Marsh, George Perkins

December 20, 2010, 9:37 am
caption George Perkins Marsh. (Source: National Museum of American History)

George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882), an American naturalist, organizer, lawyer, diplomat, and businessman whose ecological insights brought awareness to humankind's impacts on the Earth. In 1864, Marsh published Man and Nature, followed by a revised edition in 1874 called The Earth as Modified by Human Action: Man and Nature. These works are widely regarded as the first modern discussion of environmental problems.

In an era of massive industrialization, Marsh introduced a different fashion for measuring progress. While acknowledging the need for human use of the natural environment, Marsh used his writing to challenge Americans to reconsider their misuse and mismanagement of their national bounty. In 1864, Marsh wrote:

"Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline, and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions….In countries untrodden by man, the proportions and relative positions of land and water…are subject to change only from geological influences so slow in their operation that the geographical conditions may be regarded as constant and immutable. Man has too long forgotten that the earth was given to him for usufruct alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste…. But she has left it within the power of man irreparably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life….man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords….[O]f all organic beings, man alone is to be regarded as essentially a destructive power…."(Marsh, 29-37)

Marsh was remarkably versatile end energetic. He studied linguistics, knew 20 languages, wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language, and was known as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America. He invented tools and designed buildings, including the Washington Monument and the Vermont Capitol. As a congressman in Washington, D.C. (1843-49), Marsh helped found and guide the Smithsonian Institution. In 1849, President Zachary Taylor appointed him minister resident in Turkey; in 1860, President Abraham Lincoln made him his Ambassador to Italy, where he died in 1882.

Marsh's novel contribution to the understanding of Earth and its processes is that he was the first to document systematically how human activity could have a cumulative and destructive effect on ecosystems—and on the ability of those ecosystems to support human culture. Prior to Marsh, humans easily assumed that nature stood outside of culture, unchanged by human acts and works, infinitely capable of providing the resources that human economy extracted from it. Marsh was thus an important precursor of and influence on the nineteenth century Sustained Yield Forestry movement as embodied in the life and work of Gifford Pinchot, which in turn played a central role in the formation of the American conservation movement at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

During his Mediterrean postings Marsh had cause to wonder that areas of the earth that the Bible described as lush, areas in which civilization itself had been cradled by soil fertility, had become dry and stony desert. What had caused these changes? The European experiences gave depth and additional support to an understanding he had been evolving for some time. When he was a boy growing up in Woodstock, Vermont, the stream next to his family's farm rarely flooded its banks; by the time he was an adult practicing law in Woodstock, the hills surrounding the town had been deforested to provide wood for fuel and pasturage for sheep, and the stream flooded regularly. The changes were "too striking," he wrote, "to have escaped the attention of any observing person." By 1847 he was cautioning farmers (at the Agricultural Society meeting in Rutland, September 30, 1847) that too much of the aboriginal forest of Vermont had been cut, leaving rains and melting snows to "flow swiftly over smooth ground...[to] fill every ravine with a torrent, and convert every river into an ocean," transforming "smiling meadows into broad wastes of shingle and gravel and pebbles, deserts in summer, and seas in autumn and spring." The effect on other forms of life was equally clear: in 1857, as a member of the Vermont State Legislature, he prepared a "Report, on the Artificial Propagation of Fish," which argued against the creation of artificial lakes and ponds and diagnosed deforestation (along with pollution and large harvests of spawning fish) as a contributing cause of fisheries collapse. Trees moderated stream flow, sustaining the fisheries; they also harbored insects on which fish larvae feed. To solve the fisheries problem created by deforestation by creating artifical ponds and containments was likely to have undesireable effects: in Europe Marsh had seen extensive tracts of riparian habitat become "barren and pestilential wastes" on this practice.

Marsh's European experiences gave impetus to his desire to codify discoverable knowledge in this field, and he wrote Man and Nature while posted to Rome. The conceptualization and data-gathering was substantially complete by 1860, just as Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published the year before, was attracting attention. (Marsh thought that Darwin did not give sufficient play to human influence on nature as a shaping force of natural processes.) As Marsh studied the dynamic processes of forests, he saw that they perform many functions taken for granted—functions we would now call ecosystem services—including the moderation of local and even regional climates. Thus, his solemn warnings, spoken from 1864, which have undiminished relevance to us today: "Even now...we are breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage." Such wanton and heedless use of the planet's forests, he said, meant that earth was "fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant...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 [human] species." A proto-ecologist, Marsh also said: "The [exact relations]...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."


