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MAN AND NATURE; or PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY, AS MODIFIED BY HUMAN ACTION

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Title: MAN AND NATURE; or PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY, AS MODIFIED BY HUMAN ACTION

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  • Marsh, George Perkins, 1801-1882

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MAN AND NATURE; or PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY, AS MODIFIED BY HUMAN ACTION

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MAN AND NATURE; or PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY, AS MODIFIED BY HUMAN ACTION. By George P. Marsh. 8 vo. New York: Charles Scribner.

The review of Man and Nature from the New York Times, July 25, 1864, page 2.

The writer of the present volume, though but a recent gleanor in the field of authorship, has won an acknowledged position that insures respectful attention to any subject that he may think worthy of being brought before the public. America, indeed, c an count few men like Mr. MARSH-- at once a scholar and a statesman--who combines active and contemplative pursuits in a manner that scarcely meets with a parallel in our biographical annals. He has always been a profound and observant student of men, bo oks, and things, confined to no nationalities, but ranging from his great philological acquirements, over the most obscure and least known literatures of Europe, while equally familiar with those of the classic nations, ancient and modern. Great natural powers of mind, cultivated and heightened by this breadth and depth of erudition have entitled him to speak on almost every topic of enlightened inquiry with the authority of an original investigator and discoverer. Unfortunately for his contemporaries-- and as is too often the case with men of this encyclopedia stamp--the passion for acquiring knowledge is ever-mastering, and scarcely checked for a moment by the minor duty of communicating it. The chance delivery of his lectures on "Language," and on "E arly English Literature," and their publication, first revealed to the world what had been hitherto only known to a circle of private friends. They have been received, both at home and abroad, with acclamation, and now take permanent rank among the most learned and philosophical contributions to the study of the older literature of England that the present age has produced. Be it always remembered, too, that this was not with the author a special or exclusive pursuit, such as a College Professor lecture s on and ponders over for long series of years. They were written almost "off hand," from a general fullness of thought and knowledge, and form a mere temporary episode in the life of a scholar, whose intellectual drag-net brings in turn all subjects of human or inanimate interest within his grasp. Somewhat similar in its relation to the writer is the volume before us. The first suggestion of the train of thought exemplified in "Man and Nature," was due to observations made in his New England home. Fo reign travel deepened these impressions, and intimacy with a whole class of books devoted to similar inquiries, (which probably no American or Englishmen shares with him,) has led to the production of a work that opens a branch of research at once novel, interesting and important to the welfare of civilized man.

The influence exerted by the natural condition and configuration of the earth's surface on the races of men and animals inhabiting it, constitutes a material portion of the Sciences of Physical Geography and Ethnology; and though comparatively of recen t introduction, many of the first minds of the day are engaged in its development, as the names of AGASSIZ, GUYOT, MILNE, EDWARDS, DARWIN, PRICHARD and others, testify. Indeed there is little doubt that the ardor attaching to a new line of scientific inq uiry, has caused its results to be pushed beyond their legitimate limits, and the prevailing tendency now is, to overrate these influences, and thus lessen the sense of man's responsibility and position in the scale of nature, by representing him as entir ely subject to the pressure of outward accidents. formed an moulded by them with an agency at once beyond his remedy or control. Partly in correction of this too absorbing view, and to show the importance of human life and action as a transforming power, and partly for the sake of the vast economic interests at stake, Mr. MARSH appeals to no passion dominant in the present hurry and whirl of events; there is nothing in it that any political party can make capital of, and scarcely anything that can be tur ned to private advantage. One of the "village Hampdens" of England used to apologize for his boldness in attacking local abuses, by saying he was "unwilling to leave the world worse than he found it." It is the class who realize this feeling, and to whom the sentiment is something more than words, who will take especial pleasure in Man and Nature; and besides its immediate object, almost every page of the book sparkles with the acute remarks of the author on a vast variety of subjects; brief texts that only want elaborating into discourses full of instruction and entertainment.

