In January 1943, in a short essay published in The New Statesman and Nation, George Orwell surveyed his personal hoard of political pamphlets—a collection that eventually numbered nearly three thousand—and declared it to be “practically all trash.” “There is totalitarian rubbish and paranoiac rubbish,” he wrote, “but in each case it is rubbish.”
Pamphlets—paperbound booklets that opined to mass audiences, usually on political or religious subjects—had influenced British public debate since the Reformation and, famously, built popular support for revolution in the American colonies. By Orwell’s time they were less influential, but they could still be a valuable means of drawing attention to forgotten problems and unpopular opinions. Their sorry state was both surprising and regrettable, for “the pamphlet ought to be the literary form of an age like our own,” he wrote.
We live in a time when political passions run high, channels of free expression are dwindling, and organized lying exists on a scale never before known. For plugging the holes in history the pamphlet is the ideal form. Yet lively pamphlets are very few, and the only explanation I can offer—a rather lame one—is that the publishing trade and the literary papers have never gone to the trouble of making the reading public pamphlet-conscious.
The best pamphlets could draw clarity from chaos like—well, like a body from a bog. At just under two hundred pages, Annie Proulx’s Fen, Bog and Swamp is long for a pamphlet but short for a book of contemporary nonfiction. As a pamphleteer, Proulx would surely have earned Orwell’s approval: she focuses on a subject that may seem marginal but, under her brisk and probing examination, reveals its significance. The book began, she writes, “as a personal essay to help me understand the wetlands that are so intimately tied to the climate crisis,” and it developed into a fierce declaration of peat’s importance to climate stability and human survival. Proulx does not imagine she can plug the holes in the peatlands—peat, alas, is essentially irreplaceable—but she is determined to plug the peatland-size hole in our histories.
Unless you happen to live near a fen, bog, or swamp, you are most likely to encounter peat as a moss-heavy amendment to garden soil or as the source of the smoky, earthy note in some Scotch whiskies. But peat, Proulx writes, “is not a simple substance.” Composed of dead, waterlogged, partially decomposed plant material—“seasonal deposits of leaves, reeds, grasses, mosses and fibers that fall and settle in the water”—it forms over centuries as its layers compress. The water keeps out oxygen, slowing further decay and trapping the carbon dioxide and methane the rot would otherwise release into the atmosphere.
Today, peatlands cover about 3 percent of the planet’s land surface, but scientists estimate that they store twice as much soil carbon than all the world’s forests—which are about ten times as extensive. Just six years ago, researchers announced the discovery of peatlands in the Congo basin that store as much carbon as the burning of fossil fuels worldwide emits in three years.
The carbon-caching capacity of peatlands is enormous. But warming temperatures, droughts, and fires—not to mention the long-standing human penchant for draining swamps—could lead to equally enormous greenhouse gas releases. In recent years, deforestation and wildfires have flipped the carbon cycle of the eastern Amazon basin, turning a once capacious carbon sink into a carbon emitter. Peatlands could well cross the same threshold, with even weightier consequences. “Some researchers think that the next fifty years will see humankind take up all the remaining land on earth for agriculture and use every drop of fresh water,” writes Proulx. “And then what?”
Like almost everyone who has ventured to write about peat, Proulx marvels at its elaborate lexicon, which includes not only fens, bogs, and swamps but also moors, mires, morasses, quagmires, and muskegs. The diversity of terms reflects the subtle but remarkable diversity of peatlands themselves. “In aggregate the world’s peatlands resemble a book of wallpaper samples,” Proulx writes,
each with its own design and character—some little more than water and reeds, others luxuriously diverse landscapes of colors we urban moderns never knew existed, silent sepia water, brilliant mosses, pale lichen, sundews like spilled water drops. And always they are in achingly slow motion that we cannot discern unless we keep measurement records—you can stand for a year and watch though you won’t see a saltwater marsh silt up and become a fen. And always these places are under assault.
Fens are fed by rivers and other sources of mineral-rich groundwater, and are thick with reeds and grasses; bogs are fed by rainfall and are best known for their mosses; swamps, which are shallower than fens and bogs, are fed by rivers and dominated by trees and shrubs. Each has a bewildering number of subtypes. “Pocosin,” derived from an Algonquian word meaning “swamp on a hill,” refers to a type of peatland in the southeastern US that is distinguished by deep, sandy soils and evergreen trees and shrubs. Palsa bogs are a polar and subpolar bog type whose peat interiors are—or were until recently—permanently frozen. Blanket bogs, which form in areas of high rainfall, cover not only lowlands but hills and slopes; Europe’s largest blanket bog, the Flow Country of northern Scotland, is sometimes described by locals as “MAMBA Country,” or “miles and miles of bugger-all.”
