranted in the first place.
THE LONGER VERSION
This effort began not when I saw my first stone wall, which happened in 1976 — when I crossed coastal New England on my honeymoon — but when I saw my first one in the woodland, surrounded by forest, covered with ashen gray lichens, and so infused with shade that I was hard to differentiate stone from shadow. Curiously, I can’t remember where this was. But I do remember the event. It was late August, 1984, shortly after I moved here from Alaska.
I had decided that if I was going to teach landscapes here, I had better go out and explore them. So, on one of my first days here, I drove away from campus, entered a piece of public land — Natchaug, Schoolhouse Brook, UCONN Forest — and began to walk into the woods. A wall loomed up like an enormous downed tree. I knew, in an instant, what it was a ruin. This was the time I fell in love with stone walls.
For a few years, I was just plain interested. I began to see them everywhere. Then I had a serious encounter with a collection of walls. I had become somewhat of an expert on the origin of wetlands, having published several scientific articles. There were three projects in particular that piqued a real scientific interest. First was my work for the Mashantucket Pequots, whose reservation I walked over and over, after completing a geological map of reservation properties. Second was a study of five wetlands in eastern Connecticut, each picked to represent a different human-interaction scenario. Third, and most important, was the headwaters of Susquetonscut Brook, in Lebanon, CT. Each study required me to wander widely over a piece of ground, examining the whole landscape for evidence of human activity and manipulation.
Basically, stone walls were everywhere. But they were not placed on the ground randomly. There were patterns, driven by local geology, by which I mean as the synthesis of topography, soils, and hydrology. Most importantly, the phenomenon was far more massive and standardized than I had expected, given the quirkiness of human nature. I began to see stone walls as something inevitable, something like elongate crystals, which came together not from a swirl of atoms but from a swirl of stones. To work on this project scientifically, would require a substantial investment in labor.
It was at this stage, in 1989 or so, that I made my first serious move towards stone wall scholarship. Yale University, slightly more than an hour from Storrs, held an annual competition for visiting faculty fellowships, funded by the Mellon Foundation. I inquired of Professor William Cronon whether he would sponsor my fellowship, which he agreed to do. Having won the fellowship, I was given access to Yale facilities (especially its libraries), and began twice-monthly visits to do research and to participate in an interdisciplinary seminar in Environmental Studies, during which I heard and gave presentations, and discussed the same. Out of those conversations with Professor Cronon and his colleagues, I became convinced that a serious scientific investigation of stone walls was indeed warranted.
I began to plan such a study for part of my next sabbatical, only two years away. The problem was, I needed a field site, one where the walls could be mapped and studied on an abandoned property, where walls were not removed nor overwrought during the 20th century. Bill suggested that I explore Quabbin Reservoir, which, ten years later, I did at the invitation of the MDC staff. Instead, I went to Dartmouth College, in Hanover, NH, with a field site not yet selected. I chose Dartmouth because I was eligible for a sabbatical leave, and needed a place to go that would work for my family situation, namely my autistic son, Adam, who needed something very similar to what we had at home, and our plans for an international adoption, then in the works (Our agency required us to be in the NE region and our circumstance — ability to leave for months obligations. I also needed some free time edited an edited volume on archaeological geology . For all of these reasons, I arranged an appointment with a colleague, Robert Brackenridge, whose work I admired and with whom I had corresponded.
The year I was making my sabbatical plans, one of our UCONN faculty was on sabbatical. Her replacement for the year was a fellow named David Silverberg, then a post-doctoral structural geologist from MIT, working as the research coordinator for the Center for Field Research, which is the research wing of Earthwatch, the matchmaker organization that aligns free labor for a chance to work in exotic locales. After a few hallway conversations, he recommended that put together a proposal to his organization, in part because they had no projects in the Northeastern U.S. that year. I agreed to do so. These proposals required a brief text introducing the problem and stating the research hypothesis explicitly. This was the first time I wrote down my ideas, which were probably half-baked and overblown at that stage (I can’t find the original proposal). Importantly, these proposals were peer reviewed. In my case, it was some anonymous reviewer and Michael Bell, whose scholarship – a thesis on rural sociology out of the Yale School of Forestry — I admired, and whose familiarity with the New England landscape I admired as well. Both thought the ideas worth exploring, and recommended funding. My obligation to Earthwatch would be to find a field site for a two-week excursion somewhere in New Hampshire, where I was going to be on sabbatical. Theirs was to finance the project and provide the labor. At any rate, I put a 12 month lease on my house, in Storrs, signed a 12-month lease on a house in Hanover, and moved everything to Dartmouth in the largest yellow truck Ryder would rent me.
