Peat-cutting on the island of North Uist usually begins in mid-April, but the exact timing varies. One old crofter used to say that you should only start cutting when the yellow flag iris comes into flower because by then the oils in the bog will have risen, but not everyone waits that long. It might mean cutting too late, and then the peats won’t dry. If they’re not ready by July, they’re not worth the effort – damp peat is no use to anyone who wants to stay warm. You can also cut too early: a hard frost after cutting can fracture the individual peats, creating air pockets that make them burn too quickly. North Uist is one of the last places in Great Britain where this custom is practised, though it was once widespread from Norfolk to Wales and throughout lowland Scotland. Now it’s largely confined to Caithness and the Western and Northern Isles, and even here the generation that knows how to do the job well, and has the tools and the desire, is passing. I don’t know how to do it well, but I did cut and throw some peats when I lived in Uist at the end of the last century. As an unskilled labourer, I watched the master craftsmen at work, crofters who would leave the cut face of a peat bank with the smooth finish of modernist architecture.
The job starts with assembling the tools. The first is an ordinary spade for skinning the fibrous sward that contains the growing biota of the bog (sphagnum moss, heather, grasses and sedges), which is carefully relocated at the bottom of the bank so it can continue to grow. This skinning of the turf separates the living from the dead. Beneath the growing skin lies the mass of decaying plant matter accumulated over the Holocene period, which began after the last ice age, twelve thousand years ago. It’s an archive that’s laid down slowly and sequentially, at a rate of around a millimetre a year; cutting down through the compressed stratigraphy requires a specialist tool: a peat iron or treisgeir, with a straight-shafted wooden handle and a four-inch metal blade with a longer eight-inch wing. The exact dimensions and design of this implement vary according to the character of the peat, and so does its name. In Shetland, it’s a tusker, from the Old Norse torfskeri, from torf (‘turf’) and skera (‘to cut’); a nearly identical tool was used in the Fens until the 1930s and called a turf becket. The work is done in pairs: the cutter on the top of the bank slices the treisgeir downwards and levers a dark slab towards the receiver at the bottom, whose job is to catch and cast the peat into its optimal position on the moor. The texture of the slab is a bit like processed cheese – imagine throwing a doorstep-sized Dairylea triangle with the aim of an NBA basketball player. It takes strength and skill.
The immediate vicinity soon fills up with flat drying peats; this area is called the sgaoilteach, the ‘spreading’, and is filled methodically. The top tier of peats, bàrr-fhàd, is flung up and behind the cutter. The second layer, fàd a’ ghàraidh, is placed in an open wall at the edge of the bank, so that wind can pass through freely. The bottom peat, the caoran, which has a greasy texture and is darker in colour – it tends to crumble when dry but is the best fuel – is laid out in the lower bog. A couple of weeks of favourable weather will allow the peats to form a hard surface, and then they can be lifted to stand in ruadhainn, small stooks of between five and seven peats that minimise surface contact with the bog and let the wind dry them on all sides. If all goes well, they can be taken home, maybe even by the end of May, and made into a rounded peat stack with a herringbone pattern that will repel the wind and rain.
Although I didn’t grow up doing this, a whiff of peat smoke stirs something in me, something that doesn’t care about falling into cliché because the smoke smells like dwelling and life and the stubborn survival of the Gaelic world. I have a hand-cut peat on a shelf beside my desk, which has somehow switched category from fuel to reliquiae. It’s the last peat that came out of my family’s bog – cut, I assume, by my grandfather, who would have disapproved of my keeping it as an ornament. What should I do with it? It’s only half a full peat, about 25 cm long and fibrous at the top, so it’s plainly bàrr-fhàd, though the fuel quality would be considered poor by Uist standards. Unable to throw it on the fire, I feel stuck with it. I don’t know what it wants from me.
Last summer I climbed to a patch of Atlantic blanket bog 1500 ft above Loch Ness in search of the bank from which this peat was cut (Scotland holds around 7.5 per cent of the world’s blanket bog). I had no plans for a ritual repatriation; I just wanted to see its origin for myself, like following a river to its source. On a shelf of ground between Cnoc an Duine, the hill of the man, and Carn a’Bhodaich, the hill of the spectre, I found the faint geometric outline of old peat workings. The site has largely returned to its natural state, with still, dank pools fringed with bog cotton and swirls of sphagnum everywhere, reds fading into yellows and greens like a 1970s carpet.