For all the names humans have come up with for peatlands, we’ve devised at least as many ways to destroy them. Peatlands have long been considered more useful drained, tilled, and planted than kept intact; in few places have people chosen to leave all that rich soil sitting under a stinking swamp. “We are now in the embarrassing position of having to relearn the importance of these strange places that are 95 percent water but fibrous enough to stand on,” writes Proulx.
The human communities that did value the peatlands, and lived in and alongside them, were often as feared and despised as their landscapes. Proulx writes of the British fenlanders who, from the Neolithic onward, built homes on spots of dry ground, warmed themselves with peat fires, and lived on deer, birds, and fish, including the locally abundant eels. Beginning in the fifteenth century this rich habitat was threatened by wealthy outsiders, who privatized and then drained the fens for wheat fields and livestock pasture. Despite protests, riots, and intermittent sabotage, the fenlanders could not stop the drainage projects. As their communities shrank, some contemporaries idealized them as freer and more equitable than their upland counterparts. “But the fenlanders were neither saints nor the oft-described cretinous lazybones,” Proulx writes. “They were people who wanted their way of life to stay in its comfortable traditional ruts.”1
Centuries of such contradictory attitudes toward peatlands are literally embodied in its corpses. While fens and swamps preserve skeletons, some bogs, especially those of Northern Europe, are acidic enough to mummify bodies, dissolving their skeletons but preserving skin, hair, nails, and even clothing. These “bog bodies” date back as far as the Mesolithic period, and a comprehensive study published in January includes more than a thousand. A few, like Tollund Man, an Iron Age corpse discovered by Danish peat cutters in 1950, are so well preserved that their deaths were initially thought to be recent.
The bog bodies as a group are marked by violence; according to Proulx, “More than a few were killed over and over by various means—poison plus strangulation plus drowning plus hanging.” They include men, women, children, commoners, and royalty. Their fates have long resisted simple explanations: there is no evidence, for instance, for the persistent theory that they were persecuted for homosexual acts. Some, like Tollund Man, are thought to have died in ritual sacrifices; others may have been the victims of political assassinations, accidents, or random assaults. Like the peatlands, they remain objects of fascination, unsettling and stubbornly mysterious.
For those fleeing slavery in the antebellum American South, swamps were not a graveyard but a refuge; the isolation of the Great Dismal Swamp, straddling the Virginia–North Carolina state line, made it useful as a route on the Underground Railroad, and its thickets sheltered settlements of African Americans who had temporarily or permanently escaped slavery. When the Great Dismal Swamp Company, whose investors included George Washington, used enslaved labor to carry out the work of “draining Improving and Saving the Land” in the 1760s and 1770s, some laborers broke for freedom in the swamp.2 Landowners’ enthusiasm for draining and improving was undimmed, however, and after the Civil War, veterans’ stories about the horrors of swamp warfare heightened their determination. By the early twentieth century farmers had almost completely drained the Great Black Swamp, which covered much of Ohio and parts of Michigan and Indiana, and the “Everglades of the north,” the Grand Kankakee Marsh of northwest Indiana.
Like the southeastern swamps that persist in diminished form today—the Great Dismal, the Okefenokee—the swamps of the Midwest were home to an astonishing abundance of wildlife, serving as migratory stopovers for egrets, cranes, and uncountably large flocks of ducks and geese. But even today, many Ohioans know the conversion of swamp to farmland as a heroic tale, and what the science writer Sharon Levy describes as a “deep and abiding loathing of wetlands” remains embedded in state law. Near the beginning of Jane Smiley’s 1991 novel A Thousand Acres, an Iowa community’s pride in the draining of its marshes hints at the arrogance that undoes her modern-day Lear. “However much these acres looked like a gift of Nature, or of God, they were not,” Smiley’s narrator recalls. “We went to church to pay our respects, not to give thanks.”
