By and large, our enterprising American ancestors hated swamps, which they saw as obstacles to travel and agriculture. In the timeless war between swamp folk and swamp drainers, most were firmly in the latter camp—supported with vigor by the government.
Count Annie Proulx as one of the swamp folk at heart. The acclaimed author of The Shipping News, Barkskins and “Brokeback Mountain” turns her perceptive eye to the calamitous destruction of the world’s peatlands in Fen, Bog & Swamp, an information-packed short history that argues for their preservation and restoration.
As a nonscientist, Proulx explains in accessible language how fens, bogs and swamps differ by water level and vegetation, and how crucial each of these ecosystems is to a balanced environment. The very short version is that they store carbon dioxide and methane, so when peatlands are disrupted, those gases are released and contribute to the climate change crisis, which is itself one of the things causing those disruptions. Peatlands are also home to a staggering number of plant and animal species integral to a healthy ecological community.
One of Proulx’s chapters is called “Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands,” which sums up her approach. She ranges widely, both thematically and geographically, from the small Limberlost Swamp in Indiana to the huge Vasyugan Swamp in Siberia. She considers plenty of archaeology (the Shigir Idol), history (the Battle of Teutoburg Forest) and literature (A Girl of the Limberlost) along the way, sprinkling in reminiscences of her own wetland encounters as well. Among the most interesting discussions are her explorations of the interactions between human and peatland, as in the ritual sacrifices later turned up as “bog bodies” by terrified peat cutters.
In truth, Proulx argues, humans are able to coexist very well with peatlands if they harvest their bounty with respect. When the drainers win, they’re usually sorry in the long run. She notes that luckily, there are a number of promising restoration projects around the world, but they’re small. It turns out it’s a lot harder to re-create a swamp than to preserve one.