The View From The Shoulders Of A Giant

July 27, 2011

in History,News,Woodstock

By Christopher Bartlett
Special To The Standard

Do Just One Thing…
Show respect for our heritage by living as our forebears did – using things until they wear out, repairing things that break, and recycling whatever we can.

Happy birthday, Woodstock. But as the celebrations subside, might we ask what you have achieved in your 250 years?
Quite a lot, it turns out. But sadly, much of it is not widely known or celebrated. So in this space, we’d like to recognize the legacy of one of Woodstock’s quietly influential sons. Join us in celebrating George Perkins Marsh, the man who made our town the birthplace of conservationism in the United States.
Marsh was an extraordinary individual, a true Renaissance man. During his lifetime, he was a lawyer, a politician, a farmer, a banker, an architect, a manufacturer, a diplomat, and a naturalist. He was reputed to be fluent in 20 languages, and served as the US ambassador to Turkey and Italy.
But his most enduring contribution was the publication of Man and Nature in 1864, a book that his biographer, David Lowenthal described as “next to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species…the most influential text of its time.”

Image From Wikimedia Commons
Born in Woodstock in 1801, George Perkins Marsh was the author of Man and Nature, a pioneering work in environmentalism published in 1864. His lifelong efforts to ensure responsible environmental stewardship made Woodstock the birthplace of the conservation movement.

Man and Nature was written in the years Marsh spent in the Mediterranean region where he saw first-hand the environmental degradation caused by extensive deforestation. It made him recall the widespread destruction of forest land he had witnessed in his native Vermont, and led him to despair “wherever [man] plants his foot, harmonies of nature are turned into discord.”
While his contemporaries, the lyrical transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were celebrating the notion that the human spirit was elevated through contact with nature, Marsh was giving voice to a more practical view. He appreciated and supported the preservationists, but also emphasized the need for responsible environmental stewardship. Indeed, he believed that the preservation of wild nature and the stewardship of natural resources were complementary and mutually supportive environmental views.
So how relevant is George Perkins Marsh to life in Woodstock today? Beyond having his name on the National Park that hugs our town in its green embrace, what influence does he have on our day-to-day life? The answer is, quite a lot.
You cannot live in Woodstock without being conscious of the stunning beauty of our natural landscape. It was Marsh who ensured that those surroundings would retain the grandeur with which he fell in love a century and a half ago. And today, that beautiful natural setting is a major asset that draws visitors from all over the country and the world.
So as Woodstock residents, we find ourselves as keepers of a rich legacy. And in an era when the protection of our environment has become a widespread societal concern, Woodstock has an opportunity to claim its heritage as the birthplace of conservationism. In doing so, we can become a prime destination for those who seek places of natural beauty and communities that respect and care for those beautiful environments.
In short, we have an opportunity to become a beacon of environmentalism and the model of sustainable living that will build on the Marsh tradition and carry it well into the 21st century. By our 260th birthday, might Woodstock be widely recognized as the greenest historic town in the United States? George Perkins Marsh would certainly hope so.
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This article first appeared in the July 14th print edition of the Vermont Standard.


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