“And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry ground ‘land,’ and the gathered waters he called ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.”
Hans Joosten doesn’t know Genesis by heart, so he is paraphrasing: “And one of the first things that God does, is separating land from water.” But then, he says, one must ask what was the nature of this water in the first place, before it was spliced in two. The answer? A mixture of both elements. In the beginning, in other words, there were swamps.
Joosten grew up in the Netherlands, surrounded by bogs. Now a professor of peatland studies and a founding member of the Greifswald Mire Center, Joosten has spent the past several decades dedicating his life and work to habitats supported by a partially decayed plant matter called peat and which, depending on the context and their characteristics, are known as bogs, mires, fens, and swamps, and more broadly referred to as peatlands.
The Netherlands was once rich in peat bogs. Before 1600, it is estimated that they stretched across an area of nearly four thousand square miles. It was not until his studies that Joosten discovered this landscape he and many others took for granted was under threat from all sides. This was just a few years after the revolutionary 1968 student protests in West Germany, and Joosten saw in the bogs a potentially radical political topic. “In the region where I lived, in the municipality where I lived, in every thinkable way they were destroying the peatland,” he says. Across the country, bogs were being drained and converted for agricultural use, turned into refuse dumps, and mined for peat extraction. “Everybody was working together to destroy the bog.”
Compared to this period of destructive disregard, the past several years have been good ones for peatlands. In 2016, at its World Conservation Congress in Hawaii, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) agreed upon a resolution that recognized the importance of peatlands and their vital role in climate change mitigation—though they cover only 3 percent of the earth’s land surface area, peatlands contain more carbon than all of the world’s vegetation (including forests) combined. The Global Peatlands Initiative was also formed in 2016, with the goal of saving peatlands and mapping their extent in remote regions across the world. And in 2018, at long last, Alec Baldwin had his say, recording a PSA about peatlands for the UN Environment Program. The increased attention on the international conservation circuit was soon followed by increased attention by the media: Nature published an ambitious feature on the topic last year, and other stories can be found sprinkled across the BBC, the Guardian, and various other outlets.
Though they cover only 3 percent of the earth’s land surface area, peatlands contain more carbon than all of the world’s vegetation (including forests) combined.
In May of 2020, a newly formed youth organization called Re-Peat hosted a global, virtual “Peat Fest”: twenty-four interdisciplinary “peaty hours” to help further the conversation around peatlands—but also to highlight artists, read poetry, and do yoga. The field is a very different one, a more optimistic one, than it was when Joosten first took up the cause. Back in the 1970s, international conversations about peat leaned largely toward the commercial and the industrial, and the conservation movement was still in its earliest stages. Progress was mostly incremental: in 1968, the International Peatland Society was formed in Quebec, followed by the International Mire Conservation Group (IMCG), of which Joosten is secretary-general, in 1984. Today, there are dozens of organizations spread across the world; peatlands are recognized under the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol; funding is, for now, plentiful.
Even so, peatlands can still seem like fringe topic. This is why Re-Peat is calling for a shift in how we think about them, one that is strikingly similar to what peatland conservationists have been pushing for for decades: to move away from the perception of peatlands as “wastelands,” “spaces of nothingness,” and into a new understanding of their value.
When you imagine a peatland, what do you think of? What do you see? If you were to ask this of a certain councilman in northern Scotland in the 1980s, he’d probably tell you: not much. In Scotland’s Flow Country, boglands are today a treasured landscape and an aspiring world heritage site, but in the ’80s, there was controversy brewing over whether to develop them—namely, to drain them—for private forestry, and to plant the area up with quick-growing conifers in their stead. On a visit to one bog, this councilman surveyed the land and said, “Well it’s MAMBA country isn’t it? Miles and miles of bugger-all.” “It became a bit legendary, that comment,” says Richard Lindsay, the head of environmental sciences at the University of East London’s Sustainability Research Institute, who told me this story. Whenever people wanted to disparage peatlands, he says, they would repeat that phrase.
Peatlands often appear to the untrained eye as a bland swatch of greys, browns, oranges, and green. What we do not see is what they really are: robust ecosystems of flora and fauna—such as wetland birds, sphagnum moss, heather, and several species of quite crafty carnivorous plants. Furthermore, much of what makes these habitats so special exists beneath the surface. Peat stores, which can reach down into the earth for upwards of thirty-two feet, are dense with carbon, making the peatland a Goliath of sequestration. And with their regulatory effect on a region’s water table, peatlands also help improve water quality, reduce flooding and fires, and keep at bay rising sea levels.
