It’s not every day that a Pulitzer Prize winner writes a book about the environment and climate change. Well, Fen, Bog & Swamp by Annie Proulx has just been released; and in it, Proulx gives a wide-ranging history of wetlands and an explanation of the role they play in preserving the environment. Let’s take a closer look at the book and discuss what messages it has for conservation.
Before we get into the book, let’s start with some definitions. All of these are from Wetland Ecology: Principles and Conservation (2nd ed.) by Paul A. Keddy.
A fen is a type of peat-accumulating wetland fed by mineral-rich ground or surface water. Its chemical pH is alkaline (or basic), which is an important characteristic of fens. This attracts very specific plant species.
A bog or bogland is a wetland that accumulates peat as a deposit of dead plant materials – often mosses, typically sphagnum moss. In contrast to fens, they derive most of their water from precipitation rather than mineral-rich ground or surface water. Its chemical pH is acidic, which also attracts very specific plant species.
A swamp is a forested wetland. The water of a swamp may be fresh water, brackish water, or seawater. While a swamp is dominated by woody plant species, a marsh is a wetland dominated by herbaceous plant species such as grasses, rushes, or reeds. Around here, these usually have lots of cattails.
The world’s largest wetlands are almost always a mix of fen, bog, and swamp – the inclusive word for such mixed peatlands is mire.
The book has four sections: an overview of Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands followed by three sections on The English Fens, Bogs, and Swamp. Each section mixes biology, discussions on biodiversity and climate change, personal ruminations, memories, and references to numerous books, poems, novellas, and essays by numerous authors including Henry David Thoreau, James Rebanks, and the English missionary-nurse Kate Marsden. My favorite title of the cited literary pieces is Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws. Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions; Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians by William Bartram. Note that it has the shortened title of Bartram’s Travels.
Proulx takes a wide-ranging journey through history, going from Doggerland (an area of land, now submerged beneath the North Sea, that connected Britain to continental Europe) to the fens of 16th-century England to Canada’s Hudson Bay lowlands, the Yakutia in the Russian Far East, the Amazon, the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, and the Kankakee Marsh. Along the way, she writes of the diseases spawned in the wetlands–the Ague, malaria, Marsh Fever–and the surprisingly significant role of peat in industrialization.
I personally most enjoyed the part of the book about Bog Bodies. Bogs are great preservers. In Northern European bogs have been found coins, jewelry, pots, tools, and well-preserved bodies. As Proulx describes:
“The qualities of a bog that preserved human bodies, tanning the skin, halting the decay process, also saved hair, beard stubble, and intact and lustrous fingernails.”
There is the seventeen feet tall Shigir Idol found in the Shigir peat bog near Kirovgrad. The Grauballe Man is a bog body that was uncovered in 1952 from a peat bog near the village of Grauballe in Jutland, Denmark. Yde Girl is a bog body found in the Stijfveen peat bog near the village of Yde, Netherlands. Windeby I is the name given to the bog body found preserved in a peat bog near Windeby, Northern Germany, in 1952. Until recently, the body was also called the Windeby Girl, since an archeologist initially believed it to be the body of a 14-year-old girl, because of its slight build. Jimmy Hoffa is rumored to be buried in a wetland. It makes you wonder what might be found in the bogs of Illinois. Should I somehow end up in a bog, it would be nice to be discovered having lustrous fingernails.
Destruction over the years is a main part of her book. Which, I suppose, should be expected given that its subtitle is ‘A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis.’ But there are also wonderful descriptions of wetlands.
“In aggregate the world’s peatlands resemble a book of wallpaper samples, each with its own design and character – some little more than water and reeds, others luxuriously diverse landscapes of colors we urban moderns never new existed, silent sepia water, brilliant mosses, pale lichen, sundews like spilled water drops.”
And Proulx also makes note of the irony that wetland conservation and preservation of wildlife habitat owe much to hunters like Ducks Unlimited. It’s been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. Perhaps it can be said about conservation as well.
This is a short book and well worth the read. I would have liked more encouragement of conservation efforts. Perhaps she wants to shame us into action by describing our destructive past and inspire us into action by describing the beauty and spiritual nature of wetlands.
Ultimately it comes down to wetland conservation. Efforts that can include:
Protection of watersheds – preservation and protection of watersheds and development of water quality restoration plans. This also includes habitat conservation efforts along with solid or hazardous waste cleanup plans under state or federal programs.
Improved cropland practices – minimizing and removal of practices that can exacerbate the impairment of water bodies such as excessive or detrimental application of pesticides and fertilizers, lack of soil conservation, wetland destruction, and poor maintenance of farm equipment.
Protection of wetlands – protecting wetlands, streams, and lakes from dredging and filling. This also counters loss of natural hydrology and helps maintain natural recycling of water from rain that contributes to clean water.
Protection of species and ecological integrity – ensuring threatened and endangered species and habitat are included in designated uses and developing criteria to protect them. Furthermore, conservationists can insist on adequate implementation of the antidegradation policy to protect existing water quality and ecologically significant areas.
Finally, here are a few local wetlands you can explore, perhaps after reading the book. A few of these have been preserved with the help of The Conservation Foundation (TCF).
- Lincoln Marsh Natural Area, Wheaton
- Volo Bog State Natural Area, Lake County
- Dick Young Forest Preserve/Nelson Lake Marsh, Batavia
- Spring Bluff Fen, Elgin
- Otter Creek Bend Wetland, St. Charles
- Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, St. Charles
- Lily Cache Creek Wetlands, Bolingbrook/Romeoville
So how can you contribute to conservation efforts that preserve fens, bogs, and swamps? As you can tell from previous comments, wetland conservation is what TCF does – and has been doing for fifty years. We can all do more together than we can alone. Join our collective momentum – become a member today!
Feel free to comment on this blog with your thoughts on conservation and preservation of wetlands.
By Steve Stawarz, Oak Brook
DuPage County Advisory Council Member