“Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis”
By Annie Proulx; Scribner, 2022; 208 pages; $26.99.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, “Wetland habitats in Alaska are numerous and complex, making up 43.3% of the state’s surface area.” That’s a good reason to pay attention to Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx’s latest book. Proulx is perhaps best known for her novels “The Shipping News” and “Barkskins” and the story collection “Close Range.”
Proulx says at the start that what began as a personal essay for trying to understand connections between wetlands and the climate crisis grew into a major research project during the pandemic. She eventually narrowed her inquiry to the three types of wetlands — fens, bogs, and swamps — that form peat. Peat — partially rotted and compressed plant material that settled in water, holds enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and methane. In fact, peat stores more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined. The result of Proulx’s inquiry is a lively cultural history of the world’s peaty places, their destruction, and their now-recognized environmental importance.
In the first section of the book, “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands,” Proulx, who was born in 1935 in Connecticut, presents her own lifetime connections to wetlands and the ways her delight with wild places has been tempered by the “ever-sharpening pain” of environmental destruction, which include the damming of rivers, the cutting of forests and the draining of swamps.
Most of the world’s wetlands, we learn, formed at the end of the last ice age and in ancient times supported tremendous communities of plants and animals — which in turn supported the lives of humans. As human populations increased, wetlands were drained for farming, grazing and the expansion of cities. In the last 300 years, as much as 87% of the world’s wetlands have been lost.
In the second section of the book, “The English Fens,” Proulx goes back in time to the formation of the English fens in what was once “undulating plains now under the North Sea” and to the very earliest peopling of the region. As much as 6% of Great Britain was once wetlands, including coastal areas that were a “watery mix” of fresh water, sea water and solid land high enough for homes and gardens. “From prehistoric times to the nineteenth century the waterlands were the gardens and grocers of the local population, their butcher shops and fish stalls, their highways to trade and market centers …” Fen residents learned over centuries to understand water cycles and manage the wetlands by ditching and diking.
Drainage projects begun in the 16th and 17th centuries greatly altered the landscape and caused habitat and species loss along with the trade-off of a way of life for the benefit of the nation-state’s “productivity.” Fen residents were squeezed out, to be replaced by large landowners and their agricultural interests. Additionally, we know now, the opening of peatlands to air released greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
Much of the fens section recounts recent archaeological and anthropological studies about the original extent of peatlands and the lives of people who lived in the fens for thousands of years. In the 1930s North Sea fishermen began to pull up in their nets pieces of old peat they called “moorlog,” along with bones, flints and bits of trees. More recently, archaeologists have dated “trackways” — boardwalk-like roads — back to the Bronze Age and discovered numerous artifacts, including the famous well-preserved “bog people.”
The next section, “Bogs,” moves to a consideration of America’s Midwest corn and wheat belts and parts of California — all once peatlands that were drained, plowed and planted. The story is similar — the loss of habitat and the continuing release of carbon dioxide and methane from the soil. A long section discusses sphagnum mosses and their habitat values. As Proulx puts it, “Within the moss is a teeming interactive zoo where thousands of microscopic creatures live,” adding up to “1,500,000,000 thriving bits of life in every square meter.”
Finally, in “Swamp,” the focus shifts to several well-known American swamps, including “The Great Dismal” that lies between Virginia and North Carolina; a portion is now protected as a national wildlife refuge. The Great Black Swamp in the Midwest — only “a pinch” remains; the Kankakee Marsh and Limberlost in Indiana; and the Florida Everglades are others. Siberia is represented here by the Great Vasyugan Mire, “the giant wetland of the Northern hemisphere;” it was nominated as a World Heritage site in 2007 but the application has been stalled because of oil and gas development in part of it.
To be sure, efforts are underway to protect and restore wetlands. As examples, Proulx points out a 2011 European Union action to forbid the cutting of peat and, in England, the Great Fen Project, a modest experiment in paludiculture, or wet farming. But as she also points out, “Bogs and swamps take thousands of years to build up and develop; humans and their machinery can wipe out those centuries in a few months.”
Aside from the wealth of science and history included in “Fen, Bog, & Swamp,” Proulx’s references include Thoreau, Kate Marsden, who explored Siberia on horseback in 1891, Nabokov and his butterflies, Robert MacFarlane’s recent nature vocabulary, writer Frank O’Connor’s famous war story, the photographs of Wolfgang Bartels, naturalist Ellen Meloy, King James I, Daniel Defoe, Albrecht Durer’s art, bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, Charles Wohlforth — Alaskan author of “The Whale and the Supercomputer” — and dozens more.
Proulx says in her introduction, “There are people who are fond of tracing ideas and their connections in unlikely places and old books; I am one of them.” Readers who share that fondness will find a great deal to fascinate them in her “short history.” If the point of it all is the need to know history in order to cope with today’s climate crisis, “Fen, Bog & Swamp” is a great place to dig in.