Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste. Nature has provided against the absolute destruction of any of her elementary matter... But she has left it within the power of man irreparably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life.
- George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature (1864, p.34)
George Perkins Marsh was born in Woodstock, Vermont on March 15, 1801. His father, Charles Marsh, was a judge and brought his children up with strict, Christian ideals. He taught them not to regard God as a loving father but as a righteous judge. His mother, Susan, on the other hand, was sympathetic and warm. Marsh was a serious child who looked considerably older than he was. He began studying Latin and Greek at the age of five or six, tutored by his elder brother, Charles Jr., who instilled in him a lifelong passion for reading.
However, reading so frequently in poor light strained his eyes, and by the time he was seven or eight, he was nearly blind. For the following four years, he could hardly read at all. Because Marsh had to be read to by others, however, he developed astounding powers of memorization. He was also forced to leave his darkened room, and he attained a lasting love of nature (Lowenthal, 2000).
Marsh's formal schooling as a young boy was trifling and infrequent despite his keen desire to learn. His eyes remained weak, even after regaining his sight, and his hearing was impaired. As a result, he was often too ill to attend school. Other times, the school was closed due to epidemic illnesses. In 1816, Marsh's father sent him to Phillip's Academy at Andover, Massachusetts, the country's first prep school. The curriculum was primarily Latin, Greek, religion, and morals, all of which he was well acquainted, so he stayed only a few months at Andover.
It was predetermined that Marsh should attend college at Dartmouth, like his grandfather, father, and brothers had. At only 15, Marsh began his college studies. He was three to five years younger than most of his classmates and was a scholarly, shy student. He had little in common with most of the other students, largely because he didn't care for sports or social events, and had few intimate companions. Marsh graduated from college on August 20, 1820 at just 19 years of age (Lowenthal, 2000).
Just two weeks after graduation, Marsh moved to Norwich, Vermont to begin working as a professor of Greek and Latin languages at the American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy. The academy, however, appealed little to Marsh. The four-story brick barracks were dismal and gloomy, and his cadet pupils lacked the intelligence he desired. He spent much of his time at the academy reading works in German and Scandinavian in the library until late at night. Unfortunately, the routine further deteriorated Marsh's eyesight before the end of the school year, forcing him to quit and seek an ophthalmologist.
Marsh returned to Woodstock weak, thin, and discouraged to prepare for the bar exams by being read to at home and hearing court cases. His eyesight gradually improved after extensive abstinence from reading, and he was examined and admitted as an attorney of the Windsor County Court in September 1825. Soon after, Marsh relocated to Burlington, on the opposite side of Vermont, which became his home for most of the next 35 years (Lowenthal, 2000).
Marsh opened a law firm with his partner Ben Bailey in autumn 1825. Soon after, he met and fell in love with Harriet Buell. They were married in April 1828, and within a year, they had a son, Charles Buell. Despite the immediate good fortune, however, hardships quickly ensued. Marsh's legal partnership was successful from the outset, but Bailey died suddenly of measles in 1832. The same year, Marsh and his wife had a second child, George Ozias, but Harriet fell ill during the pregnancy and died the following summer.
Tragically, their elder son succumbed to scarlet fever 12 days after his mother passed away. The quick succession of calamity devastated Marsh, and although he kept the law firm, he took on few cases in the years to follow. He formed on a new partnership with Wyllys Lyman, his sister's husband, but grew increasingly averse to legal work. He argued his final legal case in 1842 (Lowenthal, 2000). His primary reason for abandoning the practice of law was his complaint that "legal effort seemed as apt to pervert as to promote justice" (Lowenthal, p. 35).
Several years before abandoning his legal practice, Marsh remarried to Caroline Crane, who shared his intellectual interests, in 1839. He became increasingly involved in politics in the years to follow. In June 1843, he was nominated by the Whigs, precursor to today's Republicans, as the candidate for governor of Vermont. In the September election, Marsh defeated his Democrat opponent by 1,600 votes, and he served in Congress until 1849. At the end of his term, he was appointed United Stated Minister Resident to Turkey by President Taylor where he remained for five years. In 1854, he returned to Vermont in financial distress due to failed investments, and he spent the next few years in legal battles in an attempt to recuperate some of his wealth. His situation finally improved when he was appointed to the lucrative position of Vermont Railroad Commissioner in 1857 (Lowenthal, 2000).
