Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action

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Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action

Book excerpt

By: George Perkins Marsh

Date: 1864

Source: Marsh, George Perkins. Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. New York: Scribners, 1864.

About the Author: American scholar, linguist, environmentalist, and diplomat, George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) was the embodiment of a nineteenth-century renaissance man. He was born to a wealthy and politically prominent family in Woodstock, Vermont, and developed his sense of nature and love for it while exploring the Vermont forests. He was educated at Dartmouth College and was a teacher, lawyer, farmer, and businessman. He ran lumber and woolen mills, but he was unsuccessful in business. He was proficient in twenty languages, participated in designing the Washington Monument, and was a founder of the Smithsonian Institute. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and, for the last twenty years of his life, to Italy. He wrote books on philology and on the virtues of camels. At his suggestion, the U.S. Congress initiated a program to introduce camels to the Texas environment, but it did not succeed, principally because the project was neglected when the U.S. Civil War began. Marsh's most significant contribution, however, was writing Man and Nature. Its major thesis is that the environment is shaped by mankind, that mankind's influence on the environment is predominantly destructive, and that, historically, the destruction of the environment leads to the collapse of civilizations.


Marsh describes nature as a harmonizing force in which an ecological balance has been slowly formed. Integrating an evolutionary view of nature with the traditional theological view, Marsh believed that through eons, nature has been "proportioning and balancing … combinations of inorganic matter and organic life." By this process, Marsh wrote, nature was preparing a habitable environment for the human species. By misusing the natural world, imposing their will upon it without regard to the way nature itself is arranged and functions, and exploiting nature rather than using and enjoying it with awareness, people destroy the natural environment, its balance, and its systems. Humans will not, Marsh argued, find it a suitable environment in which to live for very long.

Marsh recognizes that the other inhabitants of Earth are also destructive. Animals kill other animals. But he argues they do not destroy the environment in doing so and that, in fact, when animals kill each other, there are "compensations." They are ensuring the balance of nature. Marsh also recognizes that there are parts of nature that are not easily adaptable to human use, and he recognizes that human art is necessary sometimes to "combat" nature and to transform and elevate it. However, Marsh sees mankind as "reckless" in its approach to nature and in the way it "disturbs" nature.


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, the raw material of her works; the thunderbolt and the tornado, the most convulsive throes of even the volcano and the earthquake, being only phenomena of decomposition and recomposition. But she has left it within the power of man irreparably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life, which through the night of æons she had been proportioning and balancing, to prepare the earth for his habitation, when, in the fullness of time, his Creator should call him forth to enter into its possession.

Apart from the hostile influence of man, the organic and the inorganic world are … bound together by such mutual relations and adaptations as secure, if not the absolute permanence and equilibrium of both, a long continuance of the established conditions of each at any given time and place, or at least, a very slow and gradual succession of changes in those conditions. But man is every-where a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown. Indigenous vegetable and animal species are extirpated, and supplanted by others of foreign origin, spontaneous production is forbidden or restricted, and the face of the earth is either laid bare or covered with a new and reluctant growth of vegetable forms, and with alien tribes of animal life. These intentional changes and substitutions constitute, indeed, great revolutions; but vast as is their magnitude and importance, they are, as we shall see, insignificant in comparison with the contingent and unsought results which have flowed from them.

The fact that, of all organic beings, man alone is to be regarded as essentially a destructive power, and that he wields energies to resist which, nature—that nature whom all material life and all inorganic substance obey—is wholly impotent, tends to prove that, though living in physical nature, he is not of her, that he is of more exalted parentage, and belongs to a higher order of existence than those born of her womb and submissive to her dictates.

There are, indeed, brute destroyers, beasts and birds and insects of prey—all animal life feeds upon, and, of course, destroys other life—but this destruction is balanced by compensations. It is, in fact, the very means by which the existence of one tribe of animals or of vegetables is secured against being smothered by the encroachments of another; and the reproductive powers of species, which serve as the food of others, are always proportioned to the demand they are destined to supply. Man pursues his victims with reckless destructiveness; and, while the sacrifice of life by the lower animals is limited by the cravings of appetite, he unsparingly persecutes, even to extirpation, thousands of organic forms which he cannot consume.