HAPPILY UNEMPLOYED IN HANOVER, NH
On the surface, things didn’t work out that well. My sponsor– with whom we had plans for joint collaboration on the analysis of ancient floods in the northeast — soon left for Washington D.C., where he had just received a prestigious committee assignment with NASA (I believe). I hadn’t realized that, like myself, he had an adjunct appointment. Though he returned once or twice that year, our planned project never got off the ground. The other thing I was working on was an edited volume for the Geological Society of America, resulting from a conference I had organized the previous year on the effects of geological context in archaeological geology. After having been promised a dozen papers, having received only six at deadline, and having had three of them rejected by reviewers, I decided to abandon the effort as not worth ruining a sabbatical for.
Suddenly, I felt happily underemployed, stuck for a full year at half pay, and unable to contract for work because I might have to leave for an international adoption at a moment’s notice. I also knew that six months later I was obligated to run an Earthwatch expedition on stone walls in New Hampshire. I was stuck in town and on the subject. So I walked straight into Dartmouth’s Baker Library and began to read, read, and read what passes for ancient texts in New England, the early records of explorers and settlers, and the 18th century scholars. I wanted the answer for why stone walls are so common, why they look the way they do, and why they are so strikingly similar when the same types of rock are used.
I discussed the problem with other professors, whomever and wherever I ran into them. In the history Department, Jere Daniels was very supportive and recommended, above all, that I investigate the work of Wallace Nutting, which I did. In the art museum was an art professor who recommended certain texts, and allowed me to examine his thousands upon thousands of photographic slides of American art, searching for where, and where not, stone walls were present. Someone in the biomedical library helped me understand clinical nutrition. In one of the longest phone calls I remember, I discussed the roster, schedule, and eating habits of the football squad. At the nearby Billings Museum, Ester Morn Swift informed me of the work habits of woodsman and farmers, those who still plowed with horses for history’s sake.
What I learned from all this reading is how little there was actually written on the subject. Most of what we know about stone walls, I concluded, came not from documentation, but from direct experience, family & local history, and oral tradition. This left plenty of room for science.
I had also arranged for permission to visit the CRREL, the US Army’s cold research and engineering laboratory, also in Hanover. They didn’t give out visiting appointments, but opened their facilities to me as well. It was there that I found, then ran some of the critical models for frost heave and discussed the climatic history of New England winters. Beyond reading and running frost heave models, circumstance provided me with an additional opportunity.
Each morning I walked my son Kevin to his preschool in a carriage. One day, there was a large pile of stone in an otherwise unimpressive yard. The next day there was another. After the third pile arrived, I met the stonemason named Lyle, who had hauled the stone about 20 miles from Thetford Vermont, and dumped it before he was to build a wall. Then I watched him prepare the foundation then build a “laid” wall. Somehow, watching him do this each day to build such a puny wall (a mere 50 feet long), got me thinking about how much time it would have taken to compress all the waste stone into all the walls of New England. I measured his stones and the results, the volume reduction and spatial economy. Watching the gradual transformation was, somehow, inspiring.
Then, just as things were rather peaceful, a science writer from the New York Times saw the New England Walls entry in the Earthwatch catalog. He phoned me at Dartmouth and asked if he could do an interview in October, 1992. I agreed on the condition that he not mention results before we had a chance to explore them scientifically. His published article was fine, but the copy editor used a title like “Scholar looks at Stone Walls and Sees Garbage.” Yikes!
This ignited a storm of protest denunciations of my research before I even had a chance to get going. Several letter writers from Fairfield Connecticut and Westchester County New York put me down. Dozens of inquires from reporters came my way. I consented to interviews with the Boston Globe, who wrote a nice story, and New Hampshire’s Union Leader, who trashed me. I would have preferred to be trashed on the merits of my ideas by the editors of peer-reviewed journals, preferably ones with double-blind, anonymous reviews. But there is no such journal.
