Consider the contempt of Daniel Defoe. It’s 1725 and he is touring the whole island of Great Britain, looking out his carriage window at the peat-bog called Chat Moss outside of Manchester:
The nature of these mosses, for we found there are many of them in this country, is this….The surface, at a distance, looks black and dirty, and is indeed frightful to think of, for it will bear neither horse nor man….What nature meant by such a useless production, ‘tis hard to imagine; but the land is entirely waste….
“There are many of them” says Defoe, and there were, but the British hated their bogs almost out of existence. Annie Proulx writes in her new book, Fen, Bog, and Swamp: A Short History of Peatland Destruction and its Role in the Climate Crisis, that before the 18th century, some six percent of Britain was covered in peat bogs. They were destroyed, as she records, by drainage and enclosure, and underneath these feats of engineering was disgust. Defoe hated the bogs for the same reasons other Enlightenment capitalists despised them in Britain: because they were “useless”; because they got in the way of commerce by being impossible to travel on and impossible to plant into; because they challenged the idea of God’s human-centered universe by being a relentlessly bird, animal, and vegetable-centered world; because they were reservoirs of history, full of two-thousand-year-old bog bodies and felled, ancient forests and bronze-age tools. They hated them because the bogs reminded eighteenth-century Englishmen that they were indigenous to this island; that even as they unified into “Great Britain” and launched their empire in America, they belonged first to this wet and sucking land.
The stratigraphy of the Anthropocene is a geologic record of human feelings. What was important enough to us to save, what parts of this world did we hate? In Fen, Bog, and Swamp, Annie Proulx registers the ways in which Europeans in particular have written their hatred of wetlands across the face of earth. Her book flows out of a long resistance to that hatred, countering it with memories of her own kinship and love for wetlands. Early on, for example, she describes the memory of her first childhood encounter with a swamp:
dead tree snags guarded by raging birds…pools of water lilies whose somnolent musk no perfumer has ever duplicated. Thousands of spider strands laced stems and reeds, attached to half-sunk logs; frogs were everywhere, their pop-up eyes glaring over the edges of lily pads; unseen distant creatures splashed into hiding. It was frightening and exciting. This place, so unfamiliar and strange, was my first experience of geographical Otherness, my first thrill of entering terra incognita.
Longing and desire, excitement and fear, rage and strangeness. Annie Proulx’s book on the history of peat-forming wetlands is shot through with moments like this one. The book is a love letter to the excessiveness and otherness of wetlands, but it is also a book of mourning. Proulx wrote Fen, Bog, and Swamp in COVID isolation as a way of channeling the guilt and grief and fear about climate change that kept her from writing fiction. She set out to learn about fens, bogs, and swamps as a kind of vigil with the dying. “Before the last wetlands disappear,” she writes in the book’s first chapter, “I wanted to know about this world we are losing…What was a world of fens, bogs and swamps and what meaning did these peatlands have, not only for humans but for all other life on Earth?” As a result, it is not only a record of European feelings about wetlands over the last few vicious centuries, it is also the record of one 87-year-old author’s feelings about climate disaster in the here and now.
Proulx’s feelings are, in general, understandably bad. Loss is the lesson of Fen, Bog, and Swamp. “If your delight is in contemplating landscapes and wild places,” she writes, “the sweetness will be laced with ever-sharpening pain. This too is part of the human psyche—a burning sense of irrevocable loss yoked to a fatalistic acceptance of ‘progress.’” Proulx’s despair over climate change and over the irresolvable greed and entrenched passivity of settlers is palpable in sections where talk of remediation turns to recognition that it’s so far from enough, where she grinds through the extinction of species after species and says we’ll never learn. Resistance is meaningless. She memorializes the centuries-spanning efforts of the English fen people to save their ecosystem from drainage only to end with a final dismissal: “they fought back but their resistance was crushed and in the long run the sweet days before drainage when the fens were fecund ecosystems were gone.”