Such traces are not obvious, yet many of us in Britain inhabit the landscapes that peat-cutting has left behind. Have a look at 19th-century photos of peat stacks next to Hebridean houses and you’ll be able to imagine how much has been removed over the centuries (the stacks are often nearly the same size as the houses, for just one year’s fuel). The island of Papa Stour in Shetland is an extreme example: two-thirds of the island surface outside the township has been ‘skalped’ since the late Norse period. Local-scale domestic peat-cutting is sometimes used – wrongly, in my view – as a visual shorthand to accompany news stories about peatland destruction, though its contemporary impact in Britain is modest. Mechanically excavated peat for fuel is worse: retail sale was banned in Ireland last October. The commercial surface milling of peat for horticulture can be locally devasting and entirely removes the growing biota (sales of peat to gardeners will be banned in England and Wales from 2024). Even this is minor compared to the effects of peat drainage for agriculture and forestry.
Peatlands occupy 12 per cent of the UK’s land area and store more carbon than all the forests in the UK, France and Germany combined, but 80 per cent of them are in a degraded state. This leaves us with more than just the usual problems of a diminished carbon sink, as when forests are felled and the timber burned: drying and decaying peatlands continue to emit greenhouse gases. In 2019 it was estimated that they added 23.1 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent, accounting for 3.5 per cent of total UK emissions. A report in March found that the UK’s peatlands released GHGs nearly equivalent to the amount absorbed by our woodlands. The worst cases of degradation don’t look denuded, as Papa Stour does, or have the sculpted modernism of a Hebridean peat bank, but take the guise of our most productive and valuable agricultural land. In the East Anglian Fens or the low-lying basin peat of the Somerset Levels, devastation looks more like improvement. But although agricultural peat soils account for only 15 per cent of the UK’s peatlands they emit more than half of the GHG emissions. The problem of our peatlands, in other words, is in the food we eat.
The key to Annie Proulx’s Fen, Bog and Swamp is the categorical distinction of its title. A fen, she tells us in the epigraph, is ‘a peat-forming wetland that is … fed by waters that have contact with mineral soils such as rivers and streams flowing in from higher ground’. Britain’s paradigmatic example is a case study of destruction. The East Anglian Fens have been so thoroughly drained and scraped by the plough that the entire region has been reduced in height, leaving it vulnerable to coastal inundation.
Bogs are different. They, too, make peat but are watered solely from rainfall, not from contact with mineral soil, and because rainfall is acidic they tend to host acid-loving species like sphagnum moss. Bogs can form an extensive mantle across high rainfall landscapes, like the ‘blanket bogs’ of the Highlands, or they can be more confined, like the lowland ‘raised bogs’ of Ireland, north-west England and central Scotland.
Proulx’s third peat-forming wetland, the swamp, isn’t much found in Britain. They’re dominated by trees and, like fens, receive nutrients through groundwater. In America ‘the despicable, exquisite, confounding, ever-changing swamp’ is a cultural imaginary as well as an endangered habitat. Proulx doesn’t mention Trump’s cry to ‘Drain the swamp!’ but the slogan typifies a view of wetlands that’s central to her analysis. Peatlands are wetlands, the argument goes, and wetlands disturb us; they’re the abject backwaters of modernity – marginal and malarial, disavowed and despoiled. We’ve ruined them and now they’ll ruin us right back.
Peatlands cover only 3 or 4 per cent of the Earth’s surface but they lock up a third of its soil carbon, twice as much as in the world’s forests, making them our most carbon-rich terrestrial ecosystem. Their capacity to store and filter vast quantities of rainfall means they’re often part of a natural defence against flooding. And then there’s the unique assemblage of biodiversity they support. All this makes their degradation – from the marshes of Iraq to the permafrost of Yakutia to the peat forest swamps of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Cuvette Centrale – a problem for the future of our own species. We’re currently losing half a million hectares of peatlands a year, while the remaining degraded stocks account for 4 per cent of human-induced GHG emissions. In 2015, fires in Indonesian peat swamps emitted nearly 16 million tonnes of CO₂ per day for 26 days – more than the entire US. Little wonder, then, that when Proulx records Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement she asks: ‘Is this enough to save the habitable earth?’