Apparently, the subject of my research wasn’t being rigorously addressed, even by geographers. It was part of the woodland ecosystem, yet considered architecture. My methods were more like those of a computer programmer, and my output was in popular history. My subject had fallen through the cracks of disciplines. This put me on the defensive, probably creating a mood for the original 85 page “introduction.” After my initial spurt I ended up with a 200-page introduction and no scientific paper. It was then that I had my Eureka moment, realizing that the real potential readership was for my introduction, not for the study itself.
Within a week, I phoned the University Press of New England (UPNE), explained what I had, and arranged for an appointment. I showed them the pile of paper, left it for a night or two, and returned with the question, “is this worth pursuing?” The answer was “yes,” but I might want to write a book first, rather than 200 page wind-up. At that point, I was neither encouraged nor discouraged. Unfortunately, the time had come for me to run my Earthwatch program, which is another story in itself. This led to the search for the lost cemetery, then into the life of a true eastern mountain man, which is an even larger, more interesting story, yet to come.
#1 – University Press of New England
My point is that I ran out of time. We returned to the University of Connecticut, to what a former colleague called “reentry,” into academic life, learning that most of the work we left still needed to be done. Needless to say, I dropped the stone wall book like a stone, having been surrounded by students with more pressing demands. A month later, I asked a friend in the English Department, Sam Pickering, if he would look at my pile of paper. His “yes” motivated me to examine the pile, organize it into chunks, double-space and format the text, title each as a separate chapter, and give it the awful title “Lithic Legacy.” I believe the ms at that stage was over 400 pages. Sam was kind enough to phone the director of the UPNE, and refer the manuscript. Within a few days, I sent it with a long cover letter. The rejection didn’t take more than a week or two. The response was encouraging, but said the book was neither fish nor fowl, neither a popular book nor an academic one, but a strange mix of both. Editor Tom McFarland recommended I choose one option, then move forward with either a scholarly analysis, or with a sequence of literary essays. That sounded like an awful lot of work to me. At that point it was mid semester. I tossed the manuscript into the bottom of my file cabinet, where it lay, probably untouched, for more than year. I lost track, in part because of an event on the other side of the country, the rediscovery of Seattle’s earthquake threat, one that would sidetrack my writing career. It was a good excuse to ignore my first failure.
#2 – Houghton Mifflin
Two years later, the publicist for the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History, Carol Davidge, was in my office, interviewing me for a press release about an upcoming talk on Connecticut Geology and stone walls. She specifically asked me if I had anything written on the subject. My response was to dig out the rejected manuscript from the bottom drawer of the file cabinet and gave the first hundred pages of it to her. When she returned the manuscript, she scheduled some time to talk to me about it. Her point was that, though disorganized, it was really “good,” by which she meant actually interesting. Her recommendation was that I show part of it to her colleague, Suzy Staubach, director of general books at the UCONN Co-op, the closest thing we have to a literary salon. Suzy agreed to look at it. I left her one chapter, the first thirty five pages, then titled “Eastern Cowboy,” which is the story of how myth rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the dearth of documentary history. She soon got back to me, saying that it was worth pursuing, but that I needed an agent. She made a recommendation, a colleague named Lisa Adams, with whom she worked as a board member of Curbstone Press, one that also included George Gibson, publisher of Walker, whom I would meet about five years later.
Lisa Adams got the same block of text, which deconstructed the Eastern Cowboy. Within a few weeks I had a cautious response in the affirmative. Yes, an agency then called “The Boston Literary Group” would be my agent, provided that I write a book proposal, about which I knew nothing. We spent a month of so working on a proposal for a book. At the time, she was doing some hard editing on the chapters, to make sure it would be well received. This was the first time I had to give serious thought to a market, my credentials, the scope of the book, and a schedule. The book at this time had a dozen or so chapters, and was organized on a topical structure, one theme followed by another. She sent the proposal out to a half dozen publishers, with favorable responses from at least four, and with two being willing to proceed as is: Walker & Company in New York and Houghton Mifflin in Boston.
I distinctly recall a long, prearranged phone call with Walker’s editor, Jackie Johnson, who wanted to do the book, but only on the condition that it be told as narrative, as a story beginning with the Earth’s formation and ending with the present two quandary. The second demand was that I had to make it more “accessible,” by which she meant that my mathematical approach required some softening. Based on all the advice, the fact that H& M was easier to reach, and the size of the cash advance, I opted for Houghton & Mifflin.
When their first check arrived, I decided I was now a writer, so I went out and bought a “Chicago Manual of Style,” to serve as a trophy. I haven’t opened it since, but I did frame its bold-orange jacket just to remind myself to slow down.
