Earth Words: Varieties of American nature writing (Part 2: George Perkins Marsh)

NOTE: In a February 1, 2023 post, I introduced what I declared would be a three-post series titled “Earth Words: Varieties of American nature writing.” In that first post I wrote about writers Robin Wall Kimmerer, Bernard DeVoto, and Bill McKibben. I also indicated that the next post in the series would consider Rachel Carson, Richard Nelson, and, again, Kimmerer. While working on that piece, I recalled a previous article I had written about the 19th-century polymath George Perkins Marsh, which appeared in the Summer 1990 edition of Wilderness, the excellent magazine formerly published by The Wilderness Society. I include that article here, just as it appeared more than 30 years ago. Marsh and his classic, pioneering 1864 book Man and Nature, it seems to me, are appropriate subjects for this “Earth Words” series.

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“Nothing Small in Nature”


The grim consequences of the drought of 1988 were evident early that summer. Sizzling crops, desperate farmers, rising food prices, grounded barges, threatened drinking water supplies – if we didn’t feel such effects firsthand, the media daily brought more pessimistic forecasts and worrisome images. The most troubling reports came from atmospheric scientists. With a certain I-told-you-so self-assurance, the researchers suggested that the drought was concrete evidence of global warming – a predicted result of the “greenhouse effect.” One ominous projection by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), broadcast on television, depicted with dazzling state-of-the-art computer graphics an inexorably catastrophic scenario, in which vast swaths of the earth’s land mass seem to be burning up by the early decades of the next century.

By the summer of 1988 there was widespread public recognition of the dismaying chain of climatic events that is apparently turning up the earth’s thermostat: increased burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests combine to increase levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, thereby trapping the radiant heat of the sun. The scientists explained the phenomenon (and others equally disturbing, such as the destruction of the earth’s ozone layer) with such confidence and their technical wizardry was so impressive, one almost forgot that they were describing a slow-motion apocalypse – an apocalypse quietly creeping up day by day, brought on by our own substantial intervention in natural processes.

While the scientists declared the drought a sure harbinger of global warming, environmentalists used the crisis to renew their faltering campaigns for energy conservation and the development of renewable energy resources. Likewise, nuclear-power advocates experienced fresh hope for that economically and environmentally troubled technology. By a facile exercise of logic, they declared nuclear-generated energy to be safe and desirable because the burning of fossil fuels is dangerous. Editorialists and pundits of all ideological persuasions had a field day, pointing fingers and sounding portentous alarms.

George Perkins Marsh, a man of the world, would not have been surprised by all the ruckus and rhetoric. Nor would he have been shocked at humanity’s cumulative influence on what he once described as “the proper working of the great terraqueous machine.”

“The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant,” he wrote in the introductory chapter of Man and Nature, his 1864 classic, “and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence, and of like duration with that through which traces of that crime and that improvidence extend, 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.”

So far, more than a hundred and twenty-five years [now almost one hundred and sixty years] after Marsh’s warning first appeared in print, we have not yet succumbed to extinction – though some may feel that the verdict is not so clear on the questions of depravation and barbarism. In any event, it might not be too late, during these gradually warming days, to turn to some of the timeless and cautionary lessons George Perkins Marsh so magisterially set forth in Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.

George Perkins Marsh, c. 1855-1865. (Library of Congress)

If Man and Nature is “the fountainhead of the conservation movement,” as critic and historian Lewis Mumford once wrote, it is a safe bet that few but the most ardent of conservationists and the most dogged of graduate students make their way through Marsh’s dry, dense text today. But there is another reason besides archaic literary style that Marsh’s work and message are not better known and more readily heeded. Like many another neglected and unpopular prophets, Marsh urged his readers, individually and collectively, to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. He asked his fellow citizens (and Marsh was a prominent public figure who took seriously the duties of citizenship) to take a clear-eyed look at how they lived, the better to mend their harmful ways.