There is much to be said for having a novelist rather than a geoscientist pose such questions. Alongside a narrative explanation of what we are losing and what has already been lost, Proulx asks what meaning peatlands have had ‘not only for humans but for all other life on earth’. She travels through a varied habitat of scientific description and historical anecdote, thickets and clearings, personal memories and archival fragments, still waters and brisk sub-surface flows. There’s nothing dispassionate in the writing. It’s the sort of book that might get filed under ‘solastalgia’ – the distress born of witnessing environmental degradation at home. There’s a lot here about home and the ‘bone-deep identification with the place of one’s origin’, starting with early memories of Proulx’s mother’s family camp on Lake Quinebaug in the 1930s, the ‘sunlight filtering through leaves when I was put to nap under a tree’.
From this beginning she recalls growing into the knowledge that the decade was characterised by ‘vile human behaviour’: ‘In the ever continuing name of Progress, Western countries busily raped their own and other countries of minerals, timber, fish and wildlife. They built dams and drained wetlands … I can see the period as a harbinger of the awfulness of the present.’ The fate of such places seems to stand in for Proulx’s catastrophic disillusionment with our relationship to the natural world. ‘I came away from that wetland sharing my mother’s pleasure in it as a place of value but spent years learning that if your delight is in contemplating landscapes and wild places the sweetness will be laced with ever-sharpening pain.’ Suffering and affliction and apocalyptic imagery are abundant: zombie fires in Arctic permafrost, ‘incinerated trees and understorey’, ‘millions of animals and birds roasted alive’, ‘poisonous smoke that makes breathing creatures retch and strangle and die’. I don’t always share Proulx’s disappointment with the state of nature, but it’s less because I think her pessimism is misplaced than because I have misgivings about a prelapsarian environmentalism wistful for ‘the sweet days before drainage when the fens were fecund’.
My own bog-born forebears had few sweet days. They cut peat to get through the winter and were without a cushion of prosperity from which they might appreciate the wonders of sphagnum. There were times in the life of my Highland family when theological disputes led them to worship separately, out on the moor, where they cast their Gaelic psalms into the wind:
Is thug se á slochd uamhuinn mi,
á clàbar criadha tiugh:
Air carraig chòmhnaird chuir mo chos;
mo cheuman shocruich e.
He took me from a fearful pit,
And from the miry clay,
And on a rock He set my feet,
Establishing my way.
Late one evening last summer, I crossed the moor alone, picking my way between the pools and the peat hags. It’s not easy land. It just takes one bad step – a tussock of deer grass that yields when it shouldn’t – and you lose confidence in the plane of what can be known. I thought about why these communities resisted modern hymns and stuck to ancient psalms of deliverance, shepherds’ songs of rescue from deep waters, from the mire, from floods, from sinking, from lost footholds and being swallowed up. Proulx might see this as part of the problem. She decries the ‘ancient Judeo-Christian beliefs [that] allow humans to use the rest of the world as they wish’, though her own prose is firmly in the biblical register of lamentation (‘the waters tremble at our chutzpah and it seems we will not change’). It’s as if becoming modern is the original sin for which we all now face judgment.
There’s some truth in this, of course. And it’s hard to take issue with the idea that peatlands became a resource for exploitation ‘when feudalism began to give way to nation-states, Western capitalism and imperialism’. Rights conferred by legal ownership made peat a commodity. ‘Once land is apportioned to owners,’ Proulx writes, ‘there can be no easy path to restoration.’ In fact, the opposite seems to be the case today: restoration is increasingly reliant on asserting property rights because peat now presents an accumulation strategy for capital and carbon alike. This isn’t always evident on the ground, especially when there’s good progress being made with what is called ‘rewetting’.
