Swamplands

Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat

By Trina Moyles

by Edward Struzik
Island Press
2021/$39.95/256 pp.

There’s no scarcity of books written about landscapes and ecosystems of obvious beauty and ecological importance, such as the majesty of the Rocky Mountains or the giant cedars that stand sentinel in British Columbia’s old growth forests. But few books attempt to do what Ed Struzik’s latest book, Swamplands, does so well: taking the reader knee-deep into an ecosystem that few ever think about, let alone possess the desire (or nerve) to travel to, or rally around.

Swamplands documents Struzik’s journey into the “ambiguous, elusive, dangerous, sublime” world of wetlands in an effort to illuminate their important role. Struzik asks readers to look closer at the way healthy wetlands mitigate the impact of climate change by storing carbon, buffering against and slowing the advance of wildfires, filtering microbes and contaminants from water that “hundreds of millions of people drink,” while providing habitat to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, including migratory birds, caribou, denning polar bears and rattlesnakes.

Struzik’s eureka moment came when his water filter failed during a 66-day solo kayak trip along the Mackenzie River. In the end Struzik was saved by cold, clear stream water, purified by a peatland buffering the riverbanks. Contrary to perceptions of being “barren,” Struzik “saw more signs of life in those four or five hours of sloshing through peat and crunching across lichen” than he had in his entire journey. This spurred his quest to travel to more than 30 fens, bogs, swamps and saltwater marshes from the Rockies to below sea level in the Mojave Desert, to the Great Dismal Swamp, to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, to a richly biodiverse fen on the outskirts of Edmonton.

Struzik braves storms of blackflies and emerges with stories of the few unsung heroes—botanists, biologists, bryologists, entomologists and landowners—who work to study, protect and restore the world’s peatlands. Herein lies the book’s strength: frontline stories from a motley crew of characters who are quietly dedicating their careers (on shoe-string budgets) to protecting, advocating for and re-establishing wetlands.

Struzik travels to North Carolina to shine a spotlight on a US wildlife biologist’s exhaustive attempts to reintroduce the red wolf, an endangered species, into the peatlands of Pocosin Lakes despite public backlash. In Kauai readers meet a surfer-rock climber-botanist working to document and preserve rare native plants on the brink of extinction in the Alaka‘i Swamp. In Alberta’s Wagner Fen, he spends a day with an impassioned entomologist in pursuit of the elusive Aweme borer, a moth so rare some think it extinct.

Struzik’s research on global peatlands is so exhaustive that, at times, the central narrative—and the voices of the characters he seeks to amplify—is bogged down by the sheer density of information. Conversely, there are also some omissions: Swamplands would’ve benefited from the inclusion of first-hand Indigenous voices on the cultural significance of mashkiig (the Cree and Ojibwe word for “muskeg”) and the ways that communities are blending traditional knowledge and western science to protect and restore wetlands.

But overall Swamplands is a timely cry against the ongoing consequences of draining wetlands for farmland and commercial development, and of stripping peatlands for fuel and fertilizer. Struzik asks us to pay attention to the ecological borderlands, the spaces that are neither water nor land “but water and land sharing dominance, like the marginal world of a tidal zone.” Indeed, humble peat may just help us mitigate the effects of a rapidly warming planet.

Trina Moyles is the author of Lookout: Love, Solitude and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest (Penguin, 2021).

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