Annie Proulx on the Climate Crisis
“Water is the original shape-shifter”
TOM HURLEY – In her mid-80’s, Pulitzer Prize−winning novelist Annie Proulx pulled on her rubber boots, sloshed through wetland muck and ooze for two years, and brought back a work of non-fiction as dense and rich as the redolent bogland peat she loves so much. How does Proulx keep laying these treasures ⎯ both novels and deeply-informed reportage ⎯ at our feet? In a telling anecdote mid-way through Fen, Bog & Swamp, the author displays the fusion of nerve, reverence, and writerly flair that make this gift to readers possible. “My best near-swamp experience,” she says, “came one summer when I lived in a remote and ramshackle house in Vermont . . . .” On the back porch, she looked up from the last sentence of Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It ⎯ “I am haunted by waters” ⎯ only to see a large bobcat sitting on a stone wall fifteen feet away, watching her read. “When our eyes met, the cat slipped into the tall grass like a ribbon of water and I watched the grass quiver as it headed down to the woods, to the stream, to the swamp.” That is, back to the author’s water-haunted natural home. In a way, it’s all here: the love of the natural world, a gift for narrating a proximal shock, the mettle to lock eyes with the non-human, and an ability to lyricize the hip-sway of a charismatic megafauna that shares 90% of your DNA.
The sub-title of the book, a “Short History of Peatland Destruction and Its Role in the Climate Crisis”, however, promises more than a memoirist’s anecdote. We rediscover Proulx’s long-felt dismay over a threatened planet. It was present years ago in her Newfoundland novel, The Shipping News, where the protagonist Quoyle, by limiting his reading to the local newspaper, , “. . . managed to ignore terrorism, climatological change, collapsing governments, chemical spills, plagues, recession and failing banks, floating debris, the disintegrating ozone layer . . . earthquakes and hurricanes . . . tidal waves of cancer . . . deforestation and exploding aircraft.” More recently, Proulx’s novel Barkskins hauls several generations of motley progeny down “a three-hundred-year-long trail of deforestation.”
Geographic and historical sweep
The geographic range of Fen, Bog & Swamp is reminiscent of another Pulitzer winner, Elizabeth Kolbert, who has educated herself in the sciences adjacent to the environmental passions that take her to exotic corners of the planet. In Proulx’s case, research and field work are filtered through a poetic sensibility as she mucks and stalks her way across far-flung wetlands and over sweeping timelines. Within a tight 196 pages, she takes the reader around the world, along the way sending up emergency flares over the non-stop swamp-draining still taking place to make way for new mono-culture farming, cattle-grazing, lumber, highways, housing, strip-malls and the drive-thru’s that generate trays of garbage destined for another dry, reclaimed landfill site.
Fen, Bog & Swamp is organized into three core chapters, one for each of Proulx’s wetland types. The first tells the heartbreaking story of the English fens and, leading up to the present, the three centuries of land clearances that have destroyed or displaced people seen to be Other and thus dispensable (“It has to be the oldest story in the world — taking ‘worthless’ lands from people deemed defective and inferior.”) The second core chapter travels east to the peat-preserved Bog People of Europe, including well-known Tollund Man. The book ends in eastern North America, with a hip-wader tour of swamps whose names stir the imagination and send a frisson along the skin: The Limberlost, the Great Black Swamp, the Dismal Swamp, and the Okeefenokee.
If the surface geography of documented loss is the horizontal dimension of the book, then time is the vertical. And here, through deft and exhilarating temporal focus-pulling, Proulx shines. The plot begins some 24,000 years ago, with the deep pre-history of Mesolithic people who “had had to cope with rising waters from immense ice melt, as must we of the Anthropocene.” Fast forward to the role of bogs as battle traps during the early history of what is now Germany, on to the most recent three hundred years of empire-building and the increasingly destructive plundering of resources and land reclamation, right up to (Proulx couldn’t resist) the death of Jimmy Hoffa, who (the uses of wetlands are ever-varied!) may be buried in a New Jersey swamp.
