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Percival, among Connecticut's first professional geologists, and his poetry

The biography "Stone Breaker: The Poet James Gates Percival and the Beginning of Geology in New England" is about a man who gets caught in the middle between new science and the culture he's living in.

At the Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine in East Granby, Connecticut, author Kathleen Housley describes Percival, who was a born at the end of the 18th century, as a polymath.

Kathleen Housley, Author: Percival was good at everything he tried, but more than that, he worked at everything he tried. He was a significant student so that he starts out at Yale mastering Botany. He becomes a physician. He's a linguist. He can read more than 20 languages. He, besides that, becomes the most recognized poet in the United States in the 1820s, which is remarkable because very few people know about his work. On top of all that, he happened to be a geologist, and one of the first, in the very early stages of geology.

If you say that a geologist is someone actually earning money from whatever it is, then I would say he is the first in the state of Connecticut. And the reason for that is that the state actually hires him to do the first geological survey. Similarly, in Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Legislature hires Edward Hitchcock to do the first geological survey, there.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Hitchcock has a great history, born in Deerfield, and a minister in Conway.

Edward Hitchcock was a minister. And he also was a good scientist, and you cannot take that from him. He really was looking at the data and collecting the data. Deep down, he wanted to align that with the Christian idea of creation in six days and a day of rest.

But Hitchcock was too good a scientist to completely go to the religious side, even though he deeply wanted to. Percival realized early on that there was a disjunction between what the people around him were believing and what he was seeing in the stone. The stone was telling a different story, and the story the stone was telling was that the earth was very, very old. He couldn't put a number on it, but he realized that time was far deeper than the people around him believed.

And the significance of Percival's work is that he precedes Darwin and you cannot get evolution without this deep time.

The Old New-Gate Copper Mine actually existed when James Gates Percival was doing his survey. So, he was here?

Yes. he starts his survey in 1835 and he spends seven years doing it, tracking back and forth across the state of Connecticut. He starts at four-mile intervals. Then he does it again and splits the difference. So, it's now at two-mile intervals. Then he actually goes from the south and north into Massachusetts, and it is a prodigious amount of work. And his map that he did is still held in awe by earth scientists and geologists now for its incredible exactitude.

Could you read an excerpt from one of the poems you've included?

I will. I'll read just the beginning of the poem, which he is best known for. This is the one that's still anthologized, and it's called "The Coral Grove." And I'll just read just about ten lines of it. He wrote this when he was down in Charleston; He went for a visit and lived there just for a little while.

Deep in the wave is a coral grove,
Where the purple mullet, and the gold-fish rove,
Where the sea-flower spreads its leaves of blue,
That never are wet with falling dew,
But in bright and changeful beauty shine,
Far down in the green and grassy brine.
The floor is of sand, like the mountain drift,
And the pearl-shells spangle the flinty snow;
From coral rocks the sea plants lift
Their boughs, where the tides and billows flow ...

That's gobsmacking.

From the scientist.

And I have to say thank you to Wesleyan, because when they accepted this book, I very much wanted to include the poetry. I wanted to include the art from Nelson Augustus Moore. The art of Moore is absolutely exquisite, and it is of the same time and place as Percival. Moore actually grew up in the Percival house — he was one generation earlier. And he was as much in love with the traprock ridges as Percival was, and his way of expressing it was through art.

So Wesleyan agreed to both include the beautiful four color paintings of Moore and to put in an entire section of Percival's poetry. Some people had said to me, "Well, why don't you just do the geology?" That, to me, would have lacked integrity.

He was a far more complex man.

He was a very complex man. And to focus on one aspect of his life would have simply been unfair.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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