Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat, a Review

The idea of individuality and control, key elements of the American psyche, are a self-deception. We can take an individual action, guided by an intention, and see its effect in the world around us, but after that, the first ‘tier’ of effects, there are secondary, tertiary and others beyond them, as what we have effected spreads out across space and time, effecting those things, beyond our focus, that nevertheless are in relationship, and do and must respond. If we’re paying attention we can see them and attribute them to others, unaware of our impact. The world is so large and complex, while we individually, commonly see ourselves as relatively ineffectual. We often don’t recognize our own agency and how collective effects propagate from our action. This can also support the idea we ‘can’t’, in a significant way, damage the systems and cycles that support life on Earth. What we must understand though is, that as members of societies and cultures, which share economies and technologies, our ‘individual’ actions are ‘shared’, they are multiplied, often many millions of times. We act individually, but we have tremendous collective impacts. By denying this we deny individual responsibility, which in effect, is a cultural denial, permitting the negative impacts to continue. “It’s just me!” “It doesn’t matter.” “It’s their responsibility, not mine!” These collective problems are then left unaddressed.

It is easy to believe this way. There is so much beyond our own control, so many problems, that it must be this way right? No. We are responsible, collectively. We never truly act independently, because we live in relationship with those around us and their, and our, influence over one another blur. Like it or not, we are a part of a larger society. To go against the conventions and norms of society, to act independently, is risky, to ourselves and the world around us…a risk which can bring with it changes, either positive or destructive. However, going ‘along with’ the norms and conventions of society, unquestioningly, is to possibly continue a potentially destructive practice. We are responsible. We have necessary roles o play. We have been relatively bad as a society at discussing our wider actions, of working to understand our impacts and insuring the security of life and its necessary conditions. Too often we comply, go along and continue doing those things simply because we ‘always’ have, forgetting that as our numbers and use continues to grow, so does the potency of our impact. We have been habitually confusing short term gain and comfort, with longer term survival and good. The consequent results of those unexamined actions can become devastating. To continue ignoring our negative impacts on others, in its broadest sense, is ultimately a threat to our own well being and security. Uninformed actions, actions taken selfishly at other’s expense, threaten the whole, because of the ubiquitous and pervasive connections to the world and between all people, places and organisms. Our denials will not change this. So, why do I bring this up? This is a gardening/horticultural post…because, what we do, or don’t do, in our gardens and across our shared landscapes, has impacts well beyond their borders.

Edward Struzik’s book, “Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat”, examines a group of landscapes largely unfamiliar to us, landscapes which are, when we consider them at all, are seen negatively. Wet, bug infested, ‘unproductive’, even dangerous, these places are commonly viewed as having value only if they can be drained and put to economic use, converted to farmland, for growing timber or for the energy contained in the peat which comprises their top layer, or which when stripped off, expose the potentially oil or coal rich layers beneath it. As gardeners we often commonly utilize the stripped off peat layer, in the soilless mixes we use to fill containers and grow plants in or as soil conditioners we add to the beds themselves. Struzik here tells peat’s story so that we better understand what is being lost in our economic pursuit of wealth and our efforts to meet our more short term and ever expanding demand and needs as our own population grows.

Struzik has spent much of his career outside in North America, much of it working with scientists deeply interested in the land and the life that it supports. In this book he examines our human history, our interactions with the world’s peatlands, its swamps, bogs and fens which have always played an outsized role in the supply and quality of much of the world’s watersheds, detaining much of the rain and melt waters which might otherwise rush through flooding a watershed, while leaving streams and rivers largely dry during a region’s dry season. Peat holds and releases water at a predictable and manageable rate.

Another thing that we discovered long ago, but still continue to ignore, is how wetlands form natural fire barriers to wildfire. Historically wildfires have burned right up to boreal peatlands, and died out on their own. We know this because as we continue draining these areas, building roads across them and drilling holes through them, which act to drain away the needed water, these places themselves are becoming flammable. Incidents of fires abound in which the now dry peatlands themselves burn and smolder for months, even years, no longer containing fire. The massive fires of northern Alberta, Canada, in recent years, can be attributed to this.

They are also able to extract and hold many pollutants, heavy metals, like mercury, more than a few which have ended up there as a result of our own industrialization. While these places are often considered uninhabitable, even dangerous to human habitation, they are unique environments that support very complex ecosystems containing species which exist no where else…they are in fact incredibly complex and diverse, varying with the mineral make up of the surrounding landscape, the climate and hydrology particular to them. (Bogs are fed by precipitation, fens by surface water and springs, both of which exist in a mind boggling array of specific types.) Most alarmingly, and new to me, was how the worlds peatlands, are acre by acre far more efficient at carbon sequestration than any other landscape on earth, including the tropical rainforest.
Peat accumulates over vast time periods but can be quickly destroyed by draining the water away, disrupting their hydrology. Once dried the carbon they held begins to release. It is estimated that enough carbon is still held in arctic peatlands, and locked away in the arctic permafrost, that losing these would result in a doubling of atmospheric carbon, with devastating consequences. And, the permafrost is melting. Arctic peatlands can be relatively shallow or have accumulated to depths of several hundred feet across thousands of square miles. And all of this has consequences for life there and across the globe.

