Man and Nature

Woodstock, Vermont is the birthplace of America’s first environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh, in 1801 (17). His most famous work, Man and Nature, was published in 1864 and was one of the first books to warn about the destructive impacts that humans have on the environment. Marsh was the first person to suggest that humans are “disturbing agents” of the environment, and he described the interdependence of society and the environment, a revolutionary idea at a time when the word “ecology” had not yet been invented (18). Marsh exclaims in his book, “Apart from the hostile influence of man, the organic and the inorganic world are … bound together by such mutual relations and adaptations secure, if not the absolute permanence and equilibrium of both … at least a very slow and gradual succession of changes in those conditions. But man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords” (29). Although Marsh spoke of man’s negative influence on the environment, he was in support of human management of the environment, which differed from typical transcendentalist thinking of the period that promoted the ideology that nature should be left alone. He often spoke of making practical and informed decisions regarding the care and proper use of nature, but still allowing nature to be used human benefit (17). In a letter to a botanist friend, Marsh described his childhood in Vermont and how he grew to respect and acknowledge the immense impact that humans have on the earth, “I spent my early life almost literally in the woods; a large portion of the territory of Vermont was, within my recollection, covered with natural forests; and having been personally engaged to a considerable extent in clearing lands, and manufacturing, and dealing in lumber, I have had occasion both to observe and to feel the effects resulting from an injudicious system of managing woodlands and the products of the forest” (18). His fascination and appreciation for the environment may have began at a young age, but Marsh did not write Man and Nature until he was in his sixties, and his observations about man’s destruction of nature were undoubtedly influenced by the mayhem and havoc throughout the environment during the Civil War. Marsh writes, “The ravages committed by man subvert the relations and destroy the balance which nature had established between her organized and her inorganic creations… When the forest is gone, the great reservoir of moisture stored up in its vegetable mould is evaporated, and returns only in deluges of rain to wash away the parched dust into which that mould has been converted. The well-wooded and humid hills are turned to ridges of dry rock, which encumbers the low grounds and chokes the watercourses with its debris” (29).

Marsh’s view of nature and his plea for conservation inspired many early environmentalists such as John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club, 1892) and Gifford Pinchot (first chief of the US Forest Service, 1905). Pinchot once declared that Man and Nature was “epoch-making” (27), which is perfectly simple description of this revolutionary book that continues to inspire conservationists to this day.