In this short book, Annie Proulx (author of The Shipping News; Barkskins) relates what interests her most about these often misunderstood landscapes, which were decimated in both Europe and North America in the past few centuries. For Europeans–both at home and in nations they colonized–such wet ecosystems had little apparent value after the Middle Ages. Before that time in Europe, people had lived around and in fens, and many human bodies have been found preserved alongside the peat that such wetlands form. Proulx speculates about their lives, and traces how such areas were drained for agriculture and other land uses. More recently in North America, European settlers drained thousands of acres of swamps and bogs as they moved west, converting them to farmland as well.

Fen, Bog and Swamp makes clear how–before people even began burning fossil fuels–they set the stage for a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane by changing Earth’s surface dramatically. In destroying wetlands, humans rid themselves of a superior method of carbon capture: the formation of peat by compressing plant material and allowing it to decompose under water. Without these natural sponges the Earth’s resilience to greenhouse gas emissions is compromised. Wetlands also, of course, support great biodiversity, especially of insects and birds. Without wetlands, many, many species cannot thrive.