For Proulx, time is also a data-collecting, interpretive tool of science, especially important when repeated observations of the same thing are made to capture incremental changes that occur too slowly to be seen by those watching. Thoreau (“the patron saint of swamps”) was an early exemplar of this technique to see the creep of transformations. Related to this is the use of time as a contrastive element: “Peat-making”, notes Proulx, “is a process of millennia; peat mining a matter of weeks or years.” Finally, the author’s temporal axis takes us right up to the present moment and “a burning sense of irrevocable loss yoked to a fatalistic acceptance of ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’ and the hubristic idea that ‘now’ ― the time in which we live ― is superior to all previous times.” The name for this biased view of the exclusive superiority of the now is presentism. And it is here, as Proulx draws upon perspectives on time for her purposes, that history, presentism, wetland destruction, and the climate crisis all come together.
If the scientist in Proulx were asked to choose a colour scheme for the broader theme of Fen, Bog & Swamp, she would likely skip the earth tones and opt for the bright contrasts from molecular model-making: black for carbon as basic to all life forms, red for oxygen, and white for hydrogen. From there, it’s a short step to the book’s villains: CO2 and CH4 (methane), and the emissions from sources that include the age-old burning of peat, the more recent Amazon fires, the smouldering underground Siberian zombie fires, and the methane being released from slumping permafrost. Proulx notes the fine-particulate carbon deposits which darken glaciers and accelerate melting in a feedback loop. It was, she points out, only in 2011 that the European Union forbade the cutting of peat. In Canada, the need for the legal protection of peatland remains an ongoing story.
Though she admits that, “I am not a scientist,” Proulx possesses a richly-informed scientist’s mind able to clarify distinctions while avoiding the “curse of knowledge” ― the superabundance of expertise that makes the specialist increasingly blind to the needs of the general reader. Thus, in simplest terms, she is able to distinguish her three topics: the fens that form peat and are fed by rivers and streams in contact with mineral soils; the rain-fed bogs that are not in contact with mineral soils; and the relatively shallow swamps, with their trees and woody shrubs.
Proulx is that rare prose writer able to combine reader-friendly clarity with lexical largesse, dispensing old colloquial terms (“fizmer”, meaning the sound of grass moving in light wind) to “paludification” (the process by which spores of sphagnum moss can “expand upward and outward in plump, hummocky bulges and can form lens-shaped raised bogs that sit atop the old fenlands peat.” The six-syllable term is worth remembering, if only to save the trouble of a 41-syllable explanation.)
Along with a trove of individual words worthy of a graduate program in advanced Scrabble, Proulx’s scientific factoids are also hard to resist. A clutch of theories, she tells us, vie to explain the role of the zigzag centre line or stabilimentum that runs down the web of an orb-weaving spider. Elsewhere in her watery world, and more certain, is the fact that the human bodies preserved in European peat bogs owe their longevity in part to an antimicrobial substance in the moss called sphagnol. Good to know as a cheaper alternative to cryogenics.
But it isn’t all arachnid engineering and bio-chemistry. Throughout the book, Proulx sprinkles brief portraits from a Who’s Who of the naturalists, explorers and conservationists dear to her heart. These are the author’s real soulmates, who over the centuries have clarified the losses that accrue from wetland destruction ― the disappearance of species, along with the reductions in eco-diversity, flood control, fire protection, and carbon sinks. Also lost is the ecosystem’s capacity for rapid response to change, without which the web of life is easily torn apart.
This review began by asking how author Annie Proulx does it all so well. The question here is especially pointed, given the degree to which wetlands are a hard sell to the public. In a pragmatic mainstream culture that likes things toggle-switch-simple, odorless, stable, clearly demarcated, paved, and easily monetizable, we have in opposition the perceived features of fen, bog, and swamp: smelly, largely submerged, unmarketable, hard to traverse, constantly in flux, and biologically complex ― in other words, occupying a repugnant zone between olfactory miasma and a spiritual get-me-out-of-here Slough of Despond.