The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard once characterized our relationship toward “swamps, mud, or the dark, wet earth” as contradictory: “[we] must concede that the moist earth strikes a nerve in the material imagination,” he wrote. They represent an uncomfortable porousness. “Bogs are simultaneously limited and limitless,” writes Derek Gladwin in Contentious Terrains: Boglands, Ireland, Postcolonial Gothic, “yielding and unyielding, canny and uncanny, stable and unstable, ordered and disordered, known and unknown, political and apolitical, spatial and indeterminate, and temporal and atemporal.”
The images we’ve been fed of them are spongey and stinky, murky and dangerous. One famous Middle-English text compares man’s sinful body to, in the words of its preface, “a pit full of oozy water and mire.” Historically, we’ve associated bogs with sickness—specifically malaria. In literature, bogs and swamps are sites of hauntings, murders, and encounters with the occult. In Lord of the Rings, they contain corpses that threaten to pull you down to join them in their watery limbo; in The Princess Bride, they’re home to Rodents Of Unusual Size. Even our language is infused with bad peatland vibes: we’re bogged down; we have a sinking feeling. The awful situation we find ourselves in is a quagmire; when our work becomes too much to handle, we’re swamped.
For those of us who’ve grown up near them, peatlands were and sometimes still are infused with a different flavor of the uncanny. As Gladwin writes, in Ireland, home to over five thousand square miles of peatland—most of it bog—a cadre of swampy apparitions and omens have long populated folklore and nightmares, from the shape-shifting pooka to bog sprites and water sheeries—said to lead the “wayward traveller to an untimely death on the bog”—to the dancing lights of the will-o’-the-wisps, flickering above the soggy surface, signaling the arrival of an evil spirit.
Even our language is infused bad peatland vibes: we’re bogged down; we have a sinking feeling.
Beyond the realm of the fictional and the metaphysical, how we see bogs has also been shaped by what we find within them. On the one hand, they are a resource. Because peat is carbon dense, it is also an excellent source of fuel; in Ireland, peat was, by the late eighteenth century, the main source of fuel in the country—as well as a source of independence from English coal, and therefore, English rule. For families and communities living near peatlands, hand-harvesting has been practiced for hundreds of years. In the ninetieth and twentieth centuries, however, what was once largely a subsistence-use practice became highly commercial and industrialized, as countries across the world began manufacturing peat into secondary products, such as fertilizer. Decayed sphagnum moss, dug out from the peat, is a miracle helper for the garden: as soil, it supports plants craving high acidity and water retention.
But the same conditions that bestow peat with many of its unique characteristics also create an environment that preserves with startling efficiency. Bogs have, as a result, been compared to archives: accidental treasure troves of past civilizations. “With a bog, and its buried contents,” the literary historian Terry Eagleton writes, “the past is no longer behind you, but palpably beneath your feet. A secret history is stacked just a few feet below the modern world in which you’re standing.” In the 1970s, in fact, an archaeologist by the name of Seamus Caulfield helped unearth an entire neolithic site, Céide Fields in County Mayo, Ireland, that lay beneath a bog. His father, harvesting peat, had found the first indications of the site decades before.
They also serve as ancient graves, home to bog bodies. The Tollund Man, the Grauballe Man: these are faces you might have seen, in textbooks or museum displays. In general, bog bodies are often found by accident. These two in particular were discovered by peat cutters in the Danish peninsula of Jutland. Though the Tollund Man and Graubelle Man are estimated to have lived in the fourth and third century BCE, respectively, their features—as with those of many other bog bodies—are almost impossibly intact. Seamus Heaney, the Irish poet laureate of the bog, once wrote that the Tollund Man bore a striking resemblance to his Great Uncle Hughie, so familiar and recently departed did he seem to him.
Adding to the general eeriness of stumbling upon an ancient mummified man in the midst of a misty bog, many of the bodies found have shown signs of a violent death—ropes around the neck, deep slashes from a blade, shattered bones. Because of this, some have theorized that bogs were once a place to punish criminals. In one of the earliest written records of peatlands and their uses, Tacitus describes how, for their executions, “the cowardly, the unwarlike and those who disgrace their bodies [were] drowned in miry swamps under a cover of wicker.” Others postulate that they are evidence that these landscapes were once thought of as a place to access the afterlife, and that these individuals were meant to be messengers between the worlds.
It is impossible to separate the stories of bogs—both real and imagined—from their history of destruction and damage—though this is not to say that fears of will-o’-the-wisps are the reason why companies, politicians, and developers decided, for their different purposes, that peatlands were “wastelands,” waiting to be “improved” for agriculture, forestry, or fuel extraction. When we are called upon to care about coral reefs or rainforests, it feels easy. They are pretty and bright and full of funny animals. Peatlands, as Re-Peat co-founder Bethany Copsey points out, are an altogether different beast—one that is “never going to be as enticing as a forest, on a collective level.” Though peatlands have entered the global conservation stage and seem here to stay, they remain a difficult sell.
