When my niece was 4 years old, I introduced her to a swamp — in a park east of Seattle on a trail for kids that was posted with a series of illustrated signs narrating a story called “Zoe and the Swamp Monster.” The word, “swamp,” in all its mystery, beauty, and monstrosity, was new vocabulary to her. We tromped into the dark greenery toward the sedge meadows and read Zoe’s story aloud to each other, about a little girl who befriends a series of swampland animals. I also showed her how to identify bedstraw — a plant with tiny Velcro-like hooks — and attach it to her parents’ clothing, much to their annoyance and her amusement. We stared at mud puddles, mushrooms, leaves, birds’ nests, ferns, and willows, and searched for swampy bogeymen — though none appeared. At the end of the walk, she shouted into the trees, “I’m not afraid of you, Swamp!” It was the lesson I had hoped she’d find there.
It was also a rare moment — both the kind of kid-nature experience that is becoming scarce as everyone spends far too much time with screens, and a quiet revelation about the magic of swampy places. As Annie Proulx reminds us in her new book, “Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis,”wetlands are stigmatized in common language, stories, and rhetoric. Quagmires and morasses, for instance, should be avoided.
Such aversion is partly warranted, based on the memories of generations past who suffered from malaria (spread by mosquitoes that inhabit moist places) or from the unhappy experiences of European-American settlers who knew neither how to navigate easily through nor live comfortably within vast areas of peat and muck, fish, and birds. “Drain the swamp,” was Reagan-era rhetoric before Donald Trump revived the phrase during his 2016 campaign.
And Americans have done just that for centuries: The settlers of the contiguous United States have destroyed or drained more than 100 million acres of wetlands — which would have covered a total area greater than the size of California.
Proulx makes clear that our phobias about and destructive approaches to wetlands have ultimately done great harm. In a meandering essayistic narrative that reads like a walk through a bog or thicket of densely layered ideas, the famed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author invites us to examine the long arc of wetland history and reconsider whether we’ve in fact been afraid of the wrong things. Our fears of wet places have led to us to jeopardize our future.
The book asks us to gaze deeply at wetlands to find a series of both hopeful and sobering lessons. The most salient of these: Wetlands are actually unsung heroes. They nurture young fish, provide refuge to birds, bats, bugs, and sometimes to big mammals like panthers and bears. Mangroves, for instance, are trees and shrubs that inhabit coastal swamps, and they form peat that is home to clams, snails, crabs, and shrimp, and filter pollution out of the water. Their “interlaced roots protect tiny fish from ravenous jaws of larger fish, and even manatees and dolphins take refuge there.”
During the current era of climate instability, swamps, fens, and bogs also hoard carbon deep in their rooty, peaty, odorous soils and keep it out of the atmosphere. The Florida Everglades, for instance, store an estimated 1.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, according to one 2015 study conducted by Harvard Kennedy School. By comparison, New York City emitted the equivalent of about 50 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2020. Like many major cities, New York was built partly on filled wetlands, and herein lies the trouble. We have traded carbon-storing fens, bogs, and swamps for carbon-profligate landscapes like cities, roads, and industrial farms. Could we reclaim and rebuild the wetlands of our past? Would this provide an answer to our current crisis?
But Proulx is not a linear writer, and she doesn’t give us simple answers. She invites her readers to look harder and longer and see things from unusual angles. Tread back, back in time with Proulx, and you find that wetlands are also intertwined in human political and cultural history — and perhaps this too needs to be reconsidered if we are going to find any kind of stability on this messy planet.
Wetlands are keepers of deep time and ancient secrets, and peat and the natural preservatives in sphagnum moss can prevent ancient remains from decomposing for millennia. Archaeologists and historians have found clues within peat about cultures and civilizations past. There were many eras and places, for instance, when people lived comfortably within and beside fens, bogs, and swamps — and derived both wealth and a sense of the divine from this association.
In early British history, for instance, the “fen people” of East Anglia, the region northeast of London, had their own sort of indigeneity: Fenlanders “worked out how to manage the wetlands, how to repair and augment natural banks after river flooding or rising sea waters or heavy rains.” They made a livelihood from “rich pasture grass for livestock” and “legions of tasty eels and fish, wild ducks, furs and feathers and peat fuel.”
But they were also victims of classism and a sort of proto-colonialism. Upland Britons deemed the fenlanders ignorant, lazy, and incompetent and insisted on draining and redistributing fens to the wealthy, such as in the 17th century, when Kings James I and Charles I hired a Dutch engineer to dewater the fens in exchange for land. The plan was abandoned after fen people protested and disrupted the work, but over time, both fens and the knowledge of how to live with them were damaged.
The tale repeats itself on other continents and places the world over: A fight over land and wealth and control, and wetlands are among the casualties. What if we overhauled and re-examined our history of colonialism? What if we reconsidered the ways that, even now, we treat Indigenous inhabitants of wet landscapes in, say, Ecuador, Australia, Canada, or Brazil? The book gestures to examples of wetland restoration and recovery, but doesn’t give us anything too easy or too reassuring. Look again, it says.
Parts of the book gaze across vast landscapes and leap between science, history, and literature. Proulx’s inimitable writerly voice seems in places to recite a long prose-poem — images, metaphors, and sharp observations strung together, starting from scenes of wetlands from her own childhood and then panning wide, encompassing the personal and planetary in sweeping, perspicacious observations: “Tiny bits of information appear at times like fireflies in the summer nights and we humans tear our hair trying to gather enough pertinent data to understand the simultaneous effects of climate change” and “a constant low-grade guilt.”
The data and stories both say the planet’s wetlands are disintegrating — and so is our sense of safety. Some wetland ecosystems have begun to release carbon instead of storing it. Some of the world’s biggest wetlands in places like the Amazon, the Pantanal, and Siberia, have suffered peat fires. But pay attention, the book exhorts. We could bring back wetlands, even though some efforts at restoration have failed because engineers didn’t notice microhabitats and the hydrology of roots and soil at miniscule scales.
Watch and observe the ecology, and we might succeed. She recounts how a Florida ecologist revived a mangrove swamp in the 1980s by carefully reengineering the slope of coastal land to create water flow ideal for the trees — their seeds drifted in and rooted themselves on their own.
As the narrative sifts through the peats, more mysteries are revealed. Facts and evidence come into focus and then sink again into the peat.
The swamp monsters turn out to be illusions, but there are bigger things to fear, such as “exultant profiteers destroying wild places,” pandemics, and “poisonously intoxicant politics.” Like a literary magic trick, these are all both perplexingly and masterfully woven together with the damp, wild, and brambly places Proulx describes.
We have failed — we are still failing — to understand the complexities of wetland ecosystems and our role in them, she argues throughout the book. And now we are failing to repair them at a crucial moment: “Humans are exceedingly good at construction and destruction but pitifully inadequate at restoring the natural world. It’s just not our thing.”
But before she leaves us with too much pessimism, Proulx asks us to look again. There are many little examples of hope in the world: wetlands revived, trees regrowing, laws changing in radical and important ways to protect instead of destroy nature. Stare, listen, watch, study them, the book suggests, and humans don’t have to be the monsters of this story either.