Man and Nature: George Perkins Marsh

A lesson for our times

George Perkins Marsh
George Perkins Marsh

When we fiddle with nature, there can be unforeseen consequences. When we fiddle with nature in big ways, entire civilizations collapse.

This was the essence of a densely written book, Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, published in 1864 in New York and London. It wasn’t much anticipated, and the author, George Perkins Marsh, a former congressman from Vermont, was little known. Yet it went on to be an international bestseller, was translated into multiple languages, was repeatedly updated in expanded editions, and is now generally recognized to be one of the most important books ever published. Its arguments were a major factor in the creation of the Forest Preserve.

This year we celebrate the sesquicentennial of Man and Nature. Harvard University Press reprinted the original edition, edited by Marsh’s biographer David Lowenthal, in 1965, and what follows largely depends on Lowenthal’s invaluable research.

The alteration of nature that most struck Marsh was the clearing of forests from mountainsides. Left intact, forests gradually release rain and snowmelt to the streams and rivers below, thus supporting agriculture and economic stability in lowland valleys. Denuded mountain slopes cannot retain rain or melting snow; the result is endless cycles of flood and drought.

“When the forest is gone, the great reservoir of moisture stored up in its vegetable mould is evaporated, and returns only in deluges of rain to wash away the parched dust into which that mould has been converted,” Marsh wrote. Springs dry up, soils erode, ecological communities deteriorate, and agriculture fails; everything dependent on the stable regime protected by forests and a reliable watershed—in other words, civilization itself—is at risk. The decline of the Roman Empire, he concluded, was at least partially attributable to “man’s ignorant disregard of the laws of nature.”

Marsh observed the forest-devouring frenzy of the nineteenth century and delivered a truly apocalyptic picture of what might occur if people did not change their wasteful ways: “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 deprivation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.”

Marsh was born in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1801. As a boy, he loved to read, and when this pleasure was curtailed by a childhood eye infection, he found his joy in the Vermont woods. The eye affliction flared up periodically throughout his life, but he remained a prodigious reader with a near photographic memory, while the joy he discovered in nature stayed with him until his death in 1882. At Dartmouth College, Marsh studied and became fluent in a handful of ancient and modern languages and read voraciously in philosophy and history. He graduated first in his class. After a brief stint teaching, he read law and set out his shingle in Burlington. Neither law nor business, which he tried next, suited him. He put his hand to raising sheep, edited a newspaper, invested unsuccessfully in a railroad, and generally failed to succeed at anything.

About the only thing left was politics. Starting with the Vermont Legislative Council in 1835, he found himself the Whig nominee for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. He served there for several terms and was appointed U.S. minister to the Ottoman Empire in 1848. With Turkey as his base, he explored the eastern Mediterranean, collecting specimens for the Smithsonian Institution, which he had helped to establish when he was in Congress. This was the beginning of a renewed interest in ancient history and in particular how that history intersected with human alterations of the landscape. Appointed by Abraham Lincoln to be ambassador to Italy in 1861, he expanded his studies and began to fashion the argument that he would present in Man and Nature.

Most of the examples in Man and Nature were inspired by his travels around the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe, where millennia of human abuse of nature had led to bare hillsides, a loss of agricultural productivity, and the abandonment of once-fertile valleys. But one of Marsh’s chief goals was to help Americans prevent the same thing from happening in the United States, and he wrote passionately about threats to American prospects. For years, he had been personally observing that the mountains in Vermont were losing their forest cover with terrible consequences for lowland valleys, and he argued for protecting the remaining forests.

The University of Washington Press reprinted Man and Nature: Or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action by George Perkins Marsh in 2003. It includes a foreword by the environmental scholar William Cronon and an introduction and notes by David Lowenthal, Marsh’s biographer. Softcover, 512 pages, $34.95.
The University of Washington
Press reprinted Man and
Nature: Or Physical Geography
as Modified by Human Action by
George Perkins Marsh in 2003.
It includes a foreword by the
environmental scholar William
Cronon and an introduction
and notes by David Lowenthal,
Marsh’s biographer. Softcover,
512 pages, $34.95.

He also looked across Lake Champlain and saw that loggers were beginning the same lamentable sequence in the Adirondacks. In the purple and occasionally pedantic prose in which he typically promoted his cause, he observed, “nature throughout those mountains had clothed them with lofty woods, that they might serve as a reservoir to supply with perennial waters the thousand rivers and rills that are fed by the rains and snows of the Adirondacks…. The felling of the Adirondack woods would ultimately involve for Northern and Central New York consequences similar to those which have resulted from the laying bare of the southern and western declivities of the French Alps.” The consequence of continued deforestation in the Adirondacks, he insisted, was “widespread desolation.” Already, he noted, “the rivers flow with diminished currents in dry seasons, and with augmented volumes of water after heavy rains. They bring down much larger quantities of sediment, and the increasing obstructions to the navigation of the Hudson … give good grounds for the fear of serious injury to the
commerce of the important towns on the upper waters of that river.”

It was precisely this fear, that irresponsible logging in the Adirondacks would lead to unreliable water levels in the Hudson and hence a disruption of commerce, that led to the establishment of the Adirondack Forest Preserve in 1885, the creation of the Park in 1892, and passage of the forever-wild provision granting constitutional protection to the Forest Preserve in 1894. The debates in the New York legislature and in the state constitutional convention, as well as the discussions in newspapers and magazines of the day, all make it clear that Marsh’s connection between mountain forests and watershed viability was the essential argument leading to protection of the Adirondacks. Others had argued that the Adirondacks were important for their scenic and recreational values, but this was never enough to move public opinion toward conservation. It was the utilitarian insights of George Perkins Marsh that gave us the Forest Preserve and then secured its protection as forever wild.

Man and Nature, writes Lowenthal, “was an almost immediate success.” Reviewers praised it (although many commented on Marsh’s convoluted prose style and his seemingly endless footnotes), and within a few years it was admired and cited around the world. In this country, The Nation observed that it was “one of the most useful and suggestive works ever published.” It took a while for people to move from pondering and admiring Marsh’s alarming insights to actually taking concrete steps to stop the misuse and waste of natural resources. But within a few decades, foresters and planners— in the United States, in Europe, and around the world—began implementing more sustainable, conservative approaches to the care of mountain forests. In 1963, anticipating the book’s centennial, Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall wrote that the publication of Man and Nature was “the beginning of land wisdom in this country.”

Although Marsh argued persuasively that “man is everywhere a disturbing agent” and he feared catastrophe if these trends continued, it’s important to note that he also believed that people were rational and, duly warned, would act deliberately to protect their self-interest, their health, their very existence. Once alerted to the consequences of destructive behavior, he believed, people would change their ways. What happened in the Adirondacks shows this to have been a reasonable assumption. What the United States did with DDT, after its menace was meticulously exposed in Rachel Carson’s equally significant Silent Spring, offers further evidence that we are capable of making the right choices.

But now we are faced with an environmental catastrophe far worse than anything predicted by Marsh, the looming apocalypse of climate change, with all its attendant calamities: rising temperatures, super storms here and drought there, acidification of the oceans and collapse of the world’s fisheries, rising sea levels. In Bill McKibben’s The Death of Nature (1989) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (2006)—to name but two important efforts, the second with a deliberate echo of Marsh in its title—we have contemporary, powerful books that match the admonition in Man and Nature. We have been warned. Marsh would insist that we are capable of assessing the threat and modifying our behavior. We shall see whether such faith can be justified.