I have little memory of the struggle over the subsequent three years. I wrote for so long, that my office was moved (in response to changing needs of children) into three different rooms in the house. I also recall a large backyard bonfire with my son Tyler, in 1997 in my backyard, where I burned every draft of the book, having just finished what I thought was my final version. I remember the date because my family had already gone on to Chile to help lay the groundwork for next year’s sabbatical; I had to stay and finish my manuscript before I could go.
I remember a few comments from my editor, namely, the “Devil was in the Details” and “delete entire chapter.” He was right to recommend deleting entire chapters, especially the one beginning with a “state equation” relating the different functions served by stone walls, the other a numerical model about the mechanical constraints on building a stone wall. Both of these deleted chapters ended up as paragraph-long footnotes in subsequent lines of the text.
I remember struggling to find a structure to the book that would draw the reader in. Version A, my first, and almost fatal mistake, was to take the reader on a walk in real time, beginning in one corner, then walking around an enclosure. The “here and now” was to draw the reader in, talking about what I was seeing. At this spot or that I would go off into some topical theme. I scaled the walk so that I had eight chapters, the midpoints and corners of wall segments. I walked through topography, places that would send me off to this subject or that. Version B was to begin each chapter with a different mineral, using their beauty and curiosity to draw readers into topical chapters. This was a dud, almost before it began. Version C was to have mini-chapters on human history at the beginning of each chapter on stone walls. To accomplish this, I went back to Howard Russell’s book (and others), “The Long Deep Furrow” breaking up agricultural history into eight pieces. This was closer to a workable approach, but still, according to Houghton Mifflin, unworkable.
I also remember how the title was picked. I gave Lisa Adams a list of suggestions, which she passed around her office. She settled on “Stone Upon Stone.” Some time later, I changed this to Stone By Stone, which is more accurate, as well as more ironic, because it is as much about the walls coming apart as being built up.
As time went on, and as rewrites continued, my editor wrote less on the manuscript, even as the tone of his letters indicated I was getting closer to completion. I rationalized this as my having become a better writer, needing guidance only in focus. But since it was my editor that pulled out of the project, I now believe that he had just gotten tired of the struggle to bring my wiggling ideas into a form coherent enough to sell books. He was helpful. He did work, at least at the beginning. I suspect it would have been I, rather than my editor, who would have given up, had I not already spent the cash advance, something easy to do with four children to support.
I also suspect that publication of Stone Wall Secrets (Tilbury House), which I co-authored with Kristine, and which was illustrated by Gustav Moore (a young artist doing his first book) kept me going at this stage. This book never spurred the same kind of public response as Stone by Stone because it was a children’s book, lacking the authority of adult nonfiction. But it did get good reviews from professional organizations, and, much to our surprise, won an award from the Smithsonian Institution as one of their Notable Books for Children in 1998.
Although I was proud of Stone Wall Secrets, its publication was unsettling for me as an academic scientist; apparently I could get my children’s book published but not my book for adults. In retrospect, this awkward position motivated me. My pride was at stake. I distinctly recall my final rewrite for Houghton and Mifflin. It was winter of 1998, just before my sabbatical in Chile was about to begin. I had just dropped the manuscript off with Harold Spencer, a locally revered, and recently retired (otherwise I wouldnÕt have dumped it on him), art historian, with whom I had visited Weir Farm, at his request. Harold read the book, then met me in the Babbage Library, where he returned his copy and (whether true or not) raved about the book, saying he “couldn’t put it down.” He was confident that the only thing left were editorial details. By that time, it was early January. With my wife and two of the four children already in Chile, I remember hiring a baby-sitter for a full day so I could finish rewriting the very last of what I thought was, finally, a final manuscript.
Part-way through my sabbatical, probably in March, 1999, I learned that Houghton Mifflin was pulling out of the project, after dozens of letters, several full drafts, and no real progress. I never got an official rejection notice; only a disturbing phone call from Lisa Adams, who did her best to let me down gently. There I was, simultaneously a distinguished Fulbright Scholar and a failed author, looking out my office window through the palm trees to the south Pacific Ocean. My “divorce” from Houghton Mifflin was initiated by my editor, but was amicable, to the extent that I knew I wasn’t getting the help that I needed. Having never had a book editor before, but having been one myself, I figured the fault must have been mine. I came very close to giving up, once and for all.
