On May 4 and 5, 2012, the College of Arts and Letters (CAL) hosted an international, interdisciplinary conference exploring the life and works of George Perkins Marsh, a nineteenth-century naturalist and one of the first major voices in the conservation movement. The event, titled “George Perkins Marsh: An American for All Seasons,” attracted scholars from the United States, Italy, Norway and England, who gathered for two days to share their original research on Marsh’s unique life and extraordinary legacy.
George Perkins Marsh was a philosopher, scientist, statesman and writer who is best known today for his 1864 volume, “Man and Nature,” in which he argued unequivocally that “Man has reacted upon organized and inorganic nature, and thereby modified, if not determined, the material structure of his earthly home.”
Concerned about the effects of deforestation on biodiversity, Marsh was an inspired advocate for environmental conservation and responsible land management. Yet he was also a scholar of language and culture, an avid collector of antique prints, a world traveler who lived in Italy and Turkey, among other places, and a dedicated promoter of women’s rights and equal access to education.
In her opening address, CAL Dean Lisa Dolling called Marsh “a philosopher’s dream” for the way that he “advocated a ‘democracy of science,’ calling for a populace that is educated and informed enough to make responsible, conscionable decisions regarding the possible long-term effects of science and technology upon nature."
The proceedings began on the evening of May 4 with a keynote address by Dr. David Lowenthal, the world’s foremost authority on Marsh and author of “George Perkins Marsh: Prophet of Conservation.” In his presentation, Lowenthal portrayed Marsh as a quintessential nineteenth-century polymath, someone whose keen intellect was matched only by his insatiable curiosity.
This characterization of Marsh was reiterated throughout the presentations on the following day, in which scholars explored Marsh’s insights on forestry, political economy, human rights and culture. Helena Wright of the Smithsonian Institution presented a catalogue of Marsh’s collection of antique prints, which he sold to the Institute in 1849, and Per Kristian Skulberg of Norway examined the contents of Marsh’s personal library, revealing the writer’s fascination with early Skandinavian romanticism. Above all, the picture that emerged was of a deep thinker and restless scholar who, as presenter Lucia Ducci of the Lorenzo de’Medici Institute of Florence put it, “applied science to the world, but did so as a humanist.” In this way, Marsh embodies the mission of CAL when it comes to bridging the gaps between the theoretical and the practical, and between science and the humanities.
The conference was conceived by Dolling and Professors Ed Foster and Andrew Rubenfeld, out of their shared interest in Marsh as a figure whose work remains underexplored despite its pertinence to contemporary concerns. It was coordinated by Professor Robin Hammerman, and concluded on the afternoon of May 5 with a visit to the exhibit of Turkish painter Mehmet Arpacik’s paintings currently on view at S.C. Williams Library.
“It was a privilege to host this conference,” Dolling said, “not only because of the high quality of the scholarship that was presented, but also for the opportunity to bring attention to the work of this great pioneer in the fields of ecological and environmental studies. Our hope is that as a result of our efforts, more people will become aware of the importance of Marsh and his work.”
CAL plans to publish the conference papers in a volume due out in 2013.