The position of Railroad Commissioner entailed an investigation into state fish habitat, and he witnessed its deterioration. Marsh blamed the decline on several human activities, such as overfishing and industrialization, but he attributed the harshest effects to deforestation. He urged restocking of the fish and more prudent use of resources in a report to the Senate, which it found impractical. However, he was later credited for initiating salmon restoration with his pioneering study. He also opposed the destructive corporate interests of the poorly planned railroads that were rapidly devastating vast amounts of wilderness. The malignancy of private companies contributed his growing distain of capitalistic greed (Lowenthal, 2000). His biographer, David Lowenthal, observes, "[Marsh] saw private interests endangering public welfare… he opted, as a pragmatist, for public control rather than private reformation" (p.196).
Over the next few years, Marsh gave a series of lectures on the English language. In 1861, President Lincoln appointed him the first United States minister to the kingdom of Italy, and on April 27, at the age of 60, he set sail, with Caroline, for Europe. In Italy, he found time and capacity for his environmental concerns. He made several fruitful excursions to the Alps where he studied glaciers, moraines, and avalanches. Marsh witnessed Alpine erosion and the devastating contribution of grazing and deforestation, in disastrously accelerating natural erosive processes. In 1862, he began working on the manuscript for Man and Nature, a pioneering study in ecology and conservation.
Marsh had begun noting man's impacts on nature before he was six, and he witnessed the reduction of Vermont's woodlands from three-quarters to nearly one-quarter of the state by the time he departed for Italy. In Man and Nature, he assessed these changes in a drastically different light from that of his precursors. Most people who inquired into the subject prior to Marsh had trusted the earth's bountifulness and generally viewed human's impact on it as beneficial (Lowenthal, 2000). Marsh proposed an antithetical idea: "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discord" (Marsh, 1864, p. 36)
The central focus of Man and Nature is forestry. Marsh valued trees as nature's most important and stabilizing agents and foresaw the necessity of forest husbandry:
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 for 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 down the earth. (1864, p. 328-9)
He ascribed the acceleration in human's destructive influence toward forests to the overlooked side-effects of hastily advancing technology and professed that only human action could repair the damage produced by human action. The fundamental message of Man and Nature is that nature does not heal itself from man's destruction. Once raped of its natural, self-sustaining condition, it remains impoverished unless taken into human care (Lowenthal, 2000).
Marsh wrote quickly and completed the final draft of Man and Nature in July 1863. However, the revolutionary content of the book caused his English publisher, John Murray, to reject it. It was finally published in May 1864 by Charles Scribner, and although sales were initially poor, the book soon received a welcome reception from the public. It sold over a thousand copies in a few months and had to be reprinted. It was highly praised by scholars and the general public, and within a decade, Man and Nature was an international classic (Lowenthal, 2000). Wallace Stegner later proclaimed the book "the rudest kick in the face that American initiative, optimism and carelessness had yet received" (Lowenthal, p.303).
Marsh remained in Italy for the remainder of his life. In 1876, he adopted a two-year-old Swedish orphan, Carlo Rände. Marsh adored the boy, and Rände's zest for life helped divert his attention from the pangs of aging. In July 1882, he travelled to the slopes of Apennines at Vallombrosa to summer with his young grand-nieces and nephews. On the evening of July 23, he began to experience difficulty breathing, and by the time the doctor arrived, Marsh was dead.
Two days later, his body was carried down the mountain by forestry students who consequently honored the scholar whose work had aroused so many to the importance of their vocation. He was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, not far from the graves of Romantic poets John Keats and Percy Shelley. At the age of 81, Marsh maintained his lifelong affinity for nature, especially mountains, so Vallombrosa was an appropriate end to his long and distinguished life (Lowenthal, 2000). "Could he himself have selected the manner, time and place of his departure," Caroline wrote, "he would have desired nothing different" (Lowenthal, p.369).
Lowenthal, David. (2000). George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press
Marsh, George Perkins. (1864). Man and Wilderness; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. [Electronic Version]. New York: Charles Scribner.