Marsh

“Some enthusiastic entomologist will, perhaps, by and by discover that insects and worms are as essential as the larger organisms to the proper working of the great terraqueous machine […] The silkworm and the bee need no apologist; a gallnut produced by the puncture of an insect on a Syrian oak is a necessary ingredient in the ink I am writing with, and from my windows I recognized the grain of the kermis and cochineal in the gay habiliments of the holiday groups beneath them.”

George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action of 1864 is a milestone of environmentalism. One-time Congressman, long-time diplomat, something of a serial disaster as a businessman, scholar, traveller, Marsh looked at the environmental desolation of the Mediterranean and suggested that humans can quite effectively spoil the nest. His book was a warning to his fellow Americans. The book, contemporary with On the Origin of Species, was highly influential in its day, part of the intellectual support for the national forest system and the New York Forest Preserve (of which Adirondack Park is a piece). It still has much to say.

Trouble is, Marsh doesn’t say it very well. Even William Cronon, in the foreword to the U Washington Press edition I have, admits it can be a chore to read through. Marsh is no Rachel Carson or Aldo Leopold when it comes to “plainsong style.” Marsh might be better likened to out- of-tune baroque…. not everyone’s cup of hemlock. Cronon recommends a secular variation of the Sortes Vergilianae, picking and choosing sections in any order opening at random, jumping about. Recently, I opened to the quote above.

Something jumps out on most pages, actually, often in the footnotes. (The footnotes, and I am a connoisseur of footnotes, are glorious: why, for instance, do we call winds after the direction they blow from rather than the direction they blow towards?) Marsh is already at ease with the phrase “climate change”; he uses “consumption” in its modern sense (which I don’t think has completely lost its diseased, burning-from-within etymology).

I’ll be fishing in here for a while.

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