In 2008, when Proulx was living in Wyoming, she collaborated with the photographer Martin Stupich on Red Desert, a book about the little-known expanse of sagebrush and sandstone badlands in southwest Wyoming. Then as now, the otherworldly landscape of the Red Desert was threatened by gas development, and Stupich’s surprisingly lush photographs, which range from grand (wide-angle shots of sand dunes and snow squalls) to whimsical (a desert-tattered copy of a Star Wars novel), pay effective tribute to a unique place. Proulx’s essays, however, are not exactly pleas for protection. “This book tries to sort out what there is about the Red Desert that makes it valuable,” she writes, adding that its many scientific and historical treasures are hidden by myth and “a thundercloud of general ignorance.” Shortly after the book’s publication, she spoke to an interviewer about the desert that inspired it. “I find it intensely interesting,” she said. “But, no. I don’t love it.” Tellingly, she added that the landscape was too dangerous to love, “because it’s a heartbreaker to see what’s happening to it.”
Proulx is an unhesitating observer of people and places, neither idealizing nor villainizing, but her acuity depends on a certain distance. In Fen, Bog and Swamp, as in Red Desert, she expresses curiosity about and deep appreciation for her subject, and passionate conviction about its importance. She holds back from love—in part, it seems, because the outlook for wetlands and their dependents (including us) is so grim.
Proulx admires ongoing efforts to restore damaged peatlands, including the Great Fen Project in Cambridgeshire, England, which began in 2001 and aspires to restore fourteen square miles of fen as habitat for rare animals and plants. But peatlands, as Proulx emphasizes, take centuries to form—the Great Fen Project operates on a hundred-year timeline—and she doubts that we are capable of speeding up the process. “Humans are exceedingly good at construction and destruction but pitifully inadequate at restoring the natural world,” she writes. “It’s just not our thing.”
Proulx does find some hope for our species in the rights-of-nature movement, which seeks to win legal standing for ecosystems and landscapes and which she sees as a sign that “the public is beginning to regard the natural world in a different way.” In April 2021 conservation advocates in Florida filed suit against a planned housing development on behalf of a group of lakes, streams, and marshes. “The plaintiffs are Wilde Cypress Branch, Boggy Branch, Crosby Island Marsh and several lakes,” she writes. “It causes a powerful mental shift when you read or say those names as ‘plaintiffs.’” (The case was dismissed in July 2022.)
Powerful as this shift may be, Proulx is too honest, or in her restrained way too kind, to let us find much solace in it. Humans and other species are already suffering the direct and indirect consequences of wetland destruction, from storm surges to climate destabilization, and while concerted efforts can cushion their effects, more disasters are inevitable. Her parting wish—that readers will “gain some of the flexibility of mind that can come with facing up to a world quivering with upheavals”—might seem at first to be cold comfort, but let it settle in. It could be the only way through this morass of our own making.
The concept of ecological restoration is a fuzzy one: even its practitioners rarely agree on what exactly is being restored, or to what end. The historian Laura J. Martin’s book Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration examines how the practice and philosophy of restoration has evolved since the early twentieth century. Martin acknowledges and engages with the field’s Eurocentrism, such as its practitioners’ long-standing assumption that the “precolonial” conditions they aspired to recreate were undisturbed by human activity. Yet she makes a strong case for restoration’s enduring value: it is, she writes, “a hopeful practice, endeavoring to undo harm and to help heal.”
Today the international Society for Ecological Restoration defines “restoration” as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” While humans have practiced various forms of ecological restoration since prehistoric times, the first formal, concerted attempts in the United States began in the early 1900s, when wealthy sportsmen supported efforts to “restore” populations of game animals such as elk, deer, and turkeys that had been depleted by unregulated recreational or commercial hunting. In some cases, these sportsmen hoped to head off new hunting restrictions. In others, they were driven to augment populations of species they considered essential to national pride—or simply their own pastime.
Most of these restoration attempts were carried out when ecology was still a young science, without a strong sense of the relationships among species and their habitats. In 1907, after New York Zoological Society director William Hornaday successfully raised a herd of young bison in the Bronx, he loaded them into railroad cars and ordered them released into an expansive enclosure in Oklahoma—land that the US government had seized from the Kiowa and Comanche. Hornaday was not particularly concerned about restoring species to their original range (he also considered releasing bison in the Adirondacks), and he was primarily interested in more bison, not in returning them to their role in the prairie ecosystem. That they survived and thrived in the Oklahoma grasslands was, essentially, a happy accident.
