Happy Birthday, George Perkins Marsh!

George Perkins Marsh. Photo by Mathew B. Brady, ca. 1850. Library of Congress.

“Who?”, you might well ask.

As someone who came to the party 218 years too late, I understand. Turns out, George Perkins Marsh was one of the brightest minds of his day.

Born March 15, 1801 in Woodstock, Vermont, Marsh grew up surrounded by idyllic woods, mountains, rivers and farms. He later attended Dartmouth, graduating first in his class and moved to Burlington, Vermont to become a lawyer. But his interests would soon propel him onto the world stage.

Identifying Climate Change in the 1840s

As early as 1847, Marsh, moved by be the deforestation and agricultural practices he witnessed in his native state, began advocating for change. In a speech that year to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, he stated,

“Man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost, and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly affect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air. The same causes modify the electrical condition of the atmosphere and the power of the surface to reflect, absorb and radiate the rays of the sun, and consequently influence the distribution of light and heat, and the force and direction of the winds. Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may affect vegetation. The mean temperature of London is a degree or two higher than that of the surrounding country, and Pallas believed, that the climate of even so thinly a peopled country as Russia was sensibly modified by similar causes.”

(From an address delivered Sept. 30, 1847, and printed at the Herald Office, 1848.)

Two years later, Marsh would be appointed United States minister resident in the Ottoman Empire by President Zachary Taylor. In his travels through the region, Marsh was stunned to witness harsh farming conditions, which he attributed in great part to unsustainable practices,

Later still, when he was appointed by President Lincoln to be America’s first minister to the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, Marsh spent his spare evenings writing a book. Debuting in 1864, Man and Nature stands today as an astounding piece of work. Drawing on personal observations and what scientific data was available, Marsh gave a wake up call to stop treating our resources as inexhaustible. 

The Big Idea

“Man depends upon soil, water, plants, and animals. But, in securing his livelihood, he may unwittingly destroy the fabric of nature that supports him. Therefore, men must learn to understand their environment and how they affect it. And they must take action, individual and collective, to restore and maintain a more viable setting.” (Attributed to 1882 edition of Man and Nature on display at Gray Towers National Historic Site, Milford, PA.)

In Defense of Watersheds

The aptly named Marsh pointed out the problems caused by building dikes that excluded the sea, the draining of marshes and ponds, the lowering of lakes, the geographical and climatic effects of aqueducts, reservoirs, and canals, as well as the geographical and climatic effects of surface water and underground drainage. One hundred and fifty years ago, very few were raising these important concerns.

Godfather of American Forestry

Marsh called for an end to indiscriminate clear-cutting of forests, instead advocating for the management of trees as sustainable resources. (“The art, or, as Continental foresters call it, the science of sylviculture has been so little pursued in England or America, that its nomenclature has not been introduced into the English vocabulary.” – p.147) Marsh then describes in detail, a rotational planting method whereby the forest is always in production — one-third of the mature trees are harvested, the spaces created are replanted, and so on.

Immediate and Enduring Impact

Man and Nature, is widely regarded as being one of the two most influential books of its time (Darwin’s On the Origin of Species being the other). One person the book had a profound influence on was a Pennsylvania industrialist named James Pinchot, who was so moved by Marsh’s call for forests to be managed that he convinced his son, Gifford, to go to France to study sylviculture. Gifford Pinchot would not only go on to establish America’s first forestry school, but become the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, a post which made forest management practices a national priority.

Reading Man and Nature today gives us an insight into how observant and prescient Marsh was. In a time when few people were aware that nature’s riches were exhaustible and that non-sustainable practices often had far-reaching effects, Marsh was an outlier. Thankfully, he cared enough to share his thoughts in time to make a difference.

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