• Students at South Peak

    Marsh - Billings - Rockefeller

    National Historical Park Vermont

George Perkins Marsh (cont.)

Man and Nature

"Marsh's Man and Nature marked the inception of a truly modern way of looking at the world, of thinking about how people live in and react on the fabric of landscape they inhabit . . . Marsh was more than the pioneer observer of ramified interactions among people and locales. He also fashioned a compelling depiction of the damage wrought and a reasoned yet impassioned plea for reforms to stem the destruction and help restore a previously bountiful natural fabric. . . . His union of ecological insight with social reform gives his arguments a lasting force four generations later. Marsh was the first to show that human actions had unintended consequences of unforeseeable magnitude."

Marsh biographer, David Lowenthal

 
Composite photograph of a portrait of George Perkins Marsh and a cover of his book Man and Nature. The black and white portrait shows a dark-haired Marsh wearing a dark suit and white shirt.

NPS Photo

The central theme of Marsh's great work had been crystallizing in his fertile mind since he was a child. In the book, which is now considered the inspiration for the modern conservation movement, Marsh compared the destruction wrought on Vermont's landscape to the deforestation he had seen in Europe. By conjuring up images of Ancient Rome, Marsh showed how long-lasting the effects of environmental harm could be. He argued that man inevitably causes change to the natural world and it is up to him to decide whether it will be for the better or the worse. Humans had to be stewards of nature, he wrote, and make choices that would benefit the health of the entire natural world.

Published in 1864, Man and Nature was well received by readers and influential upon those who were shaping American forestry policy at the time. It is widely considered a seminal text in the founding of the conservationist and environmental movements and in the decade after its release, Americans began to heed Marsh's warnings and take steps to protect the nation's forestlands. In 1874, a reviewer of the second edition of Marsh's Man and Nature described it as "one of the most useful and suggestive works ever published," coming "with the force of revelation."

The distance of time has dimmed the memory and influence of George Perkins Marsh, but as we re-awaken to his words and our focus becomes clearer, Marsh's voice on watershed and forest conservation, on environmental citizenship and democracy, and on the complex nature of stewardship resonates and connects with many of the environmental crises of our day as it did in his.

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Frederick Billings

Did You Know?

Black and white Carleton Watkins photograph, showing Yosemite's massive granite Cathedral Rock. Billings Family Archives.

Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. wrote to George Perkins Marsh in 1857, asking his advice on promoting "free soil" settlement in Texas to challenge the westward expansion of slavery. Strongly anti-slavery, both men would also champion land stewardship and public access to places like Yosemite Valley.