Annie Proulx, Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis (4th Estate 2022).
Reviewed by SLBI Member, Craig Swick.
This book is very enjoyable to read. She explains how wetlands are created and the difference between fens, bogs and swamps. Most of the book, however contains interesting histories of how wetlands have been seen throughout history as well as her personal stories from growing up near a swamp. There is a special emphasis on ancient history, the period after the seventeenth century when the goal was to drain wetlands, and more recent views of trying to restore them.
For those who do not already know, fens are peat forming wetlands where the water drains from soils containing minerals. They generally have reeds and marsh grasses. Bogs are the home of sphagnum mosses and are formed from soils not containing minerals. The soil is very poor which makes them good homes for carnivorous plants. Swamps come from mineral soils but can support trees and shrubs; they are the step before a dry forest.
The pattern of wetland development she describes across different eras and locations starts with people who have learned to live in harmony with them and utilize their plants, fish and wildlife. Then someone, often the government, decides the land would be more useful if it were drained and turned into farmland. Eventually people find the wildlife and native plants are gone. Today more sites are being restored to wetlands or peatlands. The conversion of wetland to cropland releases the carbon that was stored in the peat. Now because of climate change there is increasing interest growing peat to recapture the carbon. This is also the reason behind the movement to stop harvesting peat which historically has been used as a source of heat and in horticulture to retain water.
One of the author’s interesting historical digressions is about Doggerland which existed during the last ice age when the North Sea was much lower. The land extended from England to the Netherlands and neolithic people lived in the area and benefitted from the fish, plant harvests and wildlife. The built peat houses on the dry land as well as some trackways as early as 3800 B.C. They also raised cattle, probably Aurochs. Evidence of these people first came from finds in fishermen’s nets and now there are underwater archeological expeditions.
Another interesting bog story she tells is about the Teutonburg Forest where the “barbarian” German troops were able to defeat the Roman legions in 9 A.D. because of their superior knowledge of the local bogs. Arminius, known as Hermann in German, was able to get the Roman troops into a pass and attack them, forcing them into the bog where many of them drowned.
Bogs are also well known because of the preserved bodies found in them. There is great disagreement about why the bodies were in the bog to begin with. Some think they are human sacrifices. Others think convicted criminals or other undesirables or possibly deposed rules. The polysaccharide sphagnum and the acid in the bog water keeps oxygen out and preserves the body. The acid, however, dissolves the bones so the bodies when they are recovered are like a large brown sack. Jewelry and other artifacts have been found with the bodies. She discusses how the bodies have inspired art and literature.
The latter part of the book is about the bogs and swamps in the American South and Midwest. The Dismal Swamp at the Virginia and North Carolina border were important in the U.S. Civil War. The wetlands in Ohio and Indiana were important habitats for waterfowl which attracted hunters from all over. But the birds disappeared when the land was drained. In some states there is an attempt to fill the wetlands again to bring back the wildlife. In Ohio, however, she says the wetlands were so difficult to drain and so hated there is no desire to bring them back.
One other wetland she discusses are the mangrove forests in warm coastal waters, which in addition to providing a home for fish and wildlife. Because they grow in brackish and saline waters they are able to form peat at their roots. She discusses their lifecycle that depends on new seeds floating to a good location and on the rise and fall of the tidal water.
Her message is there is a need to preserve and restore all these wetlands because of the variety of life they support and because of the large amount of carbon captured in the peat and sphagnum moss. This book would appeal to anyone wanting to learn more about these unusual habitats.
Craig Swick, December 2022