Unlike many other prophets, though, Marsh was no fire-and-brimstone evangelist, no tub-thumping mountebank. His rhetoric was usually subdued, his profuse evidence marshalled with logic and position, his conclusions equivocal when the data were inconclusive. The style and substance of Man and Nature reflected Marsh’s legal training, diplomatic background, and resolute faith in the powers of empirical observation and scientific investigation to reveal the path out of humanity’s environmental dilemma.

Marsh’s eyes were opened to the dynamics of nature, he once recalled, during a boyhood excursion across the countryside surrounding his Woodstock, Vermont, home. His father “called my attention to the general configuration of the surface; pointed out the direction of the different ranges of hills; told me how the water gathered on them and ran down their sides. . . . He stopped his horse on the top of a steep hill, made me notice how the water flowed in different directions, and told me that such a point was called a watershed.” This simple but profound lesson in physical geography was the starting point for Marsh’s sweeping attempt to comprehend the relationship between human activity and natural processes.

Born in 1801, Marsh attended Dartmouth College and was a self-taught lawyer. Restless with the legal profession, he pursued an active but rarely successful business career. He “bred sheep, ran a woolen mill, built roads and bridges, sold lumber, edited a newspaper, developed a marble quarry, [and] speculated in real estate,” as biographer David Lowenthal summarized. In the 1840s Marsh served four terms as a Congressman from Vermont, during which time he was influential in the creation and administration of the Smithsonian Institution. A five-year stint as U.S. Minister to Turkey provided him the opportunity to travel in Egypt and Palestine. In 1861, Abraham Lincoln appointed Marsh to serve as American Minister in Italy, a post he held until his death in 1882.

Throughout his life, Marsh, who read twenty languages, pursued a prodigious variety of scholarly endeavors. His prolific writings included a treatise titled The Camel, based on his firsthand experiences with the creatures and his belief that they might be profitably used in the arid regions of the United States; a groundbreaking Report on the Artificial Propagation of Fish prepared for the state of Vermont; an Icelandic grammar; a dictionary of English etymology; and a volume on The Goths in New England, in which he attempted to prove a then-popular and unabashedly racist theory that the virtues of American institutions and of the nation’s Puritan forebears could be traced to Germanic origins.

But Man and Nature (retitled, in later editions, The Earth as Modified by Human Action) was the masterwork, the synthesis of Marsh’s eclectic learning, extensive travels, and varied experiences. Among the objects of the book, he wrote, besides chronicling “the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit,” was “to illustrate the doctrine, that man is, in both kind and degree, the power of a higher order than any of the other forms of animated life, which, like him, are nourished at the table of bounteous nature.” Marsh wrote and published Man and Nature at a time when the theological certainty of the natural hierarchy was under attack; the debate over the theory of evolution has only just begun (Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859). Marsh reconciled such seemingly conflicting ideas about science and religion – at least to his own satisfaction. His book was a plea that humankind understand and accept its place as the supremely influential species in the global web of life.

Buttressed with the pages of evidence and example that comprise the bulk of Man and Nature, Marsh forcefully advanced his argument that humanity was not merely the passive object of geographical forces but the powerful, if usually unconscious, instigator of profound environmental transformations. “Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” Marsh wrote. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.”

Marsh composed much of the book in Italy, while the nation he represented was still in the throes of the Civil War and Italy itself was for the first time being governed as a unified nation. It was obvious enough, in his eyes, that history, political struggle, and the state of the natural environment were inextricably intertwined. The long introductory chapter of Man and Nature begins with an account of the man-induced environmental disturbances that had contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire. Marsh’s parable of how the Romans laid waste their domain’s abundant natural endowments set the moral tone for the rest of his book.

