I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here

Man and Nature by George Perkins Marsh 

Man and Nature’s substantiality rests in its role as antecedent to the modern-day conservation movement. Many writers tout George Perkins Marsh as America’s first conservationist and forest advocate. A philologist and diplomat by profession, Marsh was also an avid learner, researcher, and lover of nature. In his introduction, David Lowenthal wrote that Marsh was driven to write Man and Nature for largely emotional reasons: alarm at man’s flippant use of human power in the mistreatment of the earth and a deep-seated passion for the natural world. Marsh’s main aim in Man and Nature was to effectively illuminate the changes that man had thus far brought upon the environment and to subsequently provide suggestions for conservation.

Marsh began his analysis of nineteenth century environmental conditions by referring back to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Use of the Roman Empire provided Marsh with a well-known story on which to expound the main points of the work. Evidence from the time period, Marsh claimed, illustrated that the Mediterranean at the time of the Roman Empire’s inception was an area of extreme fertility, an abundance that would facilitate the success of the empire and its steep increase in population. Taking on Malthusian undertones, Marsh concluded that the reason for the empire’s downfall and corresponding reduction in population rested in “man’s ignorant disregard of the laws of nature” (11) and the government’s crushing despotism.

Much of Marsh’s analysis is based on two personal assumptions regarding man and nature that would be considered a bit simplistic in today’s academic climate. Firstly, Marsh believed that nature, when left alone, remains unchanged and in perfect synchronization. Secondly, man, when in contact with nature, always acts as a disturbing agent, whereas animals and plants are always agents of balance and restoration. Environmental harmony, according to Marsh, relies on the delicate interaction between balance and compensation; man upsets the balance without properly compensating for the damage, thus creating environmental havoc.

Perhaps the most important eye-opener in Man and Nature is Marsh’s emphasis on deforestation, a topic that had been given little if any attention and had been considered a necessary and accepted consequence of advancement. Marsh argued that deforestation was the first example of man’s upset of the natural balance/compensation process. “The destruction of the woods,” he wrote, “…was man’s first physical conquest, his first violation of the harmonies of inanimate nature.” (119) Forests were the supreme balancers of environmental processes; Marsh smartly pointed out that forests regulated climate and protected water sources. Without tree cover, springs that once flowed out of forests diminished in number and volume, greatly affecting civilizations ability to support itself.

Throughout Man and Nature, one gets a sense of the enormous amount of personal feeling Marsh put into the project. The organization of the book suggests Marsh’s excitement for the topic, as the chapters and generous footnotes sometimes feel like an unending catalog of all the ideas and concepts of which Marsh has been eagerly waiting to write about. Marsh’s treatment of nature also implies a personal attachment to the subject that more current, scholarly writings would avoid. Firstly, Marsh regularly attaches the traditional feminine identity to nature, as in the following passage:

Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence…she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage, and to restore, as nearly as practicable, the former aspect of her dominion. (29)

This passage also illustrates the way in which Marsh instills nature with agency, despite having referred to it inanimate on page 119. Another example of this kind of language is on page 188, where Marsh wrote about the “vengeance of nature for the violation of her harmonies.” Marsh paints a picture of nature in which “she” is conscious of the crimes being committed against her and subsequently actively plots her revenge.

It is also clear that Marsh, like many writers of his generation, or any generation for that matter, had the future and subsequent generations in mind when he wrote Man and Nature. Marsh felt that conservation efforts that he envisioned within Man and Nature were to be the stepping stones towards the next level of the ever-climbing march of progress. However, Marsh understood that this level would never be reached, and changes in environmental policy would never be made if there was not an impetus for a “political and moral revolution” (45-46) within the government and population. Marsh hoped that Man and Nature would serve as such an impetus, and his hopes were largely realized as his writings helped launched the modern day conservation movement. Despite Man and Nature being a bit “old-fashioned,” Marsh’s work is still relevant today and still encourages critical analysis of the man-made processes that we take part in everyday and their consequent affect on the environment.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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