Nothing New Under the Sun? George Perkins Marsh and Roots of American Physical Geography

Authors: Jacob Bendix*, Syracuse University, Michael A. Urban, University of Missouri
Topics: Physical Geography, Environmental Science, Anthropocene
Keywords: geomorphology, biogeography, environmental science, Anthropocene, human impacts, physical geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Taylor, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Geomorphologists and biogeographers often cite early theoretical roots dating back to late 19th and early 20th century exemplars such as Powell, Gilbert, Cowles, and Clements. A deeper dive may lead us back to European contributors like Hutton, Lyell, and of course Darwin. Yet reviews of our intellectual roots often overlook an early and important American contributor: George Perkins Marsh. Marsh’s work on “Man and Nature” is more often cited in of the field of environmental history, where it is appropriately noted as a prescient review of human impacts on the landscape.

However, we suggest his significance extends beyond early environmental activism, and that in fact Marsh describes many concepts and analytical approaches that continue to underlie modern geomorphology and biogeography. Geomorphic examples include fluvial sediment budget calculations, discussion of the role of barrier dunes in protecting coastlines, and even of the role of marl deposits in facilitating major landslides. Biogeographic content ranged from deforestation, extinctions (including potential loss of undiscovered medicinal plants) and species introductions to heat-stimulated germination, growth release following removal of canopy dominants, and nutrient and water cycling in forests. Marsh’s ideas and approach presaged fundamental concepts such as coupled human-environment systems and the anthropocene, as he emphasized interconnections among biotic, geomorphic, and human elements, perhaps most notably with regard to impacts of deforestation on flood regimes.

There is, therefore, much to learn from Marsh – both about early thinking in physical geography, and about the depth of scientific analysis underlying our discipline’s early interest in human impacts.

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