‘Fen, Bog & Swamp’ reminds readers why peatlands matter

Cover of "Fen, Bog & Swamp"

Fen, Bog & Swamp
Annie Proulx
Simon & Schuster, $26.99

A latest TV advert options three guys misplaced within the woods, debating whether or not they need to’ve taken a flip at a pond, which one man argues is a marsh. “Let’s not faux you already know what a marsh is,” the opposite snaps. “Might be a lavatory,” provides the third.

It’s an change that in all probability wouldn’t shock novelist Annie Proulx. Whereas the varied kinds of peatlands — wetlands wealthy in partially decayed materials referred to as peat — do mix collectively, I can’t assist however assume, after studying her newest e book, {that a} historic distaste and underappreciation of wetlands in Western society has led to the common particular person’s confusion over primary peatland vocabulary.

In Fen, Lavatory & Swamp: A Quick Historical past of Peatland Destruction and Its Function within the Local weather Disaster, Proulx seeks to fill the gaps. She particulars three kinds of peatland: fens, that are fed by streams and rivers; bogs, fed by rainwater; and swamps, distinguishable by their timber and shrubs. Whereas all three ecosystems are discovered round many of the world, Proulx focuses totally on northwestern Europe and North America, the place the previous couple of centuries of recent agriculture led to an enormous demand for dry land. Moist, muddy and smelly, wetlands have been a nightmare for farmers and would-be builders. For the reason that 1600s, U.S. settlers have drained greater than half of the nation’s wetlands; simply 1 % of British fens stays at this time.

Solely lately have the results of those losses turn into clear. “We are actually within the embarrassing place of getting to relearn the significance of those unusual locations,” Proulx writes. For one, peatlands have nice ecological worth, supporting a wide range of wildlife. In addition they sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide, and a few peatlands stop shoreline erosion, whereas buffering land from storm surges (SN: 3/17/18, p. 20). However the e book doesn’t spend an excessive amount of time on nitty-gritty ecology. As a substitute, Proulx investigates these environments within the context of their relationship with folks.

Identified for her fiction, Proulx, who penned The Delivery Information and “Brokeback Mountain,” attracts on historic accounts, literature and archaeological digs to think about locations misplaced to time. She challenges the notion that wetlands are purely disagreeable or disturbing — assume Shrek’s swamp, the place solely an ogre would wish to stay, or the Swamps of Disappointment in The Neverending Story that swallow up Atreyu’s horse.

Proulx jumps again so far as 20,000 years in the past to the underside of the North Sea, which on the time was a hilly swath referred to as Doggerland. When sea ranges rose within the seventh century B.C., folks there realized to thrive on the area’s growing fens, attempting to find fish and eels. In Eire, “lavatory our bodies” — many considered human sacrifices — have been preserved within the peat for hundreds of years; Proulx imagines torchlit ceremonies the place folks have been supplied to the mud, a connection to the pure world that’s arduous for many individuals to understand at this time. These areas have been built-in into the native cultures, from Renaissance work of wetlands to British lingo akin to didder (the best way a lavatory quivers when stepped on). Proulx additionally displays on her personal childhood reminiscences — wandering by means of wetlands in Connecticut, a swamp in Vermont — and describes how she, like author Henry David Thoreau, finds magnificence in these locations. “It’s … doable to like a swamp,” she says.

Fens, bogs and swamps are technically distinct, however they’re additionally fluid; one wetland could transition into one other relying on its water supply. This identical fluidity is mirrored within the e book, the place Proulx flits from one wetland to a different, from one a part of the world to a different, from one millennium to a different. At instances didactic and meandering, Proulx will veer off to debate humankind’s damaging tendency not simply in wetlands, however nature generally, broadly rehashing points of the local weather disaster that the majority readers within the setting are in all probability already aware of. I used to be most enthralled — and heartbroken — by the tales I had by no means heard earlier than: of “Yde Woman,” a redheaded teenager sacrificed to a lavatory; the zombie fires in Arctic peatlands that burn underground; and the ivory-billed woodpecker, a chook lacking from southern U.S. swamps for nearly a century.

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