George Perkins Marsh An Environmentalist fighting the mistreatment of land

"Apart from the hostile influence of man, the organic and the inorganic world are... bound together by such mutual relations and adaptions 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" ("Man and Nature").

Early Life

George Perkins Marsh was born on March 15, 1801. His family was very wealthy and politically involved, which later influenced him to run for congress and serve as a diplomat. He grew up in Woodstock, Vermont. During his childhood he spent a lot of time playing outside and exploring the forests and land in Vermont, which made him appreciate nature. After going to Dartmouth College, he proceeded to try various professions including working as a lawyer, farmer, editor, businessman, he designed tools and buildings (he helped design the Washington Monument) etc. However, he is most widely known for publishing Man and Nature and his role in the government. He held a seat in congress from 1843-1849 serving as a representative from the Whig Party. He was a diplomat, and he worked as a U.S. Ambassador in both Italy and Turkey. During his time there, he made deeper connections with and learned to appreciate nature.

Marsh helped design the Washington Monument.

"Man and Nature" Contrasting its Time

In 1864, Marsh released his most famous piece, Man and Nature. This was a direct response to the treatment of the land in the West. During the 1850s and 1860s, Americans were heading West and taking over new land. The Great Plains were being destroyed by the large number of travelers (the wheels of the wagons destroyed the ground), the killing of bison, cattle ranching and barbed wire, mining (this was mostly by the Pacific), farming (the usage of iron plows), and the overpopulation. The West (the Great Plains all the way to the Pacific) was being destroyed by man. In his book, he talked about the importance and beauty of nature. He states, "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; and in these comparatively rare cases of derangement, she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage, and to restore, as nearly practicable, the former aspect of her dominion". He constantly preached how nature is at peace or "equilibrium" with itself, and even though there are climatic disasters nature will always repair itself. However, this system in nature is destroyed by man. He states nature, "has left it within the power of man irreplaceably to derange the combinations of inorganic matter and of organic life". Marsh believes it is the responsibility of man to work with nature wherever he goes to maintain stability. However, this never happens. Wherever man goes he disturbs and then destroys nature beyond repair. The West was once free of people (except for Native Americans) and at peace, but the Americans moving out there were destroying the land and did not realize or acknowledge the consequences. Marsh also warned that there were too many people living in the West (it had reached the maximum capacity), but very few people listened to him.

Lasting Influence

Many historians believe that Marsh was the first environmentalist in America. However, there is debate over whether or not he is a conservationist as he argues it is important to preserve land, but some believe he argued we need to take control of land (this would go against the ideals of conservationists). He, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau helped inspire the transcendentalist movement by preaching that man is one with and should fully appreciate nature. Despite the increasing amount of writers changing America's view towards nature during this time period, Marsh was still fighting the increasing need to commoditize nature. This was seen by the Westward migration the overuse of the land (by farming, mining, and cattle ranching). Marsh warned everyone about the consequences of over using land, and he was honored by the making of National Parks (in which land is protected) including one in Vermont that is named after him. Marsh also greatly influenced the naturalists, or modern day ecologists, with his views about the negative impact humans had on nature. By the time he died in 1862 he had successfully spread his ideals about the role of man in nature, and he had inspired future generations to work towards restoring the environment.

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