One of the major themes of academic geography is the impact of humans on the natural environment and one person stands out as the seminal figure in this field of study.  George Perkins Marsh (1801-1882) is best known for Man and Nature, a highly influential book on the effects of people on the natural world.  Born in Woodstock, Vermont, he was the fifth of eight children in a rather well-to-do family.  His father was a lawyer, farmer and landowner.  George started reading the family encyclopedia at age five and was fascinated by all subjects.  At about the same time, his brother taught him Latin and Greek.  Young George did so much reading in bad light that he nearly went blind at age seven or eight and had to be read to for four years.  In addition to his obsession with books, his father taught him much about the natural world as they discussed the local geography of Vermont. 

While young George learned voraciously on his own and with the help of his family, his formal schooling as a child was sporadic.  At fifteen, though, he entered Dartmouth College.  His classes there bored him, but in his spare time he taught himself French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.  After graduation, he taught briefly at a military school, but did not like teaching.  His eyes went bad again and he could not read for several years.  During this time, though, he studied law, passed the bar and moved to Burlington, Vermont to be a lawyer.  Practicing law, however, did not appeal to him either.

In Burlington, Marsh tried several business ventures, but none did well.  He became friends with many of the faculty of the University of Vermont, though, allowing him to discuss scholarly matters, which he enjoyed immensely.  He married in 1828 and had two sons, but in 1833 his wife and eldest son died within days of each other, she of a heart condition and he of scarlet fever.  Grief stricken, Marsh sent his infant son to be raised by his mother.  In 1839, he married Caroline Crane, a schoolteacher, and his then seven year old son came to live with them. 

In the 1830s Marsh became the leading scholar in the United States on Scandinavian languages and literature.  This was a hobby and for much of his adult life he worked from five to eight each morning on his scholarly studies and then went to work at his job. 

Marsh was elected to the US Congress in 1840 as a member of the Whig Party.  His early work in Washington DC was dominated by antislavery issues and in helping to guide the new Smithsonian Institution.  In 1849, he was named Minister to Turkey and served in this diplomatic position for four years.  Living in Turkey gave George and Caroline the opportunity to travel extensively in Egypt and the Holy Land, largely by camel, and also throughout Southeastern Europe. 

In 1853, they returned to Vermont but Marsh found himself deeply in debt, mainly due to failed investments.  He spent the rest of the 1850s trying new business ventures, public lecturing and he wrote a book on camels, but none brought in much money.  Most of his debts were finally paid after prolonged battles in Congress to get reimbursed for his diplomatic expenses in Turkey.  By 1861, he was finally out of debt, but basically penniless at age fifty nine. 

Also during the 1850s, Marsh convinced the US Army to bring camels to the American Southwest to see if they would work as pack animals.  The experiment ended inconclusively with the onset of the Civil War. 

In the late 1850s, Marsh served as Vermont’s Fish Commissioner.  He wrote a report explaining that declining fish populations in the state were due to several factors, including dam building, industrial pollution and deforestation, which altered stream flows.  His modest proposals for conservation went unheeded at the time, but his ideas were influential in the 1870s at the national level when the US took action to ensure that future generations have healthy fish populations.  With this report on fisheries, Marsh began thinking seriously about the interactions between people and the natural world. 

Yet another job Marsh had in the late 1850s was teaching a course on the English language at Columbia College in New York City.  Studying English as a language was almost unheard of in nineteenth century colleges and the book he wrote based on his lectures became a groundbreaking piece of scholarship in linguistics.  Marsh maintained a lifelong love of language and seriously studied word origins.  During his lifetime, he was best known for his scholarly work as a linguist.

The Whig Party disintegrated during the 1850s and was replaced by the new Republican Party.  After the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Marsh was named Minister to the recently united Italy.  He and Caroline left for Europe just as the Civil War began and he spent the next twenty years reporting to the State Department on affairs in Italy and in Europe in general.

