Fen, Bog and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis , a Review

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Novelist Annie Proulx, begins her book with her childhood, giving us an idea of who she is, her attachments to the living world. She takes us with her on a walk she took with her mother as a young girl, through the neighborhood wilds, to an ignored patch of swampland. Her mother loved such places. She places her story in the larger story of the times of her birth and coming of age, of the 1930’s and the cruelties we perpetrated on each other and our limited view of the natural world, a world set as a table before us, for our consumption. She writes of her attachments to these abused and devalued wet landscapes, their necessity for a healthy natural world and what their loss means. Earlier, I reviewed Edward Struzik’s book “Swamplands”. Struzik has spent years working with researchers and conservationists in the field, and writing of his experiences. Proulx’s approach is much more personal as she works to place bogs, fens and swamps into a human, historical and cultural context.

She enlists the term ‘mire’ to group the many wetland types, of which their are a confusing array, the names of which are commonly used interchangeably, increasing confusion. While she does delve into the ‘science’ of these soggy landscapes, she spends most of her time describing what they ‘mean’ and what they likely meant many years ago, back into the preliterate times of the mesolithic. Mesolithic peoples, of which we know relatively little, for certain, lived out of necessity, with the land at a time of great change as the planet moved out of the last Ice Age. She invites comparisons with those times and our own and notes the differences that these changes we face today are of our own making, the climate warming, the seas rising, shorelines inundated and lost in the sea’s depths. For mesolithic peoples these larger changes took place over thousands of years, at times punctuated by more catastrophic ones, dependent upon ones local geography. She illustrates this with her descriptions of the broad, shallow North Sea area and the loss/flooding of its tidelands and fens beneath its rise, fed by the flood of meltwater freed from the ice pack, the people and fens moving in concert with the water’s rise. Proulx is a story teller and, story is all about context. True understanding comes when we understand a ‘thing’ in its context. When we speak of nature that context changes with our changing relationships with it. This is when Proulx is at her best, providing us with some of the rich context which we are likely ignorant of, an ignorance that leads to our undervaluing of a ‘thing’. We are a people always eager to strip away the extraneous, the fluff, and get down to the facts, but when we do that we are in danger of losing our attachment, our capacity to value that which may have analyzed and assessed.

Proulx completed this book after turning 87 years old. It is clear as she has aged how she views our treatment of the world, its consumption, diminishment and defilement. There has long been a human tendency toward what we would naively or greedily call improvement, unable to see, or admit, our too common acts of hubris. Proulx would likely say that our particular way of doing this is dependent upon our ignorance of that which we consume, of our tendency to be blind to other values than those that we hold and so be ready to transform a place to which we attribute little or no value, without ever living with it and considering what it has to offer, what roles it has played so successfully across the natural world and time for those peoples who once lived with such places. She writes that she is cynical, that the book is not an effort to prompt us into action, just an invitations to follow her along as she seeks to understand these related places, which are in rapid decline, due largely to our efforts, at precisely the time in history when we need them most. I share her pathway to understanding, writing is how I make sense of the world, how I incorporate the world’s lessons. Bogs, fens and swamps are buffers against catastrophic change and essential for the lives of many thousands of species. Including, it would seem, our modern selves.

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