Marshall, George Perkins (1801 – 1882) American Diplomat, Philologist, Conservationist, Politician, and Lawyer
George Perkins Marshall (1801 – 1882)
American diplomat, philologist, conservationist, politician, and lawyer
A long-time diplomat, Marsh served 21 years as ambassador to Italy and a shorter term in Turkey. He was a skilled lawyer, a Congressman from Vermont, a many-times-failed businessman, a learned scholar, and master of numerous languages. He was also author of Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action,a book that Gifford Pinchot called "epoch-making" and that Lewis Mumford, in The Brown Decades, described as "the fountainhead of the conservation movement." Rene Jules Dubos described Marsh himself as "the first American prophet of ecology" and not a few have ascribed to him the actual founding of the science.
Marsh was born and grew up in Woodstock, Vermont, or as he put it, he was "born in the woods." As a young person, poor eyesight turned him from avid book-worm to student of nature , and created his lifelong attitude: "the power most important to cultivate and, at the same time, hardest to acquire, is that of seeing what is before [you]." What he saw, especially in the over-grazed, deforested lands of Italy and Turkey, is what inspired the writing of Man and Nature.
The emphasis in Marsh's book is on human beings as agents of change, too often change that is detrimental to nature. "Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords," he wrote. He went on to emphasize that "not a sod has been turned, not a mattock struck into the ground, without leaving its enduring record of the human toils and aspirations that accompany the act." The consequence of this change, Marsh wrote, is that "the earth is fast becoming an unfit home" for its human inhabitants.
Nevertheless, Marsh was also an early humanist, believing that human dominion over nature could be used constructively: he saw the purpose of his book as not only tracing human ravages of nature, but as also suggesting "the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvements of waste and exhausted regions." His writings and activities spurred others into action.
His reaction to deforestation directly influenced the United States Congress to establish a federal forest commission and, eventually, to the reserves now part of the vast system of national forests in the United States. While ambassador to Italy, he wrote a report on irrigation for the U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture that led to the formation of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1902. His claim that it is "desirable that some large and easily accessible region of American soil should remain as far as possible in its primitive condition" influenced wilderness advocates such as John Muir and Aldo Leopold and was an early clarion call for the setting aside of pristine wildlands.
Though not a trained scientist nor a particularly skilled writer, Marsh sensed early the destructive capability and impact of human activities. He assessed those impacts with great clarity and did much to establish a base for intelligent restorative actions.
[Gerald L. Young Ph.D. ]
Curtis, J., W. Curtis, and F. Lieberman. The World of George Perkins Marsh: America's First Conservationist and Environmentalist. Woodstock, VT: The Countryman Press, 1982.
Strong, D. H. "The Forerunners: Thoreau, Olmsted, Marsh." In Dreamers and Defenders: American Conservationists. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.
Gade, D. W. "The Growing Recognition of George Perkins Marsh." The Geographical Review 73 (July 1983): 341–344.