How Nature Made a Comeback: Rachel Carson was a prophet of doom who would have been surprised how well her words were heeded
In the first 350 years after Columbus’s voyage, the role of Europeans in the New World was twofold: first, to loot it of valuables—gold, pelts, hides, cod, sassafras (to treat syphilis), wood for ships’ masts and so on—in order to pay for their trips; second, to tame what William Bradford, the Plymouth Colony governor, famously called a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men” and re-create the ordered pastoral landscapes they had left behind.
It wasn’t until Sept. 30, 1847, that America’s first environmentalist, George Perkins Marsh, appeared and said enough taming already! In a speech to the Agricultural Society of Rutland County, the Vermont sheep farmer, woolen-mill owner and congressman decried the systematic destruction of the American forests and the resulting watershed damage, erosion, silt run-off, dead fish and infertile fields. Seventeen years later, having studied parched Mediterranean lands, he sounded the global tocsin in “Man and Nature; or Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action,” a detailed study of the ecological ruin of ancient civilizations. Deforestation and other land abuse plus population growth leads to desertification and doom. As went the Roman Empire, so goes Vermont.
It took another five decades to crank up American conservation efforts to stem the tide of destruction—a period of forest and wildlife devastation in the last half of the 19th century so egregious that it has been called an era of extermination. By century’s end, wildlife was all but used up, the government worried that we were running out of trees and writing about nature was framed in a narrative of loss.