Geographical Influence of Man.
But it is certain that man has done much to mould the form of the earth’s surface, though we cannot always distinguish between the results of his action and the effects of purely geological causes; that the destruction of the forests, the drainage of lakes and marshes, and the operation of rural husbandry and industrial art have tended to produce great changes in the hygrometric, thermometric, electric, and chemical condition of the atmosphere, though we are not yet able to measure the force of the different elements of disturbance, or to say how far they have been compensated by each other, or by still obscurer influences; and, finally, that the myriad forms of animal and vegetable life, which covered the earth when man first entered upon the theatre of a nature whose harmonies he was destined to derange, have been, through his action, greatly changed in numerical proportion, sometimes much modified in form and product, and sometimes entirely extirpated.
The physical revolutions thus wrought by man have not all been destructive to human interests. Soils to which no nutritious vegetable was indigenous, countries which once brought forth but the fewest products suited for the sustenance and comfort of man – while the severity of their climates created and stimulated the greatest number and the most imperious urgency of physical wants – surfaces the most rugged and intractable, and least blessed with natural facilities of communication, have been made in modern times to yield and distribute all that supplies the material necessities, all that contributes to the sensuous enjoyments and conveniences of civilized life. The Scythia, the Thule, the Britain, the Germany, and the Gaul which the Roman writers describe in such forbidding terms, have been brought almost to rival the native luxuriance and easily won plenty of Southern Italy; and, while the fountains of oil and wine that refreshed old Greece and Syria and Northern Africa have almost ceased to flow, and the soils of those fair lands are turned to thirsty and inhospitable deserts, the hyperborean regions of Europe have conquered, or rather compensated, the rigors of climate, and attained to a material wealth and variety of product that, with all their natural advantages, the granaries of the ancient world can hardly be said to have enjoyed.
These changes for evil and for good have not been caused a long series of generations; here, improvidence, wastefulness, and wanton violence; there, foresight and wisely guided persevering industry. So far as they are purely the calculated and desired results of those simple and familiar operations of agriculture and of social life which are as universal as civilization – the removal of the forests which covered the soil required for the cultivation of edible fruits, the drying of here and there a few acres too moist for profitable husbandry, by draining off the surface waters, the substitution of domesticated and nutritious for wild and unprofitable vegetable growths, the construction of roads and canals and artificial harbors – they belong to the sphere of rural, commercial, and political economy more properly than to the geography, and hence are but incidentally embraced within the range of our present inquiries, which concern physical, not financial balances. I propose to examine only the greater, more permanent, and more comprehensive mutations which man has produced, and is producing, in earth, sea, and sky, sometimes, indeed, with conscious purpose, but for the most part, as unforseen though natural consequences of acts performed for narrower and more immediate ends.
The exact measurement of the geographical changes hitherto thus effected is, as I have hinted, impracticable, and we possess, in relation to them, the means of only qualitative, not quantitative analysis. The fact of such revolutions is established partly by historical evidence, partly by analogical deduction from effects produced in our own time by operations similar in character to those which must have taken place in more or less remote ages of human action. Both sources of information are alike defective in precision; the latter, for general reasons too obvious to require specification, the former, because the facts to which it bears testimony occurred before the habit or the means of rigorously scientific observation upon any branch of physical research, and especially upon climatic changes, existed.
tratto da: George P. Marsh, Man and Nature or Physical Geograghy as modified by human action, New York 1864.