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If the question were generally put, What has been the result of man's action on the earth, considered as the home of his race and the theatre of his increase? there is little doubt what the first answer of most of us would be. All the commonplaces of gratulation have been lavished on the beneficent consequences of human enterprise and ingenuity, as applied to the subjagation and utilization of the innimate world. Visions of "yellow fields of ripening grain" superceding the gloomy forest or inhospitalb e waste. The blessed evidences of human occupancy--the family homestead dotting every valley and clinging to every hillside-- roads, railways, canals piercing every district and bringing the ends of the earth together-- these and a thousand similar facts crowd on the mental eye, and leave no room for the interposition of a doubt that man has worked nobly to a good end, and is everywhere still pressing forward to enjoy his birthright as "heir of all creation." And yet a less hasty survey, which should incl ude within its range a wider portion of the earth's surface, as made known to us by travelers and responsible observers, might check this burst of exultation, or at least limit its application to the happy regions like those of our own country, where the evil consequence of waste and prodigality in the use of the resources of our bounteous mother earth are scarcely yet discerned, and where grand cosmical changes have not had time for operation. Far different, indeed, is the condition of what were formerly the most favored regions of the ancient world. As a general illustration, exemplifying the scope and aim of his argument, Mr. MARSH starts with a rapid view of the physical state and advantages of the countries bordering on the basin of the Mediterranean, and constituting the Roman Empire, from whence, in the words of JOHNSON, have come "all our religion, almost all our law, almost all our arts, almost all that set us above savages." Our knowledge of these regions, derived from the undeniable witness of ancient remains themselves, and the testimony of the classic authors, shows them to have flourished for centuries in a state of material prosperity, perhaps unequaled on the earth's surface in previous or succeeding times. Nowhere else were the manifold b lessings of the temperature of the air, the distribution of the rains, the relative disposition of land and water, the plenty of the sea, and the composition of the soil, so thorughly enjoyed and improved by intelligent labor; nowhere else was that labor so certain of an abundant reward.

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The amazing fertility of single provinces, such as Northern Africa or Spain, was sufficient to insure the sustenance of the whole empire, and the good gifts of nature, as the vine and the olive, were spread abroad, naturalized in new homes, and ennoble d into more generous growths by the toil of man, through centuries of persevering industry. As a natural consequence of this plenty, the arts that minister to the adornment of social life kept pace in their development with the facility for sensuous enjo yment derived from it, and the regions now desolate, were studded with cities, and supported a teeming population copiously supplied with all that constitutes temporal prosperity. The most cherished dream of the poet and the painter is to recall and re- create these ancient scenes and sites, glorious in their artistic enrichments, venerable from their association with the memories of intellectual achievements. This highly artificial state, produced by the judicious improvement of natural advantages, was the work of man, and its continuance depended on his persistence in the course of action that had produced it. How fatal has been the effect of a few centuries of neglect or willful havoc, will appear from a comparison of the existing with the ancient st ate of these countries. In the striking and picturesque words of Mr. MARSH, we find that now

"More than one half of their whole extent, including the provinces most celebrated for the profusion and variety of their products, and for the wealth and social advancement of their inhabitants, is either deserted by civilized man and surrendered t o, hopeless or at least greatly reduced in both productiveness and population. Vast forests have disappeared from mountain spurs and ridges. The vegetable earth accumulates beneath the trees by the decay of leaves and fallen trunks: the soil of the Alp ine pastures which skirted and indented the woods, and the mould of the upland fields are washed away. Meadows once fertilized by irrigation are waste and unproductive, because the cisterns and reservoirs that supplied the ancient canals are broken, or t he springs that fed them are dried up. Rivers famous in history and song have shrunk to humble brooklets. The willows that ornamented and protected the banks of the lesser water-courses are gone, and the rivulets have ceased to exist as perennial curren ts, because the little water that finds its way into their old channels is evaporated by the drought of Summer, or absorbed by the parched earth, before it reaches the lowlands. The beds of the brooks have widened into broad expanses of pebbles and grav el over which, though is the hot season passed dryshod, in Winter, sealike torrents thunder; the entrances of navigable streams are obstructed by sand-bars; and harbors, once marts of extensive commerce, are shoaled by the deposits of rivers at whose mout hs they lie. The elevation of the beds of estuaries, and the consequently diminished velocity of the streams which flow into them, have converted thousands of leagues of shallow sea, and fertile lowland, into unproductive and miasmatic morrases."

