By Stephen Seitz
WOODSTOCK – This year marks an important milestone for the environmental movement – the 150th anniversary of Woodstock native George Perkins Marsh’s landmark book, “Man and Nature.”
The Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park has been marking the occasion throughout the year, capping the historic anniversary last weekend with an event called “Landscapes of Hope,” which featured appearances by Marsh’s biographer David Lowenthal, Professor Emeritus at the University College of London. The event also featured panel discussions of Marsh’s life and on conservation in general, as well as guided hikes through the Park.
“Man and Nature,” according to Christina Marts, the park’s assistant superintendent, “essentially kicked off the environmental movement in the United States. Before Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, there was George Perkins Marsh.”
According to the Library of Congress, Marsh’s book “was the first systematic exploration of the extent and significance of the environmental changes wrought by man, and the first systematic exposition of the guiding principles and practices of conservationism… Its influence on the subsequent development of American conservation thought and policy has been incalculable.”
Marsh argued that deforesting the land would allow the land to become desert. He said he had seen it happening in the Middle East, where he had spent some time as President Zachary Taylor’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.
Lowenthal discussed Marsh and his book at a panel discussion held Nov. 21 at Billings Farm.
“Although Vermont began it all,” he said, “it was the contrast between other countries and Vermont which played the most important role.”
Marsh, he said, expressed his concerns to Vermont farmers as early as 1847.
“The farmers cared deeply about the changes wrought by the railroads, and they were also concerned because so many people were leaving Vermont,” Lowenthal said.
“He told them that the improvements they were making were improvements, but they were also having a deleterious effect on the land. Marsh lived in a time when everyone thought that environmental changes were good. Marsh also felt the changes were good, but he wanted to redress the damage.”
Marsh was born in Woodstock in 1801, graduated with honors from Dartmouth in 1820, and moved to Burlington to practice law. He spoke several languages and represented Vermont in Congress from 1843 to 1849. Marsh returned to Vermont in 1854, but in 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed him as ambassador to
Italy, a post Marsh held until he died in 1882. Marsh was buried in Rome.
His landmark work, “Man and Nature,” was published in 1864.
In his life and thought, Lowenthal said that Marsh was well ahead of his time in many respects.
“He was one of the most profound feminists of his time,” Lowenthal said. “He was not the most influential, but the most intelligent in recognizing what had gone wrong. He saw no reason why the career paths of men and women should be different, and he thought boys and girls should be educated together. He was appalled to see women used as ‘pack animals’ in Europe.”
As Marsh grew older, Lowenthal said, he also became more pessimistic.
“At first, he thought education could do it,” Lowenthal said. “He thought education would achieve social and environmental reforms. He saw the power of corporations as the main barrier to reform. He felt corporate power should be reined in by the state. He was dismayed by the extent of corporate power and the rise of munitions.
He thought scientists were accomplishing things, but that the quality of education had declined.”
Marts said she sees the results of Marsh’s work all around the park.
“We’re standing on an amazing legacy of land stewardship,” she said. “It provides hope and inspiration that we can move forward as a community in the future.”
Lowenthal recently completed his second biography of Marsh, titled “George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation.”
For more information visit www.nps.gov.