In a recent Times of San Diego article about Climate Change, author Andrew M. McClellan reminded readers that the "first recorded mention of the term "climate change" in English comes from George Perkins Marsh's 1847 address to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont.
The Clark University George Perkins Marsh Institute calls Marsh an extraordinary man with "boundless energy, endless enthusiasms, and immense intelligence."
America's first environmentalist, Marsh's book, Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, warned readers about the destructive impact humans and their activities would have on the planet.
Marsh was born in Woodstock to a wealthy family, studied law in Burlington after college at Dartmouth, and was a true Renaissance Man.
The Institute writes about March's broad interests and accomplishments:
His biographer David Lowenthal referred to him as a "versatile Vermonter," alluding to his roots and his flexibility in his metiers.
Throughout his 80 years, Marsh had many careers as a lawyer (though, by his own words, "an indifferent practitioner"), newspaper editor, sheep farmer, mill owner, lecturer, politician, and diplomat.
He also tried his hand at various businesses but failed miserably in marble quarrying, railroad investment, and woolen manufacturing.
He studied linguistics, knew 20 languages, wrote a definitive book on the origin of the English language, and was known as the foremost Scandinavian scholar in North America.
As a congressman in Washington (1843-49), Marsh helped to found and guide the Smithsonian Institution. He served as U.S. Minister to Turkey for five years, where he aided revolutionary refugees and advocated for religious freedom. He spent the last 21 years of his life (1861-82) as U.S. Minister to the newly United Kingdom of Italy.
Today, so much of what Marsh portended is visible. On that day in Rutland, he spoke of draining swamps, clearing forests, wildfires, and loss of vegetation. Reading the passages below, one from his 1847 speech and the other from his book Man and Nature, could have been written today.
From Man and Nature:
The operation of causes set in action by man has brought the face of the earth to a desolation almost as complete as that of the moon.
From the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, Vermont speech:
Man cannot at his pleasure command the rain and the sunshine, the wind and frost and snow, yet it is certain that climate itself has in many instances been gradually changed and ameliorated or deteriorated by human action. The draining of swamps and the clearing of forests perceptibly affect the evaporation from the earth, and of course the mean quantity of moisture suspended in the air. The same causes modify the electrical condition of the atmosphere and the power of the surface to reflect, absorb and radiate the rays of the sun, and consequently influence the distribution of light and heat, and the force and direction of the winds. Within narrow limits too, domestic fires and artificial structures create and diffuse increased warmth, to an extent that may affect vegetation.
Befitting of a description of someone from the Green Mountain State, Marsh's biographer, David Lowenthal, says that "to understand Marsh's "omnicompetence" one needs to look at the 19th century Vermont way of life which fostered many diverse talents."
"Marsh's early semi-blindness forced him away from reading and into observing the forests near his boyhood home. With his voracious appetite for all knowledge, he grew into a generalist who developed a concept of human geography that was unique in his time."