“Peatlands are difficult to assimilate because they are ambiguous, elusive, dangerous, sublime, and – as a Red River settler once said – ‘deceitful.’ Not land or water, but water and land sharing dominance, like the marginal world of a tidal zone, albeit more slowly, less predictably, and sometimes violently.”

Gardeners are familiar with peat – it comes in bags and is a handy addition to their soil mix. But peat is so much more than dead dry matter in a bag. Peatlands are home to cranberries and orchids, rare moths and butterflies, woodland caribou and tree-climbing turtles. They prevent both flooding and fires and soak up carbon. “One to three billion birds fly north to the boreal peatlands of North America each spring with a reproductive purpose that results in three to five billion of them migrating back in fall … Without peatlands, most of North America’s finches and warblers, and 80 percent of the waterfowl, would be forced to find another place to nest.”

Peat is a shapeshifter coming in many different forms from bogs to fens to swamps to muskeg. “Peat is partially decomposed plant material that builds up over decades, centuries, and millenia in oxygen-starved, waterlogged conditions where decay can’t keep up with growth. The pools of water in the depressions left behind by the scouring of rapidly retreating glaciers are where most but not all peatlands got their start.” While most peatlands are found in the northern boreal regions of Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Russia, it’s also found in the tropical forests of Indonesia, the European Alps, and the Florida Everglades. The world’s largest tropical peatland in the Republic of Congo wasn’t discovered until 2017.

In Swamplands, Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs, and the Improbable World of Peat, Edward Struzik reveals the scope, history, beauty, and importance of peatlands.  It’s an invaluable opportunity to gain an appreciation for an environment that is unfamiliar to many of us.

A Path to Freedom

Peatlands used to be far more common than they are today. A vast, semi-interconnected system of peatlands used to extend from New York State to Florida. But people are frightened of peatlands. “They burble and smell, and light up with will-o’-the-wisps, Cajun fairies, and fireflies. They are clumsy (drunken forests) and murderous in sucking up anything that falls into them accidentally – or is thrown in as a human sacrifice.” Europeans arriving on the shores of Virginia were quick to dig ditches and roads so they could start logging and farming on the swampy land.

Escaped slaves would later find refuge in the swamp, setting up clandestine homesteads and fugitive communities. Struzik tells the story of “Alexander Milton Ross, who used his birdwatching and butterfly-catching hobbies as a cover to shepherd fugitive slaves from the South to points north. Ross would knock on the doors of plantation owners and ask if he could look around for birds and butterflies, making no mention of the fact that he was really there to interview and inform slaves working in the fields of possible avenues to freedom.”


A peaty fen with spring-fed pools in the Mojave Desert is the last remnant of a “vast lake, river, and wetland ecosystem that once dominated this landscape” relying on a “fossil water that long ago seeped into an aquifer”. It’s been home to bootleggers and brothel-keepers, agriculture and mining corporations, “not to mention a lawsuit to protect an endangered species of fish”.

On Kaui, 4,000 feet above sea level, are 20 or more bogs that are home to more critically endangered species than almost any other ecosystem of its size.

Fens on Alberta’s Grassy Mountain, the headwater of the Oldman River water system, are threatened by proposals for new coal mines.

Fire & Flood

There’s a small (5 sq. miles) fen in the Kananaskis region of the Alberta Rockies that played a key role in mitigating the 2013 floods that tore through Canmore and Kananaskis. Had it not been for the fen and other mountain valley wetlands, the flood peaks could have doubled.

Fens don’t just soak up water. They also play a crucial role in slowing or preventing the spread of wildfires. But if fire spreads to dry or degraded peatlands, it’s almost impossible to extinguish as the fire burns downwards, out of the reach of fire fighters and water bombers. This played a role in the fire that forced the evacuation of Slave Lake in 2011 and Fort McMurray in 2016.

Can it be restored? Maybe

Is it possible to restore a bog and regrow peat? Maybe. The odds are much better if you’re restoring a former peatland that has been mined for peat where only the top layers have been removed. It’s near to impossible if you’re trying to restore peatlands in the oil sands where the land has been drained, trees chopped down, 2-3 ft. deep peat layers removed before the bitumen is mined at depths of 150-300 ft and taken to a refinery where the oil has until recently been stripped from the sand using a saline solution. The leftover peat mix and sodium-rich sand are then dumped back into the hole. But if you add sodium to a fen, the mosses die – and you don’t get peat without moss.


Planting trees is a good thing to do, “But dollar for dollar, a climate-mitigation investor would get bigger returns by growing or accumulating peat, rewetting peatlands that have been degraded, and conserving the healthy peatlands that still exist … Peatlands, which represent no more than 4 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface, store twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests.”

See Also

Books for Children: Forest Magic and Wise Lessons from Forest Dwellers [EcoFriendly West]

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/52640588407/

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