George Perkins Marsh, Class of 1820, Publishes "Man and Nature"

“Man is everywhere a disturbing agent.”

The following is an excerpt from "The 25 Most Influential Alumni", featured in the January/February 2019 issue of Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. Profile written by Jim Collins ’84.

George Perkins Marsh’s 1864 book, Man and Nature, a pioneering work of ecology and advocacy, earned him the title “The Prophet of Conservation.” Marsh drew on a lifetime of observing deforestation in Vermont. He documented alpine erosion in the Italian alps, the devastating effects of overgrazing and logging in the once-great forests of the Roman Empire, the negative effects on water quality and changed weather patterns, and the cascading side effects of industry. 

“Man is everywhere a disturbing agent,” he wrote. “Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords.” Written two years before the term “ecology” was coined, his book came at a time when people accepted the notion of an abundant nature whose bounty was boundless. Marsh argued that humans were fouling their own nest at a rate that would be catastrophic unless reversed. He sparked the Arbor Day movement, inspired the creation of New York’s Adirondack Park, laid the foundation for the U.S. national forest system, and—alongside writings by contemporaries John Muir and Henry David Thoreau—gave birth to the nation’s environmental consciousness. A century later, U.S. Interior Secretary Stewart Udall wrote that Man and Nature was “the beginning of land wisdom in this country.”

A Renaissance man, Marsh had other mind-boggling accomplishments. In the mid-19th century he was the nation’s foremost Scandinavian scholar and expert on railroads, Renaissance art, and camels. A gifted linguist proficient in 20 languages (seven of which he picked up at Dartmouth), Marsh wrote the monumental book, The Origin and History of the English Language (and a text on Icelandic grammar). 

Born in Woodstock, Vermont, in 1801, Marsh was a lawyer, sheep farmer, newspaper editor, and owner of a woolen mill and marble quarry. While representing Vermont in Congress in the 1840s, his eloquent speech in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out a persuasive framework for the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, unlocking funds frozen more than a decade by squabbling politicians. 

Read more from Dartmouth Alumni Magazine

Share