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Such are the processes by which were produced the hopeless state of physical degradation that now involve what was the fairest and fruitfulest portion of the earth's surface, which about the commencement of the Christian era was endowed with the greate st superiority of soil, climate and position, and flourished in the possession of these advantages without a thought on the precariousness of the tenure by which they were held. The operation of general laws still continues, and nothing is more certain t han that the causes-- the acts and neglects-- that have blasted with sterility and physical decrepitude the noblest half of the empire of the Caesars, and the wasted and solitary soils of Syria, Asia Minor, Persia and the remoter East, that once fed their millions with milk and honey, are still effective to produce the like results in our own day. Surely, then, no nobler task remains for the statesman, the political economist, or the scientific naturalist, than the investigation of these general laws, the conditions that favor or reward their action, and the practical lessons to be deduced from past experiences for the guidance of the future. Such is the object of Mr. MARSH's book. The inquiry, though purely a scientific one, is yet, for want of suffici ent data scarcely reducible to a strictly [...] and in its examiniation the varied learning and experience of Mr. MARSH, gathered in foreign climes, are all made use of, often with striking effect, to illustrate the many-sided relations of his principal t heme.

As far as our knowledge extends of the primitive condition of the earth since man's occupancy, there is good reason to believe that the habitable portion of it was originally covered with wood. This may be inferred from the extensive remains of extinct vegetation, historical evidence, the state of the American continent when it was discovered and settled by Europeans, and the well known tendency, even of long-cleared land, to revert to its original state when abandoned by man and the domestic animals. While the infant numbers of mankinds were confined to the open grounds along the margin of the rivers, the lakes and the sea, the unbroken forest reared its "verdurous wall" around them, and spread its "boundless contiguity of shade" for unnumbered centur ies. In this state of undisturbed repose a harmony is established between the natural accident of growth and decay, and a condition of equilibrium is reached, wherein the balance of forces insures the duration of the fauna and flora best calculated to flo urish in each locality. But the forest does not furnish food for man. In a region absolutely covered with trees, human life could not long be sustained, for want of animal and vegetable food. The destruction of the woods is therefore the first physical c onquest of multiplying man, "his first violation of the harmonies of inanimate nature." An intrusive force is then brought into action, whose influence cannot be neutral, but must be exercised either beneficially or injuriously in relation to the earth and its forms of animal and vegetable life as it is guided by intelligence as opposed to a blind and reckless exhaustion of the natural sources of sustenance. The gradual extension of agricultural and pastoral industry continually widens the sphere of man 's domain. Forests are felled, the drainage of the soil is effected, its very external organization is changed, climate is modified by these changes, Summer heats and Winter snows are no longer uniform in their average, but submit to the new laws imposed by the altered condition of the earth; the wild animals are gradually extirpated, while other forms of animal life are encouraged and augmented, while the same process goes on in the vegetable kingdom. Thus man asserts his superiority over nature, and inc urs the responsibility of attending the right use of its resources. The physical revolutions so wrought by him have not been all destructive to human interests. Soils have been ameliorated; rugged and intractable surfaces have been made to yield their inc rease under improved culture; the severity of northern climates is tempered, and the productions of more favored zones are naturalized in hyperborean regions. Thus while the fountains of wine and oil that refreshed old Greece and Syria and Northern Africa , have almost ceased to flow, and the soils of theise fair lands are turned to thirsty and inhospitable deserts, a partial compensation has been wrought in other regions; but the causes that have produced decay are slow and gradual in their instrumentalit y. Irreparable mischief is not discerned by passing generations until it is too late to remedy it, and a determination of their cuases is, therefore, a matter of the highest importance. The three principal manifestations of nature over which man's power for good or evil extends, as a -------------------------------- Page -------------------------------- counteracting force, are the woods, the water, and the sands. The properties of each of these are examined in detail by Mr. MARSH, with a fullness of learning entirely new to the subject, and the manner pointed out whereby the beneficial treatment of eac h may be insured, and their power for mischief neutralized. Want of space forbids the attempt to convey an idea of the exhaustive method of the book, and the valuable information that it contains for every "lord of the soil" who is able to call a portion of the land his own. Thus, for instance, "The Forest" is considered as inorganic matter in its influence on temperature, under the heads of trees, their absorbing and radiating surface as conductors of heat in Summer and Winter, the amount of their dead products as a shelter for grounds to the leeward, and as a protection against malaria, and as living organisms in their effect on the fall of rain, the humidity of the air, the exhalation of moisture, the flow of springs, &c. The unwise destruction of forests in European countries, and the disastrous consequences following it from the ravages of mountain torrents in the French and Swiss Alps, by which whole departments are threatened with ruin, succeeds. An account of the legislative measures taken to remedy these evils, and the progress of sylviculture is given, and the literature of the forest, which has engaged the attention of some of the most eminent physicists on the continent of Europe, but is entirely new to the English reader. It is intere sting to note that in the opinion of Mr. MARSH, who is perhaps the only man among us who has studied the subject by the aid of all the lights that personal experience and acquired learning could throw upon it, the destruction of the American forest is now extending beyond the limits that should bound it. He says: "We have now felled forest enough everywhere--in many districts far too much. I greatly doubt whether any one of the American States, except perhaps Oregon, has at this moment more woodland th an it ought permanently to preserve." The fact that the Ohio--once that "exulting and abounding river"-- is now generally either sweeping over its banks with freshets, or sunk to a level that renders it comparatively useless for transit, and that legisla tive action for the regulation of its navigation is now demanded, is but a type on a grand scale of the changes going on in every neighborhood. The preservation of the Adirondack country in the northeastern counties of New-York State, Mr. MARSH regards a s of great physical importance.