THIRD TIME’S CHARM
The return from my sabbatical in Chile was difficult, because I knew I had to face reentry, AND a failed book project. Lisa Adams asked me if I wanted to resubmit to Walker, who had wanted the book the first time around. I said yes, now knowing how she could convince a smaller publisher to risk investing in a project that was a demonstrated failure with a larger company. Walker was interested, but only on their original condition; that the book be told as straight narrative. What was I to say? Though I would have to rewrite virtually everything, to say no at that point would be to lose an agent on top of having to come up myself with a large sum of money to repay Houghton Mifflin’s already-spent advance. So, I said yes.
I arranged to meet the editor, Jackie Johnson, who took the train to New Haven to meet me. I picked her up and we drove around, first up to West Rock, then to Grove Cemetery, then out into the countryside, looking for walls, which we initially had trouble finding (since New Haven is in a red-rock, Triassic rift basin). Finally, we encountered a wall where I was able to demonstrate that I could see that others usually miss. A half hour later, I dropped her off, she went back to her publisher, discussed the visit, then agreed to consider a proposal. So, Lisa and I redeveloped the proposal, sending it back to Walker who signed me on.
Then Jackie and I got right to work, chapter by chapter, beginning with the most recent manuscript I had. Unlike the previous five years, things went rather smoothly — almost mechanically. I had real pencil comments on each paragraph in each chapter. It was amazing how much she recommended that I throw away and how many sentences she asked me to rewrite. Here I was, after a dozen rewrites, throwing out half of what I had and rewriting the rest. Watching Jackie work made me wonder what it was that my previous editor had done over the previous four years? Why was she so able to make it work where he had not? I suspect I will never know the answer to that. After all the chapters had been rewritten, she recommended I throw out my introduction and start over with it. It was probably the twentieth introduction I had written, all supposedly better than the previous one, all in the recycle bin. But instead of asking me to fix something unfixable, she told me in letter what to do in five or six easy steps. I recall going at it one morning, finishing by noon, then combing through it lightly the next morning before sending it off. She liked it as is, making no more than one or two editorial corrections to what is now in the book. I also learned that the illustrations came later. Of the hundreds I had considered — taken on CVS film and developed there as wellÑonly a few made it. Of the illustrations I had drawn for the book, perhaps two dozen, only a few survived.
WALKER & COMPANY
At this stage, I was no longer in control. The process was. Dozens of people began to take over. First was the copy-edit stage. This came as quite a surprise to me. Even when I thought I was done, there were thousands of minor mistakes and inconsistencies, most of which I was completely unaware of. I recall working for weeks trying to track down some of the more obscure references. This was especially difficulty because my most important stack of books, those I had been relying on and citing, seem to have walked off together. Library copies were typically unavailable, and I didn’t want to repurchase them because my stack might show up at any moment, with a guilty graduate student. So, much of my tracking down of the bibliography was done in our local university bookstore, who carried the books I needed.
This was also marketing time. George began soliciting blurbs for the book. The two most eminent reviewers we had lined up were both from Harvard University, where my publisher had gone to school as well. The first was the historian John Stilgoe, who had agreed to review the manuscript, but whose courtesy George would defer to another book project by Walker. The second was Stephen Jay Gould, with whom I had corresponded on an off over the years. He died about a week before he would have received the bound galley. In the end, Bill McKibben, Chet Raymo, and Kevin Gardiner wrote blurbs. Walker sent me the bound galley, which was the first time I knew, for sure, that my book would be published. It looked and felt like a book, though a flimsy one with an odd photo on the front. This was the copy that went to reviewers, as well as to colleagues for blurbs.
Then came the jacket text. George Gibson wrote the material on the jacket, taken from material they had solicited from me. I also provided a biographical sketch, answers to frequently asked questions, and a list of main points, all for publicity purposes. All of this text ended up somewhere. Meanwhile, with deadlines nearing, we were considering various photos and trying to design the cover. I recall that all of us agreed to move forward with one particular photograph which the designer, quite unexpectedly, rejected because of design problems. I also recall an excited email about another photo that George had found accidentally while working on another project. Operating on an instinct guided by years of experience, he must have recognized the photoÕs book cover potential. I actually preferred the earlier photograph as being richer in information and closer to the essence of the book. But, of course, he was correct. Having since asked dozens of people what they like about the cover, they say, “It has atmosphere,” or “It draws you in,” which is what a cover (I later learned) is designed to do (Silly me, I then thought a cover was to protect the pages.)
