Marsh, Man and Nature


Marsh, George Perkins. (1864) Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. New York: C. Scribner.


The ideological dichotomy – Nature/culture, material/mind, physical/mental, subordination/domination – has become a powerful contemporary locution to understand environmental history and the variation of the human-nature relationship. The pragmatic dichotomy – exploitation/conservation, damage/restoration, conquering/stewarding- is also one prominent pattern employed in analyzing environmental practices. From these two types of dichotomy, the ideological and the pragmatic, George Perkins Marsh’s book Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action is a vanguard masterpiece of environmental thinking because this book outlines the fundamental environmental issues more than one hundred years earlier than the environmental movement in the 1960s. Moreover, the argument and thoughts in this book match the latest apprehension of the extensive human-nature pertinence.

In the first chapter of the book, Marsh adopts the historical evidence of the decayed Old World to address the similar ongoing environmental degradation of the New World. In his opinion, the Old World including the Roman Empire, areas around the Mediterranean region, and other places with prosperous civilization created its progress with the price of “the physical decay.” To be specific, the once fertile and productive land “is now completely exhausted of its fertility … no longer capable of affording sustenance to civilized man” (p. 5). This typical nature/culture dichotomy deeply depicts the perpetual tension between human development and nature’s affluence. The physical decay of the surface of those areas demonstrates how culture has exploited nature. And this physical decay of the natural environment sequentially impairs the continuous prosperity of the human civilization. Marsh’s point here also implies that humans cannot survive without a vitalized nature. The deterioration of nature creates a culture declining and pushing forward extinction rather than cultural prosperity. This admonishment could be a prompt awakening for the New World that repeating the old strategy of exploiting the earth as an inexhaustible resource would render the same dissolution of the New Frontier. Taking Marsh’s view to reflect the human flourishing in the New World, not exclusively the United States but also the whole of North America, Australia, New Zealand, some areas of Latin America or far East, it would be a severe challenge to not suspend the contemporary and probably ephemeral success. In brief, his fundamental assumption is that no human world could survive with a degenerated nature.

Turning to the pragmatic strategy for a degraded natural world, Marsh emphasizes physical restoration. Although there were debates on whether humankind should practice restoration ecology to intervene in the ecological processes and some people insist that the best restoration is just to allow nature taking its course, renewing and restoring degraded ecosystems and habitats has become a dominant practice in the industrialized world. It is very impressive that Marsh covers the topics such as ecosystem equilibrium (p.43), ecological succession (pp. 27-32), ecological disturbance (pp. 31-37) and restoration ecology (pp. 52-56 ) which are common concepts nowadays, but apparently are quite far ahead of the time when they were developed by Henry Chandler Cowles, Frederic Clements, and other pioneers in this field. Marsh has his own accounting of what nature is. To be specific, the earth is not exclusive for human-use, but “only to the sustenance of wild animals and wild vegetation” (p. 38). This is apparently an ecocentric view. He attends to the difference of the destructiveness between humans and animals. In contrast to animals which survive by destroying other life and nature has a chance to endure all those destructiveness, to all appearances, (civilized) man’s assaulting of the earth is contagious suppression of nature, transforming the terrestrial surface, extirpating indigenous vegetation and animals, replacing them with exotic species, and exhausting all natural resources man could exploit. He also attends to the contradiction between man and “the wandering savage” (p. 41) who could survive by not overpowering nature. This implicating other patterns of human subsistence is insightful. Marsh is precisely right when he writes that “man is everywhere a disturbing agent” (p. 36) and man always brings disharmony to nature, turning nature into artificial non-nature. Therefore, he proposes practical restoration on this harmony-based concept, in his words, “physical improvement”(p. 44),  “a partial reverse”(p. 44 ), or “geographical regeneration” (p. 47). He eulogizes the existing achievements in forest restoration and governance of the aquatic environment, and claims that “these achievements are more glorious than the proudest triumphs of war” (p. 45). Marsh is also aware of the predicament of future improvement, and he expects some radical changes in the politics and morality to prepare for it. This is to say, Marsh has envisaged the complexity and poly-dimensionality of the pragmatic strategy of restoration.

The writing background of this book is also thought-provoking. Apparently, Marsh’s writing is unlike other early American environmental writings such as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1836) and Henry David Thoreau’s Walking (1861). Although it shares the same theme with the other two writers in reflecting human/nature and culture/nature relationships, Marsh distinguishes himself from them by blending his research in the sciences. For example, he specifically mentions the accomplishment of the new geography, stressing that Humboldt and other geographers are more philosophical than their predecessors through human geography (p. 8).  This increasing philosophical trait in geography deepens the perception of the influence of physical environment on social development which stitches the traditional aversion between the mind and material in the western ideology. The reunion of the mind and the material was derived from reflection on the separation of mind and matter but from a strong aspiration in western science to generate a unification of the world. At Marsh’s time, this effort was particularly reinforced through Charles Darwin’s evolution theory, Rudolf Clausius’ thermodynamics, and James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetism. Evolutionary theory breaks the boundaries among organism and animate bodies. Thermodynamics makes the union of the massive mechanical world possible through heat, power, and energy efficiency. Electromagnetism unifies the physical interactions among microscopic particles. Marsh does not necessarily attend to these theories, but the trend of discovering the universal and pervasive connection or kinship among different entities might have created a detectable atmosphere, attracting him to the new geographical school. Moreover, the perception of pervasive connections among different entities contributes to building up his ecological consciousness so that he could break through the boundary between the organisms and the inorganic environment. For example, he recognizes the moisture and warmth of the soil would affect the growth of vegetation and how insufficient our observation and knowledge to our climate are. Thus, he addressed that one of the most important branches of research is to investigate the “the proportions between precipitation, superficial drainage, absorption, and evaporation” (p. 24). This tints his book a style of strong empirical feature, rather than hermit-like witticism or cynical resentment.

To sum up, Marsh reflects the human-nature relationship with great profundity. The merits of his assumption of an indispensable equilibrium nature for human civilization, a pragmatic strategy of geographical regeneration, and his science-oriented attitude manifest that he fully deserves a solution for his foresight and sagacity.


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