Of course, peatlands aren’t singular in this history of destruction. Landscapes of much more natural splendor and majesty—including those coral reefs and rainforests—have also been pushed, prodded, burned, and polluted. But in this more general sweep of Anthropocene wrongs, peatlands are perhaps most acutely proof of our drive to make things fit into a neat conception of productivity and goodness. “Claiming something to be nothing in order to exploit it, is not a new technique,” as Re-Peat puts it. “This is one of the foundations of the colonial narrative.”
When peatlands are drained—in an effort to turn those “wastelands” into a productive space—they become unstable. Their carefully balanced conditions compromised, they quickly switch from carbon sink to carbon emitter. Though only 15 percent of the world’s peatlands are drained—occupying a mere 0.4 percent of the globe’s surface—these damaged habitats release at least two gigatons of carbon per year or nearly 6 percent of global anthropogenic emissions, according to a 2009 report. In 2015 in Indonesia, for instance, mega fires on forests and damaged peat swamps emitted nearly 16 million tons of CO2 in a day: more than the entire United States’ daily emissions. In Germany, though drained peatlands comprise just 7 percent of the total agricultural land area, they release 99 percent of the CO2 emissions from agricultural soils and 37 percent of all emissions from agriculture in general.
In some places, the fate of peatlands is beyond the realm of mitigation and management. In the far north, peatlands caught under the melting permafrost are at the mercy of our more general climate policies and our global emissions. But in more temperate climates, the story is different. The restoration and rewetting of peatlands is considered a comparatively cost-effective carbon reduction method. They have been called the “low hanging fruit” of climate mitigation. Richard Lindsay refers to peatlands as “Cinderella environments”: “They’re doing all these amazing functions for us, right across the world, and nobody knows,” he says.
But peatland scientists and advocates are also trying to salvage something more abstract from our historical abuse of these landscapes: the chance to fundamentally question the paradigm of productivity that led to the loss of those habitats in the first place. One manifestation of this is a push for paludiculture, a type of wetland farming that scientists and policy makers are hoping presents an attractive compromise to those who oppose more traditional conservation efforts. Adopting paludicultural methods, farmers could continue cultivating the land for, say, sustainable biofuels, without degrading the peatland. “What this is doing is offering a lifeline to current land managers,” Lindsay explains, “who are, at the moment, committed to traditional, conventional forms of land use agriculture, but who are facing an extremely uncertain future.”
Peatland scientists and advocates are trying to salvage something more abstract from our historical abuse of these landscapes.
In his email signature, Lindsay has hopefully inserted a quote often attributed to Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what we look at that’s important, it’s what we see.” It is a nice concept. But with an uncertain environmental future before all of us, many outside of the sphere of the sciences or climate activism are more inclined to cling to, and seek comfort in, an idealized vision of nature. Those of us in urban spaces, even in suburban spaces, spend so little time in nature as it is. When we go into it, we’re looking for recognizable images, a hit of the transcendental. In other words, and this perhaps speaks to my own lack of imagination, it seems like a nearly impossible task to ask a general public to look at the bog, the swamp, the mire and see a landscape worth fighting for.
But maybe we can find another angle. Once, Hans Joosten took a helicopter ride out over the Vasyugan Swamp in southern Siberia, the largest peatland in the northern hemisphere: he wanted to see the swamp from above. The birds eye view is an altogether different thing than the view from below. From up above, Vasyugan is a quilt of patterns, colors, and textures: a blanket of orange and rusty red lined with veins of verdant green. In irregular shapes, not unlike clouds, pools of water like melted silver glisten. As the light shifts, so do the colors: dark green peninsulas of land slither through a honeycomb of more pools of water of a deep oceanic blue. The organization of it all appears to be in perfect harmony.
Derek Gladwin writes that, “Bodies themselves are bog-like; they are organic liquid and solid matter containing over 70 per cent water and exhibiting an accretion of layers of skin, muscle, bone, and organs.” But bogs are also body-like. Like a body, they are self-regulating. A bog, as it adapts to rainfall and the surrounding water table, will expand and shrink. It breathes. Joosten likes this concept, of the peatland as organism. After all, he says, those giant expanses of wetland, like the Vasyugan Swamp, or like the Red Lake Peatlands in Minnesota, have properties that resemble a kind of consciousness. “It is almost mystic,” he says. And though this, he knows, “is not politically operational,” he does think that perhaps, just maybe, it could motivate us “to think about these landscapes in a somewhat other way.”