Fen, bog & swamp A short history of peatland destruction and its role in the climate crisis

Annie Proulx

Book - 2022

From Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx - whose novels are infused with her knowledge and deep concern for the earth - comes an urgent and riveting history of wetlands, their ecological role and how the loss of them threatens the planet. Fens, bogs, swamps and marine estuaries are the earth's most desirable and dependable resources, and in four illuminating parts Proulx documents the emergence of their systemic destruction in the pursuit of profit and the consequent release of their stored carbon. Wide-ranging and idiosyncratic, Proulx's explanation of wetlands takes readers to the fens of sixteenth-century England, Canada's Hudson Bay Lowlands, Russia's Great Vasyugan Mire and America's Okefenokee National Wildlife... Refuge and introduces the nineteenth-century explorers who launched the ravaging of the Amazon rainforest. Proulx was born in the 1930s, a time, as she says, when 'in the ever-continuing name of progress, Western countries busily raped their own and other countries of minerals, timber, fish and wildlife.' Fen, Bog & Swamp is both a revelatory history and an urgent plea for wetland reclamation from a writer whose passionate devotion to observing and preserving the environment is on glorious display.

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New York : Scribner 2022.
Main Author
Annie Proulx (author)
First Scribner hardcover edition
Physical Description
196 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references (pages 174-196).
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

National Book Award-- and Pulitzer Prize--winning Proulx's attunement to the intricacies and vulnerabilities of nature and humankind's reckless exploitation of the living world shapes her celebrated fiction. Here she defines wetlands and explains how they store carbon and support biodiversity, what role they've played in prehistoric and historical cultures, why they've been destroyed, and how their decimation makes the climate crisis worse. Referencing a heady array of sources scientific and literary, sharing her own peatland experiences, and writing with her signature vitality, precision, and creativity, she crafts a galvanizing narrative out of a cavalcade of facts, mixing earth science with the long history of Europe and North America's fenlanders, bog people, and swamp dwellers. Proulx's concern for the future of life on earth as the planet warms is acute, while her inquiry into the watery places where peat is found balances alarm and despair with wonder and affirmation of nature's ability to rebound. "A cascade of tipping points is at hand," Proulx warns, and one of the many efforts we must urgently undertake is the preservation and restoration of carbon-storing peatlands.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Pulitzer winner Proulx (Barkskins) sounds the alarm on the place of Earth's wetlands in the climate crisis in this stunning account. In an attempt to "understand some of what has disappeared," Proulx lays out how "the history of wetlands is the history of their destruction." They've largely been drained for agricultural and housing purposes, she writes, and continuing that trend risks calamity, as wetlands' peat layers contain huge quantities of methane and carbon dioxide that will be released if they're destroyed. Her dire warnings are leavened with glimpses of potential hope, but the bigger picture is bleak: "The world needs the great swamps we have drained away and the few that still exist but the human impetus to develop and drain continues," she writes. Proulx's prose is, as ever, stunning--in bogs, "black pools of still water in the undulating sphagnum moss can seem to be sinkholes into the underworld," and the Earth'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 knew existed." This resonant ode to a planet in peril is tough to forget. Agent: Liz Darhansoff, Darhansoff & Verrill. (Sept.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Pulitzer Prize--winning author and lifelong environmentalist Proulx follows Barkskins, her 2016 novel about lumbering, with this collection of short essays about peatlands. Draining a swamp, readers learn, comes as naturally to humankind as destroying a forest. Beginning with "Discursive Thoughts on Wetlands," Proulx recounts childhood memories of swamps, discusses how wetlands are classified, explains general properties of peat and its crucial role in carbon capture, and more. With the exception of "heroes of the bog"--sphagnum mosses--she does not write extensively about wetlands' flora and fauna. Rather, her focus is on human relationships with wetlands, including a fascinating account of northern Europe's Iron-age bog bodies. Her eye for folly is sharply trained on the long record of ruinous drainage "projects." But while there are many occasions for eco-grief in the book, there are also glimmers of hope: e.g., in the scientists who laid the groundwork to the understanding of these ecosystems and the many restoration projects underway. VERDICT Fans of Proulx's fiction, even those with marginal interest in peatlands, will be intrigued by the snippets of memoir and the habits of a writer's mind that this collection reveals.--Robert Eagan

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

The noted novelist turns to environmental history to describe the workings of the world's wetlands. "A swamp is a minerotrophic peat-making wetland dominated by trees and shrubs," writes Proulx in an opening introduction of terms that contrasts swamps with the fens and bogs of her title. All these bodies yield peat, partially decomposed vegetable matter that humans have used for various purposes over the centuries, including fuel and fertilizer. The problem is, in the world-destroying period that Proulx brightly calls the "psychozoic," with the increased exploitation of wetlands, the greenhouse gases held in peat formations are being released into the atmosphere, a vicious circle of climate change that continues to get worse. "That is the frightening side of peatland's ability to hold in huge amounts of carbon dioxide: rip or burn the cover off and it is in your face," writes the author, who ranges widely in this short book. She provides a particularly good compact history of the draining of the fens of eastern England in an act pitting capitalists against working people and turning the vast wetlands, "one of the world's richest environments," to farmland--and, of course, releasing greenhouse gases to accompany those generated by the first factories of the Industrial Revolution. A proverbial "pot of gold" awaits those who undertake such conversions. As Proulx writes, the swamp, fens, and bogs of North America, once drained, yielded valuable hardwoods, while the mangrove swamps of Mexico are being "deliberately destroyed…to open an area for the construction of a large Pemex oil refinery." Remaking the world inevitably impoverishes it and us, as Proulx writes in a crescendo that damns the damming of the Mississippi River, turning it into "a large mud canal" in the bargain, its delta now being swallowed up by rising seawater. An eloquent, engaged argument for the preservation of a small and damp yet essential part of the planet. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.