The earth was not, in its natural condition, completely adapted to the use of man, but only to the sustenance of wild animals and wild vegetation. These live, multiply their kind in just proportion, and attain their perfect measure of strength and beauty, without producing or requiring any change in the natural arrangements of surface, or in each other's spontaneous tendencies, except such mutual repression of excessive increase as may prevent the extirpation of one species by the encroachments of another. In short, without man, lower animal and spontaneous vegetable life would have been constant in type, distribution, and proportion, and the physical geography of the earth would have remained undisturbed for indefinite periods, and been subject to revolution only from possible, unknown cosmical causes, or from geological action.

But man, the domestic animals that serve him, the field and garden plants the products of which supply him with food and clothing, cannot subsist and rise to the full development of their higher properties, unless brute and unconscious nature be effectually combated, and, in a great degree, vanquished by human art. Hence, a certain measure of transformation of terrestrial surface, of suppression of natural, and stimulation of artificially modified productivity becomes necessary. This measure man has unfortunately exceeded. He has felled the forests whose network of fibrous roots bound the mould to the rocky skeleton of the earth; but had he allowed here and there a belt of woodland to reproduce itself by spontaneous propagation, most of the mischiefs which his reckless destruction of the natural protection of the soil has occasioned would have been averted. He has broken up the mountain reservoirs, the percolation of whose waters through unseen channels supplied the fountains that refreshed his cattle and fertilized his fields; but he has neglected to maintain the cisterns and the canals of irrigation which a wise antiquity had constructed to neutralize the consequences of its own imprudence. While he has torn the thin glebe which confined the light earth of extensive plains, and has destroyed the fringe of semi-aquatic plants which skirted the coast and checked the drifting of the sea sand, he has failed to prevent the spreading of the dunes by clothing them with artificially propagated vegetation. He has ruthlessly warred on all the tribes of animated nature whose spoil he could convert to his own uses, and he has not protected the birds which prey on the insects most destructive to his own harvests.

Purely untutored humanity, it is true, interferes comparatively little with the arrangements of nature, and the destructive agency of man becomes more and more energetic and unsparing as he advances in civilization, until the impoverishment, with which his exhaustion of the natural resources of the soil is threatening him, at last awakens him to the necessity of preserving what is left, if not of restoring what has been wantonly wasted. The wandering savage grows no cultivated vegetable, fells no forest, and extirpates no useful plant, no noxious weed. If his skill in the chase enables him to entrap numbers of the animals on which he feeds, he compensates this loss by destroying also the lion, the tiger, the wolf, the otter, the seal, and the eagle, thus indirectly protecting the feebler quadrupeds and fish and fowls, which would otherwise become the booty of beasts and birds of prey. But with stationary life, or rather with the pastoral state, man at once commences an almost indiscriminate warfare upon all the forms of animal and vegetable existence around him, and as he advances in civilization, he gradually eradicates or transforms every spontaneous product of the soil he occupies.


Marsh's voice is both a warning and a voice of moderation. It is also particularly American. It is the voice of a man who saw firsthand that a seemingly inexhaustible wealth of nature lay limitlessly before his countrymen for their use and saw, too, how they were despoiling and destroying that wealth as mankind had characteristically done throughout the ages to its own great disadvantage.

In Man and Nature, Marsh balanced a commitment to the authority of nature and to the intelligence and powers of mankind. He introduced the idea that people must be stewards of nature and must recognize that nature has a harmony of its own that it is disastrous to defy and, by defying, destroy. Marsh recognizes that human beings cannot live—and ought not to live—like brutes in nature and that we are not, like the rest of nature, entirely of nature. He accepts that, by our essence, human beings are a higher force able to transform and elevate other aspects of nature. Marsh himself sees some components of mankind's ability to transform as "lower" aspects, like producing crops through cultivation, domesticating animals, and engineering geography itself. But this power and authority, Marsh argued, gives people the responsibility of stewardship. It is essential that we know nature, understand its processes and work with nature as we transform it, rather than recklessly endangering ourselves by abusing it. With the advances that have been made in the magnitude and depth of destruction humans have invented—nuclear weaponry, for example, not only kills people but destroys the environment—Marsh's warnings and sense of responsible moderation have become increasingly important.



Curtis, Jane, Will Curtis, and Frank Liebermann. The World of George Perkins Marsh. Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, 1982.

Lowenthal, David. George Perkins Marsh, Prophet of Conservation. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Web sites

"George Perkins Marsh: Renaissance Vermonter." The George Perkins Marsh Institute. 〈〉 (accessed March 15, 2006).