Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis by Annie Proulx; Swamp Songs: Journeys Through Marshes, Meadows and Other Wetlands by Tom Blass - review by Nigel Andrew

Nigel Andrew

Wetter is Better

Fen, Bog & Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis

By

Fourth Estate 196pp £16.99

Swamp Songs: Journeys Through Marshes, Meadows and Other Wetlands

By

Bloomsbury 328pp £20
 

Here are two very different books on the same subject: wetlands in their various forms. It is indicative of the authors’ contrasting approaches that while Annie Proulx takes care to distinguish precisely between the forms of wetland and to arrange her book accordingly, Tom Blass passes nimbly over the distinctions, offering only a little song he made up to remind himself of the differences: ‘A marsh is like a swamp without the trees./A swamp is only marsh with trees and ’gators./And a bog is just a bog, a plain, bog-standard bog/From whence dig your peat and your potaters.’ The subtitles of the two books also point to their different approaches. Whereas Proulx focuses strongly on the destruction of wetlands and its dire effects, Blass is more content to take a journey, an agreeably rambling one, through various wetlands.

Proulx’s book begins with a wide-ranging chapter that might have been titled (after Sebald) ‘On the Natural History of Destruction’. She has a sad and chastening tale to tell of the degradation and loss of of wetland habitats that are of vital importance to the planet. Sequestering huge amounts of carbon dioxide, these ‘carbon sinks’ perform a vital function; when wetland is lost, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, along with the much more damaging greenhouse gas methane. Seeing the loss of natural wetlands as a key element in the unravelling of our relationship with nature, Proulx sets out to explore ‘how they formed, how they changed and why, when humans ignored the genius loci, they disappeared’.

She begins with fenland, focusing on the English Fens, the history of which she traces in a fascinating chapter that draws on some unusual sources, including a copy of an 1878 volume, The Fenland, Past and Present, that was heavily annotated by a reader Proulx refers to as the

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