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George Perkins Marsh

American Conservationist


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Narrated by Bruce Miles

Download mp3 file: The Earth as Modified by Human Action

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Primitive man had little occasion to fell trees for fuel, or for the construction of dwellings, boats, and the implements of his rude agriculture and handicrafts. Windfalls would furnish a thin population with a sufficient supply of such material, and if occasionally a growing tree was cut, the injury to the forest would be too insignificant to be at all appreciable.

The accidental escape and spread of fire or possibly, the combustion of forests by lightning, must have first suggested the advantages to be derived from the removal of too abundant and extensive woods, and at the same time, have pointed out a means by which a large tract of surface could readily be cleared of much of this natural incumbrance. As soon as agriculture had commenced at all, it would be observed that the growth of cultivated plants, as well as of many species of wild vegetation, was particularly rapid and luxuriant on soils which had been burned over, and thus a new stimulus would be given to the practice of destroying the woods by fire, as a means of both extending the open grounds, and making the acquisition of a yet more productive soil. After a few harvests had exhausted the first rank fertility of this virgin mould, or when weeds and briers and the sprouting roots of the trees had begun to choke the crops of the half-subdued soil, the ground would be abandoned for new fields won from the forest by the same means, and the deserted plain or hillock would soon clothe itself anew with shrubs and trees, to be again subjected to the same destructive process, and again surrendered to the restorative powers of vegetable nature. In many parts of the North American States, the first white settlers found extensive tracts of thin woods, of a very park-like character, called "oak-openings," from the predominance of different species of that tree upon them. These were the semi-artificial pasture-grounds of the Indians, brought into that state, and so kept, by partial clearing, and by the annual burning of the grass. The object of this operation was to attract the deer to the fresh herbage which sprang up after the fire. The oaks bore the annual scorching at least for a certain time; but if it had been indefinitely continued, they would very probably have been destroyed at last. The soil would have then been much in the prairie condition, and would have needed nothing but grazing for a long succession of years to make the resemblance perfect. That the annual fires alone occasioned the peculiar character of the oak-openings, is proved by the fact that as soon as the Indians had left the country, young trees of many species sprang up and grew luxuriantly upon them. This rude economy would be continued for generations, and, wasteful as it is, is still largely pursued in Northern Sweden, Swedish Lapland, and sometimes even in France and the United States. The practice of burning over woodland, at once to clear and manure the ground, is called in Swedieh svedjande, a participial noun from the verb att svedja, to burn over. Though used in Sweden as a preparation for crops of rye or other grain, it is employed in Lapland more frequently to secure an abundant growth of pasturage, which follows in two or three years after the fire; and it is sometimes resorted to as a mode of driving the Laplanders and their reindeer from the vicinity of the Swedish backwoodsman's grass-grounds and hay-stacks, to which they are dangerous neighbors. The forest, indeed, rapidly recovers itself, but it is a generation or more before the reindeer-moss grows again. When the forest consists of pine, tall, the ground, instead of being rendered fertile by this process, becomes hopelessly barren, and for a long time afterwards produces nothing but weeds and briers.

The needs of agriculture are the most familiar cause of the destruction of the forest in new countries; for not only does an increasing population demand additional acres to grow the vegetables which feed it and its domestic animals, but the slovenly husbandry of the border settler soon exhausts the luxuriance of his first fields, and compels him to remove his household gods to a fresher soil. The extent of cleared ground required for agricultural use depends very much on the number and kinds of the cattle bred.

In the United States, the domestic quadrupeds amount to more than a hundred millions, or nearly three times the number of the human population of the Union. In many of the Western States, the swine subsist more or less on acorns, nuts, and other products of the woods, and the prairies, or natural meadows of the Mississippi valley, yield a large amount of food for beast, as well as for man. With these exceptions, all this vast army of quadrupeds is fed wholly on grass, grain, pulse, and roots grown on soil reclaimed from the forest by European settlers. It is true that the flesh of domestic quadrupeds enters very largely into the aliment of the American people, and greatly reduces the quantity of vegetable nutriment which they would otherwise consume, so that a smaller amount of agricultural product is required for immediate human food, and, of course, a smaller extent of cleared land is needed for the growth of that product, than if no domestic animals existed. But the flesh of the horse, the ass, and the mule is not consumed by man, and the sheep is reared rather for its fleece than for food. Besides this, the ground required to produce the grass and grain consumed in rearing and fattening a grazing quadruped, would yield a far larger amount of nutriment, if devoted to the growing of breadstuffs, than is furnished by his flesh; and, upon the whole, whatever advantages may be reaped from the breeding of domestic cattle, it is plain that the cleared land devoted to their sustenance in the originally wooded part of the United States, after deducting a quantity sufficient to produce an amount of aliment equal to their flesh, still greatly exceeds that cultivated for vegetables, directly consumed by the people of the same regions; or, to express a nearly equivalent idea in other words, the meadow and the pasture, taken together, much exceed the ploughland. The two ideas expressed in the text are not exactly equivalent, because, though the consumption of animal food diminishes the amount of vegetable aliment required for human use, yet the animals themselves consume a great quantity of grain and roots grown on ground ploughed and cultivated as regularly and as laboriously as any other.

The 280,000,000 bushels of oats raised in the United States in 1870, and fed to the 7,000,000 horses, the potatoes, the turnips, and the maize employed in fattening the oxen, the sheep, and the swine slaughtered the same year, occupied an extent of ground which, cultivated by hand-labor and with Chinese industry and skill, would probably have produced a quantity of vegetable food equal in alimentary power to the flesh of the quadrupeds killed for domestic use. Hence, so far as the naked question of AMOUNT of aliment is concerned, the meadows and the pastures might as well have remained in the forest condition. It must, however, be borne in mind that animal labor, if not a necessary, is probably an economical, force in agricultural occupations, and that without animal manure many branches of husbandry could hardly be carried on at all. At the same time, the introduction of machinery into rural industry, and of artificial, mineral, and fossil manures, is working great revolutions, and we may find at some future day that the ox is no longer necessary as a help to the farmer.

Governments and military commanders have at different periods deliberately destroyed forests by fire or the axe, because they afforded a retreat to robbers, outlaws, or enemies, and this was one of the hostile measures practised by both Julius Caesar and the Gauls in the Roman war of conquest against that people. It was also resorted to in the Mediterranean provinces of France, then much infested by robbers and deserters, as late as the reign of Napoleon I., and is said to have been employed by the early American colonists in their exterminating wars with the native Indians. In 1664 the Swedes made an incursion into Jutland and felled a considerable extent of forest. After they retired, a survey of the damage was had, and the report is still extant. The number of trees cut was found to be 120,000.

With increasing population and the development of new industries, come new drains upon the forest from the many arts for which wood is the material. The demands of the near and the distant market for this product excite the cupidity of the hardy forester, and a few years of that wild industry of which Springer's "Forest Life and Forest Trees" so vividly depicts the dangers and the triumphs, suffice to rob the most inaccessible glens of their fairest ornaments. The value of timber increases with its dimensions in almost geometrical proportion, and the tallest, most vigorous, and most symmetrical trees fall the first sacrifice.

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