From Rome he led his readers on a long excursion through time and history, ranging across landscapes from his Vermont hometown to the steppes of Russia, exploring “The Woods,” “The Waters,” and “The Sands,” as he titled the book’s three central chapters. His linguistic talents and his correspondence with many eminent scientists, scholars, and public figures of his era provided him access to an unusually wide array of sources. (Indeed, some of the most interesting and pointed digressions in the book appear in his extensive footnotes.) Marsh was a pioneer environmental historian. His aim was to sort out, describe, and interpret the complex ecological chains of cause and effect by which mankind had transformed the face of the landscape. And he had a talent for simplifying these connections. Marsh abruptly and periodically punctuated his long, arid expository passages with concise, vivid images that graphically dramatized his theme that there is “nothing small in nature.” Consider, for instance, how he distills the long arc of one region’s history into a single sentence: “Thus the earth loosened by the rude Abyssinian ploughshare, and washed down by the rain from the hills of Ethiopia which man has stripped of their protecting forests, contributes to raise the plains of Egypt, to shoal the maritime channels which lead to the city built by Alexander near the mouth of the Nile, and to fill up the harbors made famous by Phenician [sic] commerce.”

With a skeptic’s eye, he compared conditions in his youthful native country with those in the long-settled lands of the Old World. His fellow Americans, he observed, were repeating many of the same mistakes whose grim outcomes could be read on the ravaged landscape of Europe and the Near East. “Let us be wise in time, and profit by the errors of our older brethren!” Marsh warned in a burst of urgency. Unlike Europeans, he noted, Americans had not yet had time to raze all their forests or to build extensive and vulnerable communities in river floodplains.

In the destruction of America’s forests, though, Marsh saw a disheartening flaw in the nation’s character. He concluded his chapter on forests with a short exhortation under the heading “Instability of American Life,” in which he posed a challenge still worth heeding:

All human institutions, associate arrangements, modes of life, have their characteristic imperfections. The natural, perhaps the necessary defect of ours, is their instability, their want of fixedness, not in form only, but even in spirit. The face of physical nature in the United States shares this incessant fluctuation, and the landscape is as variable as the habits of the population. It is time for some abatement in the restless love of change which characterizes us, and makes us almost a nomade [sic] rather than a sedentary people. We have now felled forest enough everywhere, in many districts far too much. Let us restore this one element of material life to its normal proportions, and devise means of maintaining the permanence of its relations to the fields, the meadows, and the pastures, to the rain and the dews of heaven, to the springs and rivulets with which it waters the earth. The establishment of an approximately fixed ratio between the two most broadly characterized distinctions of rural search surface – woodland and plough land – would involve a certain persistence of character in all the branches of industry, all the occupations and habits of life, which depend upon or are immediately connected with either, without implying a rigidity that should exclude flexibility of accommodation to the many changes of external circumstance which human wisdom can neither prevent nor foresee, and would thus help us to become, more emphatically, a well-ordered and stable commonwealth, and, not less conspicuously, a people of progress.

Marsh’s message, while well received by other scientists, scholars, and reformers of his era, had a limited immediate impact on the nation still hellbent on expansion, settlement, and the unrestrained exploitation of its natural resources. But his ideas gradually took hold. Indeed, his penetrating discussion of the relationship between forest cover, soil erosion, and streamflow laid down the fundamental tenets of the American forestry and conservation movements of the early twentieth century. Third World deforestation today, and related wood shortages, soil erosion, and flooding, duplicate processes Marsh documented from the Old World’s long history and observed personally on the steep hillsides of Vermont.

Despite his exhaustive depiction of the careless and profligate ways of humanity, Marsh held out hope. No enemy of the public ownership and control of natural resources, he pointed to the stirrings of intelligent public regulation and restoration of forests in southern France and elsewhere in Europe. The diking, draining, and creation of land in Holland, he concluded, had been generally benign and successful. And he recounted the experience of the Italian province of Tuscany, which had long been engaged in an effort to prevent floods and restore lost agricultural lands through a flexible, imaginative program of rechanneling the region’s much-abused rivers.

There was no question that people would intervene in altering the landscape; the only question for Marsh was whether the result would be beneficial or harmful to humans and their environment, whether such transformations would be pursued purely for private gain or for the commonweal. Marsh’s call for active, constructive rehabilitation of damaged landscapes anticipated today’s nascent “restoration ecology” movement. Moreover, he echoed the sentiments of those who now worry about the world’s exorbitant military expenditures. “[T]he cost of one year’s warfare, if judiciously expended,” he wrote, “would secure, to almost every country that man has exhausted, an amelioration of climate, a renovated fertility of soil, and a general physical improvement, which might almost be characterized as a new creation.”