As part of the process, I had decided, to create a web site whose URL would be published on the front cover. Working with Kristine Thorson, co-coordinator of the stone wall initiative, I designed a web site, spending several weeks in late May of 2002, getting it ready for simultaneous launching. This was two weeks worth of work, not yet realized. It was at this point that George called to ask if I would consider a slight change in the subtitle. Instead of “The Magnificent History of New England’s Stone Walls,” it was to be “The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls.” Though minor, the change reflected the book content and theme more correctly. Most readers, even today, even when the book was announced as an award winner, gloss over the difference.
Then came the pre-publication reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s weekly, and Library Journal. They — a box of a dozen or so — arrived just about the time the first hardcover hit my desk. How pleased and proud I was to feel the book in my hands for the first time.
My first copy went to my mother in law, in honor of her daughter, my wife, Kristine. Beyond being a lover of books, she is the matriarch of a crowd of mostly male Maine residents who had teased me for years about how academics fritter away their time doing obvious things (“It’s a wall, stupid!”). For this crowd, no brother in law could ever good enough. The second copy went to my Dean, who oversees 22 academic departments at the University of Connecticut, and who likes to collect and exhibit the work of UCONN professors. This was especially important in my case because Stone by Stone came at the expense of so many other things left undone, like funded research proposals, editorships in science journals, and papers in prestigious articles, the things that really matter in a science department at a Ph.D. degree-granting research institution. The third copy was for my wife, whose patience had been tried so severely by my repeated failures. At one point, probably about 1994, she had stated her only demand — that a book conceived on one sabbatical should be finished before the next. I failed her in this regard, Stone by Stone being completed four years after our second sabbatical to Chile in 1998-1999. The fourth copy, for the Houghton & Mifflin editor who was unable to help me, still sits on my shelf, along with a copy of a personal letter I received from the company’s vice president, who was eagerly awaiting the outcome of my book. I’m still not sure what to do with it.
The others went to colleagues who had helped me, especially those who reviewed the final-stage manuscript for errors in history (Jamie Eves), geology (Randolf Steinen), archaeology (Robert Gradie), and art/literature (Harold Spencer). To add a few more colleagues from that long list of helpers would be to easily run out of books. I was encouraged by my department colleagues, often under accidental circumstances. There was the summer when the department’s printer couldn’t handle the load. My colleague Ray Joesten offered the use of his printer, which, of course, required that I load the file on his computer. I forgot to remove it. In fact, I forgot to turn off his machine. When he got to work, he began to read it. When I apologized for cluttering his hard drive, he asked, instead, if I could leave it for him to finish, which, over a series of days, he did, letting me know how much he enjoyed the process. On another occasion, I sent an aborted chapter introduction to the department printer. It was picked up by another colleague, Jean Crespi, who admitted being unable to put it down before reading the first full paragraph, which she said she liked. Little supportive comments like that make all the difference to a writer increasingly anxious about a success.
I forget the official date of publication, which was some time in late September, 2002. The debut talk, however, took place on September 18, 2003 at the Uconn Co-op. Suzy had wanted me to be the first book talk in the magnificent new bookstore building; though complete, the certificate of occupancy was still in the works. So instead, we had the event outdoors, on the patio. George, Lisa, Kristine, Suzy, my friends, many visitors, and three of my children were there. The centerpiece of my talk, which most people ignored completely, was a framed collage of paper scraps, data tables, and most importantly, the first draft of the book, which was a diagram, rather than a text. Written on drafting film with a pencil, it looked more like a circuitry diagram for the wiring in a house. It was, instead, the core of my ideas, a conceptual model for the robotic, self-assembly of New England’s stone walls, a “least-work” strategy for the management of the ambush of stones that greeted those who cleared our forests. The talk was followed by a banquet style dinner at which I signed copies of the book for Jackie and a few others. The next day, of course, I went back to the reality of being a professor, which really isn’t so bad. On top of that job was a blur of phone calls, interviews, emails, reviews, speaking engagements, etc., which is still going on.
Sometime before the end of September, I found the time to clean my writing chamber in my lab, which had been nearly buried with old paper drafts. I gathered them together and stacked them up, just like a stone wall, draft by draft.