While working as a diplomat, Marsh continued his scholarly pursuits, especially his environmental interests and these led to Man and Nature.  People knew that humans modify the natural world: cutting forests, draining swamps, and depleting wildlife, for example.  But these actions were seen as progress.  Marsh set out to show the negative side of such human impacts.  As Fish Commissioner, he had begun to write about the effects of tree cutting in Vermont, especially the hydrological consequences.  Where land had been cleared for timber harvesting and sheep grazing, floods increased in magnitude and streams and springs were more likely to dry up in the dry season.  In addition, soil erosion increased dramatically.  His experiences in Europe convinced him that forest management, especially in mountainous regions, could reverse these problems.  These ideas became topics in Man and Nature.

Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (the full title) first appeared in 1864.  The book begins with an overview of the Roman Empire and Marsh shows that half of the former Empire around the Mediterranean, which was forested and fertile, had become unproductive desert, largely due to erosion following the abandonment of farmland.  The second chapter is a broad overview of plants and animals, including such subjects as domestication, the effects of introduced species, and seed dispersal.  His ecological insights were well ahead of his time.  For example, he explained how the widespread killing of insect-eating birds harmed agriculture by increasing the number of crop-eating pests. 

Forests are discussed in the next chapter.  There had been a centuries-long debate on the connections between forests and climate, with many convinced that the presence of trees increases rainfall and lack of trees creates aridity.  Marsh found no evidence that forests have a direct effect on rainfall but they do affect the disposition of water after it reaches the surface.  Forested areas tended to have more uniform stream flow and soil moisture than non-forested regions, where water amounts are more erratic.  Excessive logging scarred many areas in the United States by the early nineteenth century.  For the sake of future generations, he argued, US forests should be managed carefully. 

Rivers and harbors are the subject of Chapter 4, and he emphasized the effects of engineering works on them.  Chapter 5 is about sand and sand dunes, with an overview of the geography of dunes, problems associated with drifting sand and the role of vegetation in stopping erosion on dunes.

The final chapter is concerned with very large engineering works, either being done at the time or proposed, such as the canals at Suez and Panama.  Marsh speculates on such activities as using groundwater to irrigate Arabian deserts, reducing earthquake intensity by drilling deep wells, and diverting lava flows.  He explains that people should expect unintended consequences from these actions, possibly dramatic ones. 

Seemingly small actions, he felt, could have drastic effects.  Increased erosion, for example, might in the long run shift so much mass from the continents to the ocean basins so as to alter Earth’s center of gravity and hence, its planetary motion.  His main point here is that we cannot foresee all of the consequences of our actions, though added scientific understanding would help in this regard.  While we now know of no reason to believe that planetary motion has been affected by human activity, global warming due to burning of coal and other fossil fuels would have been just as fanciful an idea in Marsh’s time. 

The prevailing view of the time was that people were commanded by God to subdue the world and that by taming nature, Earth became a better home.  Marsh showed that not all changes brought about by people were good and some of the bad changes are irreversible.  He showed that in lands newly settled, Europeans had destroyed forests and soils that would not recover without the help of people.  It is up to people to care for the land, conserving what was being used and restoring what had already been ruined.  This is our duty to our descendents.  Marsh argued not for preservation of untouched wilderness, but for intelligent use of nature for the long term betterment of humanity. 

Man and Nature was not an instant bestseller, but over time it became known as an important book and sold well.  Americans began to understand that their forests and other resources were not limitless and that conservation was needed.  Tree planting became popular and a national forestry commission was established.  The U. S. Forest Service came into being, following the philosophy outlined by Marsh in Man and Nature.  Europeans, who were ahead of Americans in forest management, still found inspiration in the ideas Marsh presented.  Resource conservation began in earnest around the world, for example in India, South Africa, New Zealand and Japan. 

In 1874 Marsh revised Man and Nature and re-named it The Earth as Modified by Human Action.  That same year he wrote a report critical of irrigation as a panacea for agriculture in the American West.  Using his knowledge of irrigation around the Mediterranean, he cautioned that large irrigation schemes tended to change soils, cost vast sums in their creation and maintenance, and drive small farmers out of business.  His report was influential in slowing irrigation development until more was known about water supplies and the potential consequences of large scale irrigated agriculture.

George Perkins Marsh died in 1882, while visiting the Italian School of Forestry.  His scholarly skills came from his wide-ranging interests and his ability to combine them in fresh insights.  By sharing these insights, he did more than anyone else to inspire the movement to conserve natural resources that continues today.  He is buried in Rome.



Further Reading



Cleveland, C., & Lee, J. (2010). Marsh, George Perkins. Retrieved from


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