Influenced by the Transcendental spirit of his native New England, Marsh hewed to a faith that human beings might yet come to comprehend and appreciate their unique place in the natural order. And, in the spirit of his age, he believed in the virtues and benefits of scientific endeavor – the ultimate significance of which, he suggested, was its potential to satisfy humanity’s most fundamental spiritual yearning. “The collection of phenomena must precede the analysis of them,” he concluded, “and every new fact, illustrative of the action and reaction between humanity and the material world around it, is another step toward the determination of the great question, whether man is of nature or above her.”

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The questions Marsh posed in 1864 are fundamentally, if not always scientifically, identical to the ones that confront us today. The drought of 1988, the dire prospect of global warming, and other recent environmental calamities, from floods in Bangladesh to the enormous oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound – such phenomena dramatize the paradox Marsh well understood before there was a genuine conservation movement or a sophisticated scientific understanding of globe-encircling environmental processes: The technological and economic forces that provide valuable material benefits can also produce the very conditions that undermine the planet’s ability to sustain life.

The contemporary significance of Marsh’s observations will be evident to those who yearn to preserve and protect the earth’s remaining wild places. If, as he proclaimed, “a certain persistence of character” is a requisite for any hope of preserving a healthy, stable environmental order, the complexities of large-scale ecological forces can nonetheless confound the noblest of human intentions. On a globe blanketed with increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and soaking up acidified precipitation, wilderness has no real boundaries or protection, no matter if designated by law and depicted on a map.

His chapter on “Transfer, Modification, and Extirpation of Vegetable and of Animal Species” catalogued the ways human cultures affected the range, distribution, and survival of a multitude of life forms. His arguments in favor of preserving organisms and their habitats anticipated virtually every point made by environmentalists today – from the possible medical uses of little-known organisms and the protection of biological diversity to the spiritual and aesthetic value of undisturbed terrain. And in an era when species are swiftly being rendered extinct while genetic engineers simultaneously attempt to invent new organisms, Marsh’s warning about the ecological hubris of his own species has lost none of its cogency. “[W]e are never justified in assuming a force to be insignificant because its measure is unknown, or even because no physical effect can now be traced it as its origins,” he wrote, neatly summarizing the challenge faced by today’s scientists as they attempt to understand the earth’s intricate atmospheric, biological, and geographical processes.

“The equation of animal and vegetable life is too complicated a problem for human intelligence to solve,” Marsh wrote, “and we can never know how wide a circle we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble into the ocean of organic life.” As we continue throwing pebbles, we should also be keeping an eye trained on the horizon for the first signs of an environmental tidal wave.

The worldly Yankee author of Man and Nature, working in his study in a medieval castle near Turin, had a less provincial viewpoint then did many of his counterparts in the pantheon of American conservation history and literature. Marsh’s sobersided book, it must be confessed, is not nearly as lyrical or inspirational as other American volumes of environmental scripture, such as the Thoreau’s Walden, Muir’s The Mountains of California, or Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.

Some students of the American conservation movement, in fact, pigeonhole Marsh as a “utilitarian,” who mistakenly places mankind at the center of terrestrial environmental affairs. His ideas, the critics say, hinder the development of a biocentric, truly ecological understanding of humanity’s role in the natural scheme of things. Maybe so. Meanwhile, the news pours in and the scientific evidence piles up documenting the link between human activity and environmental degradation. Perhaps Marsh’s matter-of-fact candor, expansive perspective, profound historical awareness, and outright common sense accurately reflect the stark facts of life on the planet Earth in this epoch.

Indeed, in his clear-headed analysis of the challenge facing humanity in his time, George Perkins Marsh spelled out some of the indisputably human qualities that are equally necessary today as we plunge headlong into the future: humility about the limits of our knowledge, that “certain persistence of character,” and a forthright recognition that there is indeed “nothing small in nature.” ♦