Monday, September 26, 2011

George Perkins Marsh – Master of Footnotes

George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882), a polymath and polyglot, was born in Woodstock, Vermont and was a lawyer, congressman, and a US envoy to the Ottoman Empire and later to Italy, where he died.  One of the better known scholars of his times, Marsh’s scholarly interests are themselves interesting to examine.  He edited the first Icelandic grammar in English, and was familiar with the Old Norse language and literature.  Apparently he had knowledge of scholarly resources in as many as 20 languages!  Like many prodigious writers he has been claimed by many academic specialties as one of their own: geography, social science, ecology, conservation, folklorist etc.

In environmental circles he is best known for his 1864 book Man and Nature in which Marsh provided a forceful account of the impact of people on nature, especially their deleterious effects on forested lands. The book remains an influential reminder that the human use of nature imposes significant negative impacts on planetary resources and it anticipated by almost a century the broad contours of the environmental movements’ disquiet with human impacts on the environment.  This book along with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was the most influential environmental book of its times.

Although Man and Nature is not an especially misanthropic work, allowing as it does the possibility that human’s cultivating influences can be benign and conceding Man to be Earth’s noblest inhabitant, nevertheless, the work pronounced a fairly strict dualism between man and nature: nature being more proportionate in its mild destructiveness than mankind tends to be.  If a reader leaned towards an assumption that Marsh’s dualism – Man here, Nature there – is an unfortunate consequence of his rhetorical excess, Marsh himself dispelled that notion emphatically.   The difference between the actions of Man upon Nature is not a matter of degree; it is a matter of kind.  It differs, he claimed, in its “essential character”, since man is “guided by a self-conscious and intelligent will aiming as often as not at secondary and remote as at immediate objects.”  People will fell trees with a view, not to immediate gain, but to dividends paid out to future generations.   Therein, of course, lies our ethical promise as a species; therein lies the prospect of a conservation oriented mentality.

In reading Marsh these days I am less infatuated with his bleak admonishments of our unwise use of earthly resource than I was when first I read him.  His scolding served its purpose well; and if, these days, we incline less towards an environmental sensibility so unequivocally dualistic, we can still read Marsh as the first marshal of the environmental parade.  When one reads a book first, especially one with messages as critical as one finds in Man and Nature, it is easy to overlook the scholarly apparatuses the author provides.  But now I read Marsh’s footnotes with the expectation that several of these usually more nuanced comments will be prescience.  Let me note just one: in a comment on the instability of American life he remarked that it is “rare these days that a middle-aged American dies in the house where he was born, or an old man even in that which he has built.”  If this was true in 1864 the trend has certainly continued.  It is a pattern replete with environmental significance one that we should make it our business to investigate.

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