In 1789 Charles Marsh, a 23-year-old lawyer and farmer, acquired the farm (then 50 acres) from James Cady and moved his family into the small frame house he had built on the knoll overlooking the meadow. Although Marsh farmed the best land in Woodstock, his primary occupation was his law practice in the newly established Shire-town of Windsor County. Although bustling with opportunity and optimism, early Woodstock had a raw appearance. A quarter-century before, Vermonters had declared their independence from the Crown. “We are in a state of nature,” they asserted, and they were already busy hacking and hewing Vermont’s forests to their own use. Around Woodstock, the forest was pushed back earlier than in most places. By the time Charles and Susan Marsh’s son George Perkins was old enough to notice his surroundings, the largely unbroken forest that had blanketed northern New England was in retreat on all fronts.
When George Perkins Marsh was born in 1801, Mount Tom was a treeless upland pasture capped by a pair of rocky peaks. In 1800 a wild fire had burned the few trees that had not been cleared, and the forest would not be replanted there until much later in the century. The great intervale meadow below the Marsh house had been planted as Woodstock’s best cropland. Like other Vermonters of the early period, the Marsh family rapidly cleared and burned trees to make potash as a commodity for sale. They raised grain, wheat in the early years, also as a cash crop; and they raised a variety of other crops and livestock for their own use and for barter.
By the time George was four years old his family had prospered enough for his father to hire Nathaniel Smith, probably the best of Woodstock’s builders, to build him a new brick Federal style residence on the shoulder of Mount Tom, overlooking the farm. The building project fascinated young George, and he was also fascinated by his father’s library, spending countless hours engrossed in books like Reese’s Encyclopedia, which he could barely heft. He read the encyclopedia cover to cover, lying on the floor in dim light, and by the age of seven or eight, he had severely strained his eyes. For the next four years, he was unable to read.
Banished from his father’s library, young Marsh took to the meadows and hillsides around his house. Nature became his encyclopedia, and he developed remarkable powers of observation. Not content simply to observe nature, he sought to understand its science and its connections to human activity. On Mount Tom and on the Ottauquechee, George observed the effects of deforestation, uncontrolled runoff, increased erosion. Mill sites alternatively silted up or were washed away in floods, fields lost their fertility, fish habitats were obstructed by dams and choked with silt. Throughout his life, Marsh would continue to observe and draw conclusions.
As an adult, George Perkins Marsh’s career as a lawyer and diplomat took him far from Woodstock, and he spent his last decades in Europe and the Mediterranean, never returning tot he United States. By 1848 he had become a respected authority on the relationships of humans and nature, publishing a speech that year about the agricultural impact of the loss of forests, an Address Delivered before the Agricultural Society of Rutland County. In 1857, as Vermont Fish Commissioner, reported on the impact on fisheries by changes in the environment. When he explored the Mediterranean as ambassador to the Turkish Empire during the early 1850s, he discovered long-term impacts that humans had had on the geography of the world of Greek and Roman antiquity. His most famous book, Man and Nature (1864) would be the product of his lifetime of observations and more.
In 1860 George Perkins Marsh began working on Man and Nature, Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action. He published the book in 1864, and revised it in 1874. By the time of his death in 1882 in Vallombrosa, he was in his twenty-second year as Minister to the Kingdom of Italy, and he was still expanding and revising Man and Nature. In writing Man and Nature, George Perkins Marsh connected the observations of his childhood and youth in Woodstock, Vermont, with perspectives gained throughout his long and multifaceted career. As his wide-ranging career carried him farther and farther from Woodstock, new perspectives broadened and validated his early observations. What he had seen and learned about early Vermont resonated with what he later observed elsewhere.
History considers Man and Nature to be “the fountainhead” of the American conservation movement. The book was also striking in its timeliness. It appeared at the time when the Union could see a light at the end of the dark tunnel of civil war, about the time that transcontinental railroads first girded the North American continent, when most considered the “Manifest Destiny” of the United States to be self evident, that the nation would that the to civilize the continent coast to coast and exploit its seemingly inexhaustible resources. Marsh’s cautionary perspectives arguments seem at once to deny the sense of superabundance that drove the American empire and at the same time to embrace the era’s progressive faith in man’s ability to repair and improve on nature.
In Man and Nature, Marsh warned Americans to begin practicing responsible stewardship of their resources, lest the basis for American prosperity be wasted and lost. Marsh’s insightful argument held a dilemma – he regarded man as both a part of and a shaper of nature. Through wise husbandry, man could repair or even improve upon nature – that was the optimistic view. But if man treated nature unwisely, the damage could be irreparable, and ultimately, a devastated nature would cease to sustain man. “The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant,” Marsh cautioned, “and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence . . . would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the deprivation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species.”
George Perkins Marsh’s father and mother had died in 1849 and 1853, and his younger brother, Charles, occupied their Woodstock farm. In 1855 Charles sold the northern part of the farm meadow for a fairgrounds for the Windsor County Fair. Around 1866, Marsh sold two more lots on the southern side of the meadow, adjacent to the Ottauquechee River. Finally, in 1869 Marsh sold the remainder of his father’s property to Frederick Billings.