"Nature threw up these mountains, and clothed them with lofty woods, that they might serve as a reservoir to supply with perennial waters the thousand rivers and rills that are fed by the rains and snows of the Adirondack, and as a screed for the fe rtile plains of the central counties, against the wailing blasts of the north wind, which meet no other barrier is their sweep from the Arctic Pole. The felling of the Adirondack woods would ultimately involve for Northern and Central New-York consequenc es as injurious as those which have resulted from laying bare the southern and western declivities of the French Alps."

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Man chiefly comes in contact with "the waters" as physical agents, from the necessity which exists for draining and irrigating the lands won from the woods - for securing river banks and maritime coasts against inundation by the erection of artificial barriers, and for facilitating the work of commerce by the improvement of natural and the construction of artificial channels of navigation. Under these heads are treated the wonderful protective works raised by the Hollanders against the ravages of the ocean, the draining of the great Haarlem Lake, the geographic and climatic effects of aquaducts, reservoirs and canals, irrigation and its consequence on the land it is supplied to and the rivers from whence the supply of water is derived; innundations, t he causes and destructive effects; the recovery and improvements of the Maremara, or the marsh lands of Tuscany, and various other equilateral tropics.

"The Sands" generally occurs as the most fatal and destructive instruments of retribution for man's neglect of the prospective consequences that follow his imprudent action, and overwhelm the fields of human industry with invasions as disastrous as the incursions of the ocean. This agency, however, is not uniformly injurious. On many coasts sandhills and drains both protect the shores from erosion, by the waves and currents, and shelter valuable ground from blasting sea winds. The formation and growt h of these aggregations of sand, therefore, is sometimes to be resisted and sometimes encouraged, and the efforts made to subject the barren and flying sands to obedience to the human will, in Egypt, Holland, the coasts of the Baltic, &c., are detaile d with the same fullness of information that characterizes the other portions of the work.

In conclusion, a view is taken of the great enterprises of physical transformation projected in ancient or modern times, the execution of which would produce considerable, and, in some cases extremely important changes on the face of the earth. The Su ez Canal, to connect the basins of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, "the great cut and the most truly cosmopolite physical improvement ever undertaken by man," the canal across the Isthmus of Darien, which might possibly affect the movements of that gre at oceanic current the Gulf Stream; the diversion of the Rivers Nile and Rhine; the draining of the Zuyder Zee, &c. The last words of the author aim to impress on the reader the fact that in the vocabulary of nature little and great are terms of compari son only; she knows no trifles, and her laws are as inflexible in dealing with an atom as with a planet. This truth, well understood, would elevate the motives for ordinary action, and cause every one of us to realize that the power that resides in the w hole species is made up of individual efforts that are too rarely considered in relation to the great aggregate formed by this combination. In the attempt to present an outline, however, feeble and imperfect of Mr. MARSH's main line of inquiry, omission has been made of the many collateral branches illustrated with a fullness of learning and research in his remarkable book. We can only recommend it to all interested in natural studies, as a magazine of information to be found nowhere else in our languag e, addressed to all thinking men, and worthy of their gravest consideration.

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