Fen, Bog and Swamp: A short history of peatland destruction and its role in the climate crisis, by Annie Proulx

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Review by Peter Reason

I used to keep my little yacht Coral, companion of many voyages and pilgrimages, on trot moorings on the Cattewater in Plymouth. On the further side of the River Plym was a mudflat, covered at high tide, which at low tide was the haunt of seabirds and waders, all digging around in the mud in search of food. One day, as I rowed out to the mooring, there was an unusual bumping and crashing, and the roar of heavy diesels from across the river: huge trucks were hauling in large boulders which they tipped onto the mudbank. In time, the flats were completely covered, a sea wall was built, and various commercial structures constructed.  This process is usually called ‘land reclamation’ but is better seen as colonizing, even stealing, shallow riverine flats that previously were communities of more-than-human life.

It is this kind of human intervention, taking over ecosystems that don’t suit human needs and interests as seen at the time, that Annie Proulx documents in Fen, Bog & Swamp. The book is a personal lament for the loss of wetlands across the globe, which started out as “a personal essay to help me understand the wetlands that are so intimately tied to the climate crisis”. 

There are four main sections: Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands, followed by chapters on each of Fen, Bog, and Swamp. Proulx explains how these peatlands evolve in different ways and support different vegetations. The reader will learn a lot about the centuries-long process of interaction of different qualities of water with plantlife which produces peat; a lot about modern human dislike of these wetlands; and much about human greed. The reader is taken to some unlikely sources in this exploration which is, inevitably, partly scientific, partly historical, partly political.

The most engaging, and disturbing, sections are those where Proulx draws on her narrative capabilities as a novelist to tell the story of wetland destruction. Historically, the East Anglian Fens were full of ecologies of wildlife and communities of humans. These were looked down upon by city dwellers, who thought the inhabitants dirty and diseased and themselves as ‘civilized’. There was no protection, and over the centuries the Fens were progressively enclosed and drained in the interests of elites. Elsewhere, stories of ‘Bog Bodies’ and how German tribes used bogs to help them ambush the invading Romans, are similarly engaging; as are the accounts of the draining of the Great Dismal Swamp, Black Swamp, and many more in North America. All these ‘reclamations’ impacted severely on wildlife and on those human communities outside the mainstream. I was reminded of the account by African American ecologist and nature writer Drew Lanham. He tells how two quite different groups of outsiders – the now-extinct Carolina parakeet and Maroons, self-liberated slaves – both raided plantations and both found refuge in the swampy woodlands (my review here). There is also a significant link between the draining of wetlands and what Amitav Ghosh, in The Nutmeg’s Curse, refers to as ‘terraforming’, the reconstruction of land to conform to the colonists ideas of what fruitful land should look like, and at the same time to starve out the indigenous peoples.

Annie Proulx’s purpose in her writing may be gleaned from quite early in the book:

There is a yawning gap between our past idealistic honour of the web of life, that wordless bond of interrelationships between all parts of the earth, and, in today’s human-bossed world, a recipe for how a divided and impulsive species can go about “managing the entire planet in a combined physical and biological system,” as a well-known champion of market-based conservation sets out as a goal. We, who cannot even manage to live peaceably together, can “manage” the whole earth?

There is no arguing with that.

There is much that the reader can gain from this book, and without doubt it is important to draw a wider attention to these lands which are both crucial to the well-being of the planet for carbon capture as well as to the continued existence of many species, often despised by a colonizing culture. In parts the book is engrossing. Yet it also betrays its origins in growing, as Proulx tells us, from a personal essay into a book. Often the writing leaps from topic to topic, the narrative falters, and as a reader I quite often found myself asking, “How did we get here?” 

This is a book is certainly a good lay guide to wetlands across the globe, their contribution to global ecology and the damage that has been done to them by ‘civilised’ and colonising humans. It will certainly appeal to those, who as Annie Proulx says of herself, “are fond of tracing ideas and their connections in unlikely places and old books”.  And while I found some of the “unlikely” connections distracting, it is a book I am pleased to have read. 

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Peter Reason seeks to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times. He is currently engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world?  His most recent publications include Voicing Rivers Through Ontopoetics (with Jacqueline Kurio; and (with artist Sarah Gillespie) On Presence and On SentienceHis online presence is at peterreason.net and Twitter @peterreason.

Annie Proulx, Fen, Bog and Swamp (4th Estate, London) ISBN 9780008534394, hardback, 176 pp..

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