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Fen, Bog and Swamp by Annie Proulx

As this book does, I think it is helpful to start with a brief definition of a fen, bog and swamp. I believed they were pretty much interchangeable words, but apparently not. A fen is a peat forming wetland at least partly fed by waters that have contact with mineral soils (like rivers and streams). It supports reeds and marsh grasses and fen waters tend to be deep. A bog is a peat-making wetland where the water source has no contact with mineral soils – so fed by rainfall. It supports sphagnum mosses and tends to be shallower than fens. A swamp is also a peat-making wetland, but is dominated by trees and shrubs. Waters have contact with mineral soils and are even shallower than fens and bogs.

One page in and already I have learnt lots.

For those that don’t know Annie Proulx, she is the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of novels such as The Shipping News and Barkskins, and the short story Brokeback Mountain. As well as fiction she has also written the wonderful non-fiction account of building her home in the Wyoming wetlands, called Bird Cloud.

Her love of nature and her conservation drive were very clear even then, eleven years ago. This latest work of non-fiction is a closer look at the way that mankind has sought to drain water from these essential areas. We have been doing it for centuries, but only now are we beginning to understand the lasting damage that we have caused. Only now do we understand that these areas emit carbon dioxide. So often we have converted them into rich arable pastures, but now when we plough them, out pours the CO2. Also they are expensive to maintain with pipes and pumps, the soils blow away when dry or erode when flooded. The mistakes we made centuries ago are coming back to haunt us.

It would be wrong to make you think this book is just an ecological manifesto. It is also history book and contains plenty of literary references. For example, I loved this quote from a young Charles Darwin:

I give proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then saw a third and new kind which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! It ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

There is no doubt that we are creating a vast ecological disaster with the ways we treat our bogs and fens. Recently, we find that the underground peat fires that burn for months in the northern tundra regions, not only emit vast amounts of CO2 and methane which had been sealed up by the peat, but even the heavy deposit of soot that settles on the melting ice causes the ice to lose reflectivity and so makes it absorb more heat and melt even faster.

‘Peat making is a process of millennia; peat mining a matter of weeks or years.‘ Although Proulx is American her examples are international, from the fens of Eastern England to the bog bodies of northern Europe, to the creation of vast agricultural lands of the mid-western USA. The European Union forbade the cutting of peat in 2011, but Ireland fought against the ruling until 2018. Use of such landscapes also figure heavily in the story-telling, going as far back as Roman times when the huge defeat inflicted on the previously invincible Roman legions was down to the superior use of unstable boggy landscapes by the Germanic tribes.

Scotland’s Flow Country is a habitat that is home to vast numbers of migratory birds. But the draining of the land and planting of huge conifer forests decimated the landscape in ways no-one could imagine. After planting subsidies vanished, the forests were cut, and the bogs were levelled once more, but it has taken sixteen years for the area to stop emitting CO2 and the more-deadly methane. Methane is eighty times more powerful than carbon dioxide in its ability to push the warming of the world. That is where the bog, as the haunt of sphagnum moss, is critical. Ordinary plants, such as grasses, shrubs and trees, sprout, grow and absorb CO2. When they die and rot the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. In bogs, the sphagnum below the surface does not collapse and decay. As long as it is left alone it holds in the CO2 and methane. Bogs that were drained, ploughed and planted with crops hundreds of years ago are still releasing CO2 today. These are problems that it has taken us decades of science to even start to understand. It will take us many more to work out how to reverse some of the damage we have done. What is clear from this book is just how important it is for us to retain, protect and enhance any fen, bog and swamp we may have left.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Fourth Estate


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