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


George Perkins Marsh – the prophet of conservation

150 years ago, in 1864,George Perkins Marsh published the book that was to earn him the title of "Prophet of Conservation". In "Man and Nature, or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action" Marsh put forward the idea that human activity could, and did, significantly alter the appearance and productivity of the landscape, and even the climate of our planet.

He saw this as a recipe for the destruction of humanity:
"The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence… would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species." - Man and Nature, p. 43

Up to this time, no one had studied the earth as the home of humankind or described the interdependence of environmental and social relationships as Marsh did:

"The Equation of animal and vegetable life is too complicated a problem for human intelligence to solve and we can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble into the ocean of organic life." - Man and Nature, p.103

"Man and Nature" was well received and widely read, laying the groundwork for the conservation movement of the 20th century, inspiring the Arbor Day movement, the establishment of forest reserves and the national forest service.

Vermonter, lawyer, congressman, ambassador, linguist and sage, George Perkins Marsh was born in1801 in a wooden farm house on the property that is now Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park. During exhaustive studies and extensive travels he realized the scope of human alteration of landscape in Europe, the Middle East, and at home in the United States.

George Perkins Marsh died in 1881 in office as U.S. Ambassador to Italy, leaving a collection of 11,000 books, which found their way to the University of Vermont via the good offices of Marsh's fellow Vermonter Frederick Billings, and a legacy of an environmental vision that, while firmly grounded in 19th century philosophy, carries a poignant relevance to the planet's present predicament.

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

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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