Annie Proulx’s towering gifts for narrative and description have been pillars of her award-winning fiction, and she brings those gifts to her slim, powerful nonfiction book Fen, Bog & Swamp (Scribner).
Climate change is such an enormous subject that it can be difficult to comprehend; Proulx’s strategy for helping us to grasp its urgency is to focus on the specific environments of the title. She also draws us in by writing about her personal passion for the natural world—the book begins with her vivid childhood memory of a visit to a swamp in a Connecticut state park.
Wetlands are among the most essential habitats on the planet, yet humans have filled, drained and paved over them with ferocity. So great is their complexity and so delicate their balance that science is only beginning to understand them, Proulx tells us. The question is whether we realize how vital they are to our survival before we’ve wiped them out.
The book is packed with wide-ranging research, presented in clear and graceful language. Take, for example, her fascinating account of the Neolithic inhabitants of England’s once-vast fens, who built villages and wooden trackways to travel between them, prospering on the environment’s rich resources.
Before Britain became an island, she writes, there was Doggerland, a sweeping area of northwestern Europe on the shores of the North Sea during the last Ice Age. It was populated by Paleolithic peoples who adapted over centuries as sea rise transformed its rolling plains into fenlands.
Then, Proulx tells, us, the Ice Age ended and the glaciers melted. “This was climate change with a vengeance. The sea pressed in, crested hillocks and rises, flooded low ground. There were fogs and the cries of frogs and waterbirds, the sky-darkening skeins of migratory flights, the stealthy upward creep of chill seawater.” The only archaeological evidence we have of Doggerland has been that scooped up in fishing nets from the bottom of the sea. And Britain’s surviving fens are shrinking by the day.
Proulx’s ability to couch scientific knowledge about large-scale disaster in human terms and stunning language makes Fen, Bog & Swamp an extraordinary achievement.