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Poet James Percival and the Geology of New England at Pardee-Morris House


Geological Map of Connecticut, 1842

New Haven, Conn. (May 3, 2024) –In the early 1800s, when the prevailing belief was that the earth was 6,000 years old and had been shaped by Noah’s flood, James Gates Percival showed that the traprock in the Connecticut valley was volcanic and far older. Author Kathleen Housley will present “Poet James Percival and the Geology of New England,” at the Pardee-Morris House on Sunday, June 9, 2024, at 2 p.m. For weather updates check FB/IG or call 203-562-4183. Free registration here.


Based on her book, “Stone Breaker: The Poet James Gates Percival and the Beginning of Geology in New England,” Housley’s lecture will offer an accessible biography of Percival, a true American polymath. Exploring the confluences of literature, art, and geology, she will reveal how one of most famous poets of the 1820's became a renowned geologist with his groundbreaking “Report on the Geology of the State of Connecticut,” published in 1843.The presentation will include historic photographs and paintings of the Connecticut landscape.


A poet, linguist, and unstable savant, Percival was also a brilliant geologist who walked thousands of miles across Connecticut and Wisconsin to lay the foundation for generations of earth scientists.


During the 1820s, Percival was considered one of the foremost poets in the United States with the talent to challenge the hegemony of British poets, such as Byron and Shelly. His poetry was read by future poets, among them Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Cullen Bryant, all read his books. Unfortunately, says Housley, Percival’s emotional fragility coupled with a sea change in the nature of American poetry assured his fame was short-lived.


As the state’s first geologist, Percival’s main interest was the traprock ridges that stretch in a broken line from north to south, beginning in Massachusetts, crossing Connecticut, and ending at Long Island Sound. The ridges run relatively straight until they reach the center of Connecticut, near Percival’s birthplace in Kensington. It was these ridges, now known as the Metacomet range, which stirred Percival’s sense of wonder. One of his insights was that the ridges were not formed during a single geological event, but by several events over a vast period of time.


The advances in the new science of geology in the 19th century were important. Percival and others looked at rock from a different perspective, recognizing that upwelling magma between sedimentary layers reshaped parts of New England. What they discovered led to changes in the way the public understood recurring geologic processes. Housley maintains that Percival’s story remains relevant because, “We are in the midst of another scientific revolution, this time quantum mechanical, which calls the nature of reality into question.”


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