Even where Proulx sees restoration happening, she does not trust it. In a paragraph from the “Fens” chapter, for example, Proulx describes a small restoration project, then deflates her own relief: “I had to remind myself that beyond . . . rewatered fen reserves the reality is a world plagued by melting permafrost, sea rise, unmanageable fires that burn even the rain forests, terrifying storms,” etcetera. Throughout Fen, Bog, and Swamp, such paragraphs repeat with the regularity of a dirge. As one reader put it on the book-review site Goodreads, “it’s just so very sad.”
As a book about white settlers and the violence on which our “self-making” depends, Fen, Bog, and Swamp is at home among Proulx’s oeuvre—her novels and stories have always been open to the intergenerational violence of whiteness and toward its twisted fruit. While her most pointed interrogations of colonialism and climate change happen in her recent novel, Barkskins, these ideas have been themes across her 60-year career. My own encounter with her vision of whiteness came through 1993’s The Shipping News. In that novel, a white man called Quoyle moves home to Newfoundland where he learns that his ancestors were villains: murderers, rapists, and thieves kicked out of even their hard northern settler community for their singular anti-socialness. Built on the framework of a stranger-in-town romance, the book made a case to teenage me for confronting the vicious history of whiteness, growing up into someone your forefathers could never have respected and being proud of that.
And yet, if Proulx is an author acutely aware of the violence of settler colonialism, she is also a writer whose work is almost uniformly populated by white characters embedded in white communities. This explains something about Fen, Bog, and Swamp, which is a book that consistently uses words like “we” and “us” and “our” for a perspective that is far from universal. As novelist Jess Row has noted, Proulx’s white-centered settings and perspectives put her in kinship with other white fiction writers in the late 20th century, whose fictions create the illusion of a universal experience, of whiteness as everyone’s “we.” There are limits to what this “we” can do in isolation, and Row’s reading reminds me of another moment in The Shipping News, when Quoyle, living in an all-white community in Newfoundland, calls up his estranged Black best friend Partridge on the phone in LA. In the book, the Rodney King riots are happening and a gunman has shot up their old newspaper office in New York. Partridge says, “It’s like the whole country got infected with some rage virus.” The moment is on the one hand an acknowledgement of the ways in which the violence of white supremacy comes down differently in different communities: rampant sexual abuse, alcoholism, and car crashes in Quoyle’s seemingly all-white Newfoundland, and police violence, riots, and shootings in LA. On the other hand, reading it now, I can see that one of the things this moment does is vindicate Quoyle’s choice to isolate himself, to take his little family far from strife and to live among his own people. In that small homogenous circle, he can heal the virus of rage through love.
Love is often the basis of white liberal politics, and yet, as any yard sign shows, sometimes liberal white love is nothing more than a marker of property. Consider the fact that even after 200 pages of grief and condemnation, Proulx could still say in an interview on NPR that Fen, Bog, and Swamp is not a call to action. “It’s been mistaken as such,” she told Leila Fadel, but the book’s purpose, she said, is “simply . . . to be able to go into a wetland and look around at it and say, ‘Aha, I know this is a swamp, it’s full of trees. Or, this is a bog, full of quaking sphagnum moss.'” The image points us right back to Proulx’s memory of childhood: “This place, so unfamiliar and strange, was my first experience of geographical Otherness, my first thrill of entering terra incognita.” Knee-deep in the mud of America the phrase terra incognita sticks out of Proulx’s description like the edge of a buried bone, pointing down and back to a colonial history in which such designations as terra nulius (no man’s land) and terra incognita (unknown land) could be translated from the Latin, roughly, to “mine, mine, mine.” In this moment, Proulx makes the same move that white settlers have been making for centuries: thrilled at the unspeakable strangeness of the living, shifting world, grieving at its impermanence and our own, we show our love not by joining with that other in its ways of being, not by working to bring about the world it needs in order to exist, but by trying to write it down.