Hornaday, his friend Theodore Roosevelt, and other early game restorationists—who almost without exception were wealthy, white, and male—also tended to have little respect for the people whose livelihoods depended most directly on the species they sought to protect. Hornaday, for his part, assigned disproportionate blame to Native Americans for the wholesale slaughter of bison across North America, willfully ignoring substantial contemporary evidence that white commercial hunters were largely responsible.
Over the ensuing decades, restoration efforts gained both scientific sophistication and financial support. At institutions such as the University of Wisconsin–Madison Arboretum and the Vassar College Ecological Laboratory, restorationists studied the propagation of native plant species and tested methods of restoring different habitat types. After World War II, when the Department of Defense began funding research on “peaceful” applications of atomic technology, some ecologists embraced the opportunity, irradiating fish in hopes of creating pollution-resistant types and, more successfully, using radioisotopes to trace the movement of molecules through ecosystems.
While the latter experiments led to a greatly expanded understanding of the interconnections within ecosystems, that knowledge has been unevenly applied. In the twentieth century, however, the field did progress from single-species rescues to much more complex, long-term attempts to repair entire systems to some level of independent functioning—to “cede some control of the restoration process to other organisms,” Martin writes. The Society for Ecological Restoration’s use of the verb “assist” in its current definition is deliberate: where conservation has historically emphasized human management, and preservation has aspired to eliminate it entirely, restoration has traveled a crooked path between the two traditions, seeking to incorporate the strengths of both.
Since the 1980s the restoration of wetlands—including peatlands—has become a multibillion-dollar international business, thanks in large part to a US Army Corps of Engineers decision allowing wetland-destroying developments to meet their Clean Water Act obligations by restoring or protecting wetlands elsewhere. This so-called compensatory mitigation, though often poorly defined and regulated, spread worldwide and quickly professionalized the practice of restoration, much of which is now carried out by commercial firms with specialties such as invasive plant removal, dam demolition, and urban stream revitalization. As Martin points out, the notion that the destruction of one ecosystem can be neutralized by the ostensible protection of another also underlies today’s carbon offset schemes.
Ecological restoration at its best, Martin writes, is “an optimistic collaboration with nonhuman species” that achieves a measure of justice for both humans and the ecosystems they depend on. More than a century after Hornaday sent his herd of Bronx-raised bison to Oklahoma, a much more ambitious and informed bison restoration campaign is underway across North America, an effort led in large part by the indigenous people whose ancestors depended on the species: dozens of tribes and First Nations, including the Blackfeet in Montana and the Rosebud Sioux in South Dakota, are pursuing bison restoration. While most of the estimated 400,000 bison on the plains today live on private land and are raised for commercial sale, tens of thousands have been restored to tribal lands, where they are valued both as a protein source and for their enduring significance in tribal cultures. As these bison roam more freely, they can begin to fertilize and aerate the prairie soil as they did long ago.
Both Martin and Proulx make clear, however, that not even the most sophisticated restoration methods can substitute for protecting ecosystems in the first place. Near the end of Fen, Bog and Swamp, Proulx describes the work of the Florida biologist Roy Lewis, who spent nearly a half-century working to restore not peatlands but mangrove swamps, before he passed away in 2018. It took him years of close observation to identify the ideal conditions for mangrove reproduction, and yet more years to refine his restoration method, which involves using earthmoving equipment to build an angled slope that the tides can keep wet—but not too wet.
Lewis learned, through patient trial and error on a shoreline near Fort Lauderdale, that once a slope is constructed, the best propagation strategy is to wait for seeds to arrive on the current. If all goes well, they will take root on the slope, and after five years or so, if all continues to go well, they may form a mangrove stand large enough to shelter fish and birds. Restoration, done right, is always worth doing. But to restore all the damage done would require time that we no longer have.
The wide skies and unearthly beauty of the fenlands, along with the insularity of their Victorian-era communities, are memorably depicted in Sarah Perry’s novel The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail, 2016) and its recent TV adaptation. ↩
For more on self-emancipation in the Great Dismal Swamp, see Marcus P. Nevius, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Marronage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856 (University of Georgia Press, 2020); and J. Brent Morris, Dismal Freedom: A History of the Maroons of the Great Dismal Swamp (University of North Carolina Press, 2022). ↩