Book Review: The Magic of the World’s Soggy Places

Wmy sister At age 4, I introduced her to a swamp on a children’s trail in a park east of Seattle that was hung with a series of pictorial signs telling a story called “The Zoo and the Swamp Monster.” The word “swamp” in all its mystery, beauty and ugliness was a new vocabulary for her. We walked through the dark green meadows and read aloud to each other Zoe’s story, about a little girl who befriends a series of animals. I also showed her how to identify bed straws—a plant with little Velcro-like hooks—and attach them to her parents’ clothes, to their chagrin and her amusement. We looked at mud puddles, mushrooms, leaves, bird nests, ferns and trees, and looked for wet bogs – nothing to be seen. At the end of the walk, she called into the trees, “I’m not afraid of you, swamp!” That was the lesson I hoped he would find there.

It was also a rare moment — both a child’s experience of nature that is diminishing as everyone spends more time with screens, and a quiet revelation about the magic of wetlands. As Annie Proulx reminds us in her new book, Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Brief History of Peatland Degradation and Its Role in the Climate Crisis,

“Wets are stigmatized in common language, stories, and expressions. For example, sugarcane and honeydew should be avoided.

Such aversion is partly warranted, based on memories of previous generations suffering from malaria (spread by mosquitoes that live in wetlands) or the unpleasant experiences of European-American settlers who did not know how to Move easily and do not live comfortably in large areas. Peat and muck, fish and birds. “Drain the swamp” was a Reagan-era slogan before Donald Trump revived the phrase during his 2016 campaign.

And Americans have done it for centuries: People living near the United States have destroyed or drained more than 100 million acres of wetlands—which would cover an area larger than the size of California.

Proulx makes clear that our phobia and destructive attitude towards wetlands has ultimately caused great harm. In a fascinating narrative that reads like walking through a pile of trash or trash ideas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author invites us to examine the long arc of wetland history and reconsider whether we Really afraid of it? wrong things Our fear of wetlands has led us to risk our future.


The book asks us to look deeper into the wetlands to discover a series of hopeful and sobering lessons. More importantly: wetlands are truly the unsung heroes. They raise young fish, provide shelter to birds, bats, bugs and sometimes large mammals such as panthers and bears. For example, mangroves are trees and plants that live in coastal swamps, and they form peat that is home to clams, crabs, crabs, and shrimps, and filters pollutants from the water. Their “intertwining roots protect small fish from the ferocious jaws of larger fish, and even manatees and dolphins take refuge there.”

In the current era of climate instability, swamps, bogs, and bogs also store carbon deep in their roots, sand, and peat soils and protect it from the atmosphere. Florida’s Everglades, for example, store an estimated 1.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to a 2015 study by the Harvard Kennedy School. By comparison, New York City emitted the equivalent of about 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2020. Like many big cities, New York was built in part on flooded wetlands, and there’s a problem here. We’ve traded for carbon-storage fans, bogs, and carbon-poor landscapes like cities, roads, and industrial farms. Can we restore and restore our ancient wetlands? Will it provide an answer to our current crisis?

But Proulx is not a linear writer, and he does not give us simple answers. He invites his readers to look hard and long and see things from unusual angles. Go back in time with Proulx, and you find that wetlands are also intertwined in human political and cultural history – and perhaps need to be reconsidered if we are to be any species on this dirty planet. Find stability.

Wetlands are the keeper of deep time and ancient secrets, and the natural preservatives in peat and sphagnum moss can prevent the decay of ancient remains for millennia. Archaeologists and historians have found clues about past cultures and civilizations in the pit. There are many periods and places, for example, when people lived comfortably among deserts, trenches, and swamps—and derived both wealth and a sense of divinity from this association.

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In early British history, for example, the “Fin people” of East Anglia, north-east of London, had a variety of their own: the Finnlanders “wetlands after river floods; “How to manage, how to work to repair and raise natural banks. Or rising sea levels or more rainfall.” They found sustenance from “rich pasture grass for the cattle” and “hordes of delicious eels and fish, wild birds, birds and feathers, and peat oil.”

But they were also victims of class and a kind of proto-colonialism. The Upland Britons viewed the Finnlanders as ignorant, lazy, and incompetent and insisted on draining and redistributing the wilderness to the rich, as in the 17th century, when Kings James I and Charles I hired a Dutch engineer to exchange the land. Clean the water from the stains. The plan was scrapped after the fan crowd protested and disrupted the work, but over time, both the fans and the knowledge of how to live with them suffered.

The story repeats itself on other continents and spans the globe: wars over land and wealth and control, and wetlands are among the casualties. What if we re-examine and re-examine our colonial history? What if we reconsidered the ways that even now we treat the indigenous people of wetlands in Ecuador, Australia, Canada or Brazil? The book cites examples of wetland restoration and restoration, but doesn’t make us too easy or too sure. Look again, it says.

The book’s chapters look across broad landscapes and jump between science, history, and literature. Proulx’s unique authorial voice appears in places that range from long prose-poetry readings—interspersed with images, metaphors, and quick observations, beginning with the wet scenes from her childhood and then moving on to larger-scale, personal and planetary. The broader, visionary insights include: “Little data appear at times like fireflies on a summer’s night and we humans are tearing our hair out to understand the real-time impacts of climate change.” Trying to collect” and “persistent low-level crime.”

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Both the data and the stories say that the planet’s wetlands are being depleted—and so is our sense of security. Some wetland ecosystems have begun to release carbon instead of storing it. Some of the world’s largest wetlands have suffered from peat fires in places like the Amazon, Pantanal and Siberia. But be careful, the book advises. We can restore wetlands, although some restoration efforts have failed because engineers did not consider microhabitats and root and soil hydrology at small scales.

Look and observe ecology, and we can succeed. He mentions how a Florida ecologist in the 1980s created an ideal water flow for trees by carefully re-engineering a mountain of coastal land—their seeds went in and took root on their own.

As the narrator moves through the pits, more mysteries are revealed. Facts and evidence come into focus and then sink into the gut.

Swamp monsters run amok, but there are bigger things to fear, like “happy profiteers destroying wild places,” plagues, and “toxic drug politics.” Like a literary magic trick, it’s all wonderfully and skillfully woven together with the wet, wild, and barren places that Proulx describes.

We have failed—we still fail—to understand the complexities of wetland ecosystems and our role in them, he argues throughout the book. And now we fail to repair them at a critical moment:

“Humans are great at building and destroying but woefully inadequate at restoring the natural world. That’s not our thing.”

But before he leaves us with too much disappointment, Prokes asks us to look again. There are many small examples of hope in the world: wetlands are restored, trees are regrown, laws are changed in fundamental and important ways to protect nature instead of destroying it. Look, listen, see, study, the book suggests, and humans don’t have to be the monsters of this story.

This article was originally published on Indark. Read the original article.

Teaser photo credit: Photo by Tyler Butler on Unsplash


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