There is a danger in writing about wetlands, says cultural anthropologist Stuart McLean. Wetlands are spaces where matter is in perpetual transition, where liquid becomes solid becomes vapor, where plants and animals die and rot weirdly. In the specialized chemical environment of the peat bog, artifacts and corpses stick around for millennia, so that two thousand years after he was buried in the peat, the hairs on the chin of the bog-body known as “Tolland Man” still call to mind the rasp of contact I used to feel when I held my face against my father’s cheek. Bogs are in-between, and more than that, beyond. Defoe said that “they will not bear,” and McLean puts it differently: they are “not reducible to the dynamics of human history-making or the assignment of cultural meaning.” They are incredibly old, and they were not made for us. And so the danger he observes is that in writing about them we may aim to turn a vast array of ecosystems into “a human-centered history of social processes, political transformations, and technological innovations.” To fix, in language, what is always in transition as matter. A case in point: climate change is making new wetlands, too, funneling the ice pack of Mount Kilamanjaro that once fed crops across the seasons away from elephants and human ranchers alike and into new homes for migrating birds. There is no one way to feel about this. It is not reducible to human grief or hope.
Perhaps this explains the uniformly bad feelings of Fen, Bog, and Swamp, and its tortured relationship to the universal “we.” “The history of wetlands is the history of their destruction” says Proulx, and concludes “we will not change.” But she might easily have said that the human history of wetlands in Europe and America is the history of trying to make them white: of British agriculturalists trying to root out and burn up and bury the indigenous history of Britain, of American settlers trying to erase the Great Black Swamp of Ohio because it stood in the way of manifest destiny. It’s a true story, and a deeply important story, and an incomplete one. Telling the history of wetlands as only a record of white feelings acted out on the peat means telling a history of unceasing dominance and subjugation, of nature passive and unresisting. No wonder it is just so very sad.
Yet wetland histories of resistance and connection exceed what Proulx has gathered in this book. There is also this, for example: that swamps in the southern United States enabled resistance to the otherwise almost ubiquitous power of slavery. In Civil War-era Louisiana’s Pearl River Swamp, self-emancipated ex-slaves and poor whites known as mossbacks refused to be conscripted into the Confederate army to die in “a rich man’s war.” From the viscous shelter of the swamp they exceeded the contemporary categories of both racist Southern white folks and victimized Southern Black folks to form coalitions that looted plantations and forced the Confederates to lose their war on two fronts. In the Great Dismal Swamp that spills over the state lines of Virginia and North Carolina, communities of self-liberated slaves called maroons, Indigenous people from the surrounding Chesapeake, Nansemond, Meherrin, and Tuscarora nations, and even some white indentured laborers escaped to the depths of the swamps. Against progress, against property, against productivity in their shifting and stinking wetness, swamps are the material manifestation of refusal. Visit the Maryland state park now preserving the lands where Harriet Tubman was enslaved, from which she escaped and to which she returned again and again for others: dragonflies land at your feet and frogs leap away as you move through the tallgrass, and you can feel through your shoes that she lived and fought in a wetland.
Proulx published an excerpt from Fen, Bog, and Swamp in the July 4th issue of the New Yorker last year. It’s an edited revision of the chapter on America’s swamps with a whole new paragraph on wetland restoration projects, partly cobbled together from other parts of the book. There are two new lines. They describe how “once a few interested people put on their boots and go into the damaged wetland, and once their curiosity is aroused about how the water moves, and what plants, amphibians, and birds formerly thrived [there] they are hard to stop. There is unequaled joy in restoration.” The joy Proulx points to here is new. You won’t find it in the printed first edition of Fen, Bog, and Swamp. Maybe it was jammed in at the insistence of a Millennial editor who couldn’t stand the sadness, or maybe the book itself is the artifact of the process that makes such a thing possible to say. It doesn’t matter which. The point is that we are made of matter in transition, that grief for the violence done to us and our planet connects us whether we know it or not. That it connects us to community with each other, with the water, with the millions of birds, with anyone fighting the forms that the world-ending power of white supremacy takes in cities, in forests, in traffic stops, in books, and in swamps. That grief doesn’t stop but it changes. We are sadder, and stranger, and older, and wetter, and angrier, and more in love than any of us alone can bear.
Nino McQuown is an artist, writer, researcher, performer, and podcaster. They write and make art about dirt, death, apocalypse, and pop-culture. They produce the podcast Queers at the End of the World, where queer and trans artists, scientists, activists, and scholars (re)imagine apocalypses and utopias, old and new. Find their poems, comics, and essays published with Catapult, Electric Literature, Hotel Amerika, and Barrelhouse, among others. Contact. Twitter.