Reviewed by Gregory J. Dehler (Front Range Community College)
Published on H-Environment (December, 2004)
Prophet of Conservation or Preservation?
There have been several large biographies of leading environmentalists in recent years. Now we can add David Lowenthal's George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation to the list. For those who think that Lowenthal has covered this topic before, you are correct. In 1958, Columbia University Press published Versatile Vermonter, Lowenthal's first biography of Marsh. A few years ago William Cronon, editor of the Weyerhauser environmental series by University of Washington Press, suggested to Lowenthal that he revisit the life of Marsh. After all, Versatile Vermonter was written before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring launched the modern environmental movement. In work built on a firm foundation of primary research, it takes 431 pages of text to tell the story of Marsh's life.
While we today think of Marsh primarily as the author of Man and Nature (1864) he was a classic nineteenth-century dabbler whose fertile and inquisitive mind studied a wide variety of subjects. Prior to professionalization in the last quarter of the century, it was possible to cross over several careers without specialized degrees, training, or affiliation, and Marsh did so freely as his interests and financial fortunes dictated. Born in Vermont in 1801, the precocious Marsh had read and mostly memorized an encyclopedia by age five. A devotee to facts and a voracious reader throughout his life, Marsh came close to blinding himself several times--he was eight years old on the first occurrence. Over the course of his life he was a Whig Congressman; a failed entrepreneur who was bankrupted at a time when there was much stigma attached to being so; a pre-Turner historian who argued that the genesis of American character could be found in the Goths; a translator of Swedish and Danish mythology; a distinguished etymologist and one of the first Americans to devote serious study to the English language; a multi-linguist; a lawyer who saw his work and his clients as degrading; and a diplomat who served eighteen years as minister to Italy, the longest serving ambassador in American history.
Through it all, he maintained a strong interest in natural history. It began when he was eight years old and temporarily unable to read. To occupy himself, Marsh took long walks in the woods where his endless curiosity raised questions that demanded answers. That curiosity about nature continued throughout Marsh's life. In 1855, he wrote a book on the camel with the hope that the animal could be used in the American West. Throughout his travels in the Middle East and Europe, he sent specimens back to the Smithsonian Institution. In his home state he served as fish commissioner. Despite these achievements in natural history, he is best remembered for writing Man and Nature in 1864. Although Marsh worked day and night to finish the book, driven by a fear that someone else would beat him to the presses, Lowenthal does not make it clear why Marsh was so preoccupied by these imagined competitors.
We are not sure how exactly Marsh came to write Man and Nature; Lowenthal leaves us with an enigmatic statement, "A chance amalgam of Green Mountains insights with Mediterranean and Alpine observations led to Man and Nature" (p. 399). It is not as satisfying an explanation as we would like. There were millions of people who witnessed environmental degradation first hand and who saw tremendous change over the course of their own lifetimes, and yet Marsh was the first American to write about conservation. Although Lowenthal touches upon the idea that Marsh benefited from his exposure to European scientific thought, it is one that he might have been able to stress a bit more. Many of Marsh's sources were written in languages other than English. Lowenthal does illustrate how Marsh viewed his book as being more of a historical writing than a scientific treatise. After all, Marsh's history of land usage goes back to ancient times.
Marsh wrote Man and Nature from a homocentric perspective: that man had a right and duty to serve as steward for nature; that man had a moral responsibility to re-shape nature according to his needs, but preserving a legacy for future generations; and that to be advanced as a civilization required control over nature. The United States had been blessed with abundant supply of natural resources, but, contrary to popular opinion, it was finite. Yet Marsh also believed that ascent to the next stage of civilization required a new paradigm of man's use of nature and natural resources. Commercial greed and new technologies combined with his historical studies of ancient civilizations convinced him that the future growth of the United States demanded better controls over nature. Instead of concentrating on wood and viewing forests as timber farms, policymakers should focus on forests for their ecological value as a watershed. Marsh saw the forest as a regulator that stabilized and moderated nature for all the surrounding ecosystems and did not adhere to contemporary conventional wisdom which posited a direct correlation between forest acreage and rainfall.
One cannot understand the man who wrote Man and Nature without knowing his private side as well. He was in many ways an insecure individual. I think one could connect the insecurity Marsh felt about himself to the apocalyptic vision he had of the United States if it did not adopt a new policy of land use. In his excellent biography, Lowenthal provides us with significant personal events and patterns of thought that reflect Marsh's insecurity. Marsh suffered several losses very close to his heart, including several siblings and a beloved niece, but the most crushing blow was the death of his first wife and their only child. It haunted him throughout his remaining days and added more than a touch of pessimism to his thinking. A Calvinist in many ways, his losses caused him to be very insecure in his faith, which created an internal tension. He was a vehement nativist and anti-Catholic. Although he avoided the Know-Nothings (American Party), he believed in most of what they stood for in regard to immigration and naturalization. Furthermore, Marsh was never as financially secure as he would have liked. In fact, he was very much preoccupied with money and impending poverty. Attempts to escape this pre-ordained penury failed as his business career and investments were all big losers. Although best suited to be a professional scholar, his fear of impoverishment compelled Marsh to turn down any academic position he was offered, including the history seat vacated by Jared Sparks at Harvard University. Yet, Marsh's standard of living never sunk to the level of the immigrant workers he so strongly denounced and feared. Finally, Marsh made many deep friends, but also very bitter enemies. He had a certain gift of alienating people, including his only son who died a young and miserable alcoholic.
Lowenthal sees more in Marsh than do current day environmental critics. He argues that modern environmentalists transpose too many of their own beliefs onto Marsh and his era; but to get a fair appraisal of the Vermonter, we must evaluate him in context of his own day. For example, looking at Marsh as the godfather of the conservation school of resource management later adopted by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and seeing him therefore as contrary to the preservationist school of Henry Thoreau and John Muir, obfuscates Marsh's role, as this dichotomy did not exist in his own day. Lowenthal argues, in fact, that Thoreau and Marsh were very close in their environmental thinking. For example, Marsh and Thoreau were both homocentric in their approach, deeply influenced by the German natural historian Alexander von Humboldt, and shared a deep, and often sentimental, love of nature.
George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation is an important book for environmental historians for two reasons. First, it is a deep and penetrating biography of a very important figure at the origins of the environmental movement. Second, it refreshingly suggests the need for a reexamination of the origins of the environmental movement without looking through the distorting prism of the conservation/preservation dichotomy.
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Gregory J. Dehler. Review of Lowenthal, David, George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation.
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