One might argue that the secret to Proulx’s success lies in her prose. Here is a blissfully talented writer with a dense style that is nevertheless supple, cadenced, lexically exuberant and ― for a book about the natural world ― scoring high in literary allusiveness, from Dante and Alexander Pope up through Thoreau to Frank O’Connor. But the real answer lies beyond style. It’s all about genre.
Proulx was long ago inducted into the cross-genre pantheon that includes the likes of Mark Twain, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Joan Didion, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few of the writers acclaimed for both non-fiction and fiction. As a non-fiction writer, Proulx is able to report out a story through research or on-site tour, returning home to explain, describe, analyze, and structure her material. But Proulx also draws upon her array of techniques as a fiction-writer: the deft handling of back-and-forth time, pacing, scene-making, side-trips, sub-plots, suspense, and the sketching of minor characters in the round. And that’s not all. She also has an acute poetic sensibility, able to lift her prose to lyrical heights. Here she is describing a moment of childhood fear in a neighbouring wetland:
So I bawled . . . and we made our journey . . . past dead tree snags guarded by raging birds, skirting 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.
Proulx’s alchemy begins, then, at the intersection of three-genre facility (fiction, non-fiction, and poetry) and her chosen topic of wetlands. Into this crucible she stirs her amalgam of literary technique, where it meets another blended realm of forms ― that of the many-flavoured, mixed consistencies of fen, bog, and swamp. By thus ladling her multi-talent into the equally complex mix of the environments in question, Proulx achieves her signature magic: rehabilitating wetlands by gently lifting swampiness up and out of its bad reputation and onto a pedestal. This success-by-association fusion could never arrive through the resources of one genre alone. And what other topic would be rich enough to lend itself to such a treatment between the covers of one book?
Mood and tone
As befits any chronicle of small legal victories within a larger panic, Proulx’s book, for all its magic, is one of barely suppressed anguish ― not least because, as noted above, wetlands are a hard sell unless you are a lover of the wild. Proulx succeeds in her salvatory mission but, scattered throughout the book, phrases revealing her solastalgia and pessimism slowly accumulate: “A scientific approach . . . often masks painful emotions and grief”; “ . . . the awfulness of the present”; “ . . . a constant low-grade guilt”; “ . . . many people are aching with eco-grief”; “The waters tremble at our chutzpah and it seems we will not change”; “Our species is not adept at seeing slow and subtle change”; “Humans are pitifully inadequate at restoring the natural world. It’s just not our thing”; “It is our species that seems deranged in its blind despoliations of the natural world”; “We must somehow reckon with it.” Whatever form that reckoning takes, it will be an intensely emotional, multi-generational task.
What the reader might have liked
Perhaps because of the author’s well-deserved self-indulgence after such a long career, the book suffers from a mild case of fact-overcrowding, like a packed closet that could use a little more air and elbow room. And to return to or locate those facts, an index would have been welcome. Also absent is a gesture toward an Indigenous perspective on conserving and respecting wetlands.
Although the book offers glints of hope against a backdrop of discouragement, the reader is left wanting what cannot easily be given: the appropriate emotional and philosophical stance we are all looking for to confront not just the loss of wetlands, but the climate crisis and the unprecedented threat to the planet as a whole. If Proulx has made her private peace, she’s not talking. We’d like to know something of its terms.
“For a few minutes,” confides Proulx, “I once considered hiding in a swamp myself.” If she did, it wasn’t for long. She came back to give us what Bill McKibben calls “a compact classic” in the revolutionary and lasting tradition of Rachel Carson.
Fen, Bog & Swamp is the Silent Spring of wetlands.
Book data – Scribner ISBN 978-1-9821-7335-7
ebook – 1-9821-7337-1
Local wetland visits
Local readers interested in exploring the real thing may find guidance from the following groups:
- The Kawartha Land Trust (by appointment on private properties)
- Otonabee Region Conservation Authority
- Peterborough Field Naturalists
- Trent University School of the Environment.
Tom Hurley is a local contributor to Greenzine. His recent book, Interrogosphere: The Power and Plight of Questions in a Highly Questionable World, is available at Peterborough’s Take Cover Books and from online sources.