Man and Nature; Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action

By GEORGE P. MARSH. New York : Charles Scribner. 8vo. pp. 560.
THE student of Physical Geography must not expect to find in this massive book a systematic exposition of the science in the manner of Guyot and the French and German geographers; nor must he expect to see worked out on its pages the elaborate application of Geography to History, such as one day will be done, and such as was attempted, though with results of varied value and certainty, by the eloquent and plausible Buckle; but he will find an unexpected development of man’s dominion over the world he inhabits. Mr. Marsh takes his readers very much by surprise ; for few are aware, we apprehend, that in the course of his wandering life, and while prosecuting his eminent philological studies, he has made leisure enough to survey the natural sciences with critical exactness, pursue an extended course of inquiry into physical phenomena, note and digest the results of Italian, Spanish, English, French, German, Dutch, and American naturalists, ply every guide and ploughman, every driver and forester, every fisherman and miner, every lumberman and carpenter, for the results which men attain by observing within the narrow circle of their occupation, — and weave all into a copious work which subordinates all results to a grand psychological law, the mastery of man’s mind over the world it calls its home.
The work which we are noticing aspires to and rightly claims a foremost place among the literary productions of America, despite a certain homely flavor and a certain unpretending way which its author has of saying things which are really great and fine. The main thought illustrated is not new, but it is brought out so forcibly, and illustrated by such encyclopedic learning, that it has the power of novelty. Mr. Marsh shows, as many before him have done, that man is now using the organic and inorganic forms of the earth in a manner so subsidiary to the might of his intellect and his will, that such obstacles as mountains and seas, which used to impede him hopelessly, now are his auxiliaries ; but he does more than this : he demonstrates the destructive and annihilating sway of man over the world in the past and in the present ; and, proceeding from the historic fact that the countries which in the palmy days of the Roman Empire were the granary and the winecellar of the world have been given over by the improvident destructiveness of man to desolation and desert, he enters into a thorough study of the fact, that, no sooner does man recede from the barbaric state than he commences a career of destructiveness, cutting off, in a manner reckless and criminally wasteful, forests, the lives of quadrupeds, birds, insects, and in short every living thing excepting the few domestic animals which follow him and serve him for companionship or for food. Mr. Marsh shows, with more than prophetic insight, with the mathematical logic of facts, that, unless compensations far more general and adequate than have yet been devised are provided, the destructive propensities of civilized man will convert the world into a waste. Some of our readers have paused thoughtfully over that chapter in “ Les Misérables ” which deals so grimly with the sewerage of cities, and details with the faithfulness of an historian the exhausting demands of those conduits which carry untold millions to the sea, and waste that aliment of impoverished soils which not all the science of the age has found it possible to restore ; but Mr. Marsh, not drawing single pictures with so strong lines, spreads a broader canvas, and compels his reader to equal thoughtfulness. To quote but one instance is enough. We have in America thus far escaped, and as singularly as fortunately, the importation of the wheatmidge which has been the scourge of the grain-fields of Europe ; it will, doubtless, some time be a passenger on our Atlantic ships or steamers ; it will commence its work ; and then man has the task of importing its natural antagonists, of promoting their spread, and so of compensating the evil. The work which we are noticing abundantly shows, that, if man were not in the world, the natural compensations which the Divine Being has introduced would produce perfect harmony in all things ; that man, from his first stroke at a tree, his first slaying of a beast or bird, introduces an element of disorder which he can compensate only after civilization has reached a height of which we yet know nothing, and of which our present civilization gives us but the suggestion.
To those who may not care to master the philosophy of “ Man and Nature,” the book presents great attractions in the fund of new and entertaining knowledge given in the text, and yet more largely in the foot-notes. Many have waded through Mr. Buckle’s two volumes a second time for the purpose of gleaning his facts and gathering up in the easiest way the latest word in science and literature. Mr. Marsh spreads a homelier table, but one just as varied and hearty. Never in the course of our miscellaneous reading have we met an equal store of fresh facts. As hinted above, they are gathered from every source : the experience of the maple-sugar maker in Vermont is quoted side by side with the testimony of the European scholar. The reader will be amazed that there are so many common things in the world of which he has never heard, and that they have so large and fruitful an influence over the world’s progress.
If there are striking faults in Mr. Marsh’s work, they seem to be these : want of continuity in treatment, and disproportionate development of some subjects in contrast with others. The book is, in fact, too large for a popular treatise, and not large enough for a scientific exposition of all it essays to discuss. It claims to be a popular work ; but the elaborate discussion of Forests is far beyond the wishes or needs of any but a scientific reader. The broken, jagged, paragraph style is a drawback to the pleasure of perusing it : the notion seems to impress the author that people will not read anything elaborate, unless it be broken up into labelled paragraphs. It is true of the newspaper : it is not true of the octavo, to which they sit down expecting a different mode of treatment, a broad, discursive style, flowing, redundant, and even eloquent. Yet Mr. Marsh has in some instances transgressed, we think, even in fulness : the great prominence given, for example, to the drainage of Holland is untrue to the general tenor of the book and to the prospective future of the world. It was a great historic deed, when the relations of man to Nature were quite other than what they are to-day; but now that man is master of the sea, regulates the price of bread in London by the price of corn in Illinois, and of broadcloth in Paris by the cost of wool in Australia, the recovery of a few hundred thousand acres from the bottom of the North Sea is a great thing for Holland, but a small thing for the world.
Yet we accept this book with grateful thanks to the accomplished author. In the present transition - stage from metaphysical to physical studies, it will be eagerly accepted, as showing, not openly nor yet covertly, yet suggestively, the true connection of both. Few books give in quiet, modest fashion so much theology as this, and yet few claim to give so little. Few bear more strongly on the mooted points of Anthropology ; few strike so strong a blow at that Development - theory which makes man merely king of the beasts, and superior to the ape and the gorilla only in degree ; and yet few proceed in such high argument with less ostentation. This book leaves one great want unfulfilled : to take up the mantle of Ritter and proceed carefully to the study of French, German, Russian, English, Spanish, and Italian history, and indeed all great nations’ history, by the light of geography. The problem is stated ; it has now only to be wrought out. Perhaps Mr. Marsh, whose acquisitions seem to be boundless, and whose powers unlimited, may live to win fresh laurels on this field.