In early parts of the book Struzik describes the process by which scientists agree peatlands have formed and what they require to continue. He takes the reader to sites around North America including the surprising landscape of the Mojave Desert, where the desert ‘wraps’ around the southeastern side of Death Valley into the Amargosa Desert and Ash Meadows, an area now protected, fed by ancient waters welling up from the ground, after a several thousand year long underground journey, creating wetlands, fens and peat. Farmers and developers gaining water rights here threatened the area with destruction. The region to the north was the site of ancient and massive inland lakes created by the receding polar ice of the last ice age. The water here is effectively thousands of years old, its original source gone feed by meager precipitation falling on mountains many miles away and then percolating down through rock layers, picking up minerals which give it its particular chemistry.

In three of the later chapters, Struzik describes the complexity and range of northern peatlands, the plants, the wildlife and indigenous peoples it has supported for thousands of years, now threatened, by climate change and foolish, rarely productive attempts by the oil industry to tap resources. He writes of the ‘land’s’ fragility and the fact that much of the permafrost is not land at all and as the north warms, which it is doing at a rate faster than it is in any other region, the permafrost is thawing, the polar ice cap is melting, storms are more commonly driving sea water into and across the permafrost, speeding thawing, indigenous villages are having to vacate, while more southerly wildlife moves north as the climate warms. Caribou are finding one of their most important food sources, lichens, overgrown with warmer area grasses and shrubs. Trees are moving north as well. While all of this goes on the warmer temperatures, the long summer season is beginning to cause the peat itself to breakdown, releasing ever more carbon into the atmosphere. The permafrost effectively froze the carbon in the peat. In more temperate areas peat exists in a dance of release and increase, while conditions remain favorable to the peat, the balance of gain and carbon loss remains in favor of increase.

In virtually every chapter Struzik, as he describes a range of peatlands, discusses the human activities which threaten and degrade them. Most disturbingly he describes the economic motives for its continued destruction, how as our scientific knowledge of how these lands function and the environmental values they support, are being intentionally denied. It’s depressing.

In his final chapter and conclusion he visits with scientists working to ‘grow’ back various types of peatlands, often people working within the industries doing the destruction, because they know that what they are doing is not just unsustainable, but a potentially political powder keg. Sadly in their efforts to placate the public, fossil fuel industries in particular, often declare ‘success’ before anyone knowledgeable of peat and the lands that support them, would, sometimes even giving as evidence of their ‘success’, the fact that weeds and a few ruderals have grown across a previously mined site. In every one of these cases, the biodiversity they now support is only a laughable fraction and the return of the peat itself, entirely unsupported.
On the other hand, some of the more responsible Canadian companies harvesting peat for the horticultural industry, who are cognizant of the damage they are doing, are working to insure that their work is not just another example of the boom-bust resource extraction model…they want their lands to remain peatlands and are working to grow it back. Unsurprisingly, they have discovered that the less disturbed a peatland is, the better and more quickly it can grow back (Remind you, this is a many years process, at best). Stripping off the peat and mineral ‘overburden’ to then mine the coal or buried oil sands, is an entirely different story and no such site has, or likely will, ever be reclaimed as a healthy functional peatland. they are, effectively, destroyed.

And what does all of this mean for us gardeners and horticultural types? Because the reclamation of peatlands is a slow and not entirely assured process, we should be reducing our use of peat in the industry and in our gardens. Sadly, many peat harvesters are doing nothing to secure the future capacity of harvested lands. Minnesota, one of the states still harvesting peat, is also caught in a climate bind. As the climate continues to warm and dry the future of their peatlands is not assured. Our best strategy is to consider peat as a ‘nonrenewable’ resource, that left intact, provides valuable, even irreplaceable, environmental benefits such as the removal of pollutants, storage of precipitation, flood prevention, assuring more even stream flow over periods of seasonal drought, hugely effective at carbon sequestration and serve as natural fire breaks, a very important service in a world ever more subject to devastating wildfire….these still exist in more temperate and equatorial latitudes, but our activities have destroyed many and compromised uncounted others. Then we need to find alternatives to the regular use of peat in gardens and horticulture, putting more sustainable practices into effect, gardening in ways which respect existing conditions.


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