Swamp, bog and swamp
Simon & Schuster, $26.99
A recent TV ad features three guys lost in the woods, debating whether they should have taken a turn at a pond, which one guy argues is a swamp. “Let’s not pretend that you know what a swamp is,” snaps the other. “Could be a swamp,” offers the third.
It’s an exchange that probably wouldn’t surprise novelist Annie Proulx. While the various types of peatlands (wetlands rich in partially decomposed material called peat) do mix, I can’t help but think, after reading your latest book, that a historical dislike and underestimation of wetlands in Western society has led to the average the person’s confusion about the basic vocabulary of peatlands.
In Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Brief History of Peatland Destruction and Their Role in the Climate Crisis, Proulx seeks to fill in the gaps. She details three types of peatlands: swamps, which are fed by streams and rivers; swamps, fed by rainwater; and swamps, distinguishable by their trees and shrubs. While all three ecosystems are found in most parts of the world, Proulx focuses primarily on northwestern Europe and North America, where the last few centuries of modern agriculture led to a high demand for dry land. Wet, muddy and smelly, wetlands were a nightmare for farmers and would-be developers. Since the 1600s, American settlers have drained more than half of the country’s wetlands; today only 1 percent of Britain’s bogs remain.
Only recently have the consequences of these losses become clear. “We are now in the embarrassing position of having to relearn the importance of these strange places,” writes Proulx. On the one hand, peatlands have great ecological value, supporting a variety of wildlife. They too sequester large amounts of carbon dioxideand some peat bogs prevent shoreline erosion, while also protecting the land from storm surges (SN: 03/17/18, pg. twenty). But the book does not spend much time on essential ecology. Instead, Proulx investigates these environments in the context of their relationship with people.
Known for her fiction, Proulx, who wrote The shipping news and “Brokeback Mountain,” draws on historical accounts, literature, and archaeological digs to imagine places lost in time. She challenges the notion that wetlands are purely unpleasant or disturbing: think of the swamp in Shrek, where only an ogre would want to live, or the swamps of sadness in The endless story that swallow Atreyu’s horse.
Proulx dates back 20,000 years to the bottom of the North Sea, which at the time was a mountainous strip called Doggerland. When the sea level rose in the 7th century B.C. C., the people learned to prosper in the developing swamps of the region, hunting fish and eels. In Ireland “bog bodies”, many of which are believed to be human sacrifices, have been preserved in peat for thousands of years; Proulx envisions torchlight ceremonies in which people are offered to mud, a connection to the natural world that is difficult for many today to comprehend. These spaces became integrated into local cultures, from Renaissance wetland paintings to British slang like didor (the way a swamp shudders when stepped on). Proulx also reflects on her own childhood memories of wandering wetlands in Connecticut, a swamp in Vermont, and describes how she, like the writer Henry David Thoreau, finds beauty in these places. “It’s… possible to love a swamp,” she says.
Swamps, bogs, and swamps are technically distinct, but they are also fluid; one wetland may transition to another depending on its water source. This same fluidity is reflected in the book, where Proulx flutters from one wetland to another, from one part of the world to another, from one millennium to another. At times didactic and meandering, Proulx veers off to discuss humanity’s destructive trend not just on wetlands, but on nature in general, broadly refreshing aspects of the climate crisis with which most readers interested in the environment are probably already familiar with. He was most enthralled, and heartbroken, by stories he had never heard before: of “Yde Girl,” a red-haired teenage girl sacrificed in a swamp; zombie fires in arctic peat bogs burning underground; and the ivory-billed woodpecker, a bird that has been missing from the swamps of the southern United States for nearly a century.
To buy Swamp, bog and swamp from Bookshop.org. science news is a Bookshop.org affiliate and will earn commission on purchases made from links in this article.