Rewetting is landscape-scale engineering that’s a bit like putting the plug back in the bath. It lets bogs store water again by inserting artificial peat dams to block old drains, raising the groundwater level, and encouraging bog-building species like sphagnum. This habitat-healing is not being left to the goodwill of landowners or their desire for atonement. In the UK it’s being financed through a new system of public and private investment called the Peatland Code, a domestic standard of ‘verified emissions reductions’ – ‘offsetting’ is the usual term – that forms the basis of voluntary carbon markets. Credits being traded include Peatland Carbon Units (each PCU represents a tonne of CO₂ equivalent that has been stored by the bog) and Pending Issuance Units (effectively a promise to deliver a PCU), both of which are recorded in the UK Land Carbon Registry. The argument is that this kind of trading allows companies to plan and offset future UK-based GHG emissions as part of their transition to net zero.
Rewetting is encouraging to see up close, but it’s harder to celebrate when net zero effectively means not zero – that it’s part of the economic infrastructure of emissions as usual – and when offsetting is leading to a new investment frenzy. An analyst for the property consultants Bidwells noted that these developments have ‘led to increased demand for land with the potential for natural capital enhancement … as some rural estates change hands for multiples of what their sale price was only two years ago’. Because the same forces of capital that incentivise peatland restoration are those that made it necessary in the first place, it all feels a bit like Slavoj Žižek’s example of the chocolate laxative: the solution to the problem lies in a more rigorous application of its original cause.
Rewetting isn’t cheap – the current cost is about £1500 per hectare – so the working assumption of the Scottish government appears to be that only private capital can close the so-called ‘finance gap for nature’. The scale of the task, and the urgency of the need to tackle the GHG emissions from degrading peatlands, make this a vast market opportunity. The downside is that it entails the wholesale financialisation of the Scottish landscape, locking land into long-term ownership and governance structures that are better suited to pension funds than local communities. In March, the Scottish government’s nature agency, NatureScot, signed a memorandum of understanding with three financial institutions – Hampden & Co, Lombard Odier Investment Managers and Palladium – for a £2 billion ‘private finance investment pilot’. Extending market relations to sphagnum moss doesn’t feel like it will end well. It’s also politically puzzling that an SNP-Green government and the Green biodiversity minister, Lorna Slater, are relying on investment bankers to oversee ecological restoration in a climate crisis. The formulation of the ‘finance gap for nature’ is itself a creative act of market-making by those who prefer landowners to be sweetened by profit rather than face anything as draconian as regulation or taxation.
This £2 billion PFI nature deal might feel like a plot twist, but the underlying conceptual apparatus of ‘nature-based solutions’ has been many years in the making. Fortunately, a writer like Proulx doesn’t have to get bogged down in the language of ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘natural capital’. As a reader, that’s a relief: the more academic literature reminds me of what people used to call the Caithness peatlands – MAMBA, miles and miles of bugger all. But it’s difficult to understand the present meaning of peatlands without addressing the political economy of offsetting, which is a consequence of governments’ attempts to balance the demands of the market with their net zero obligations.
Whatever happens to the peat, whether it’s dug up or left in the ground, the landowners seem to win. A number of Scottish estates – sated with decades of publicly subsidised draining, burning and plantation forestry – are now being paid to make good their own damage. In December last year, the investigative media co-operative the Ferret revealed that Tulchan Estate on Speyside, thought to be owned by the Russian vodka billionaire Yuri Shefler, claimed £120,000 of Scottish government subsidies for peatland restoration while simultaneously claiming subsidies for burning heather moorland (a practice widely criticised for releasing peat-based emissions). Even Balmoral, valued at £80 million, recently picked up £250,000 for peatland restoration, though the density of deer on the estate is at a level deemed incompatible with habitat recovery.
The recent history of peat is full of these seldom acknowledged contradictions and reversals: from extraction to sequestration, from a productivist to a post-productivist conception of value, and from technologies of drainage to those of water retention. These U-turns extend to our institutions. The James Hutton Institute is the UK scientific body behind the monitoring and measurement on which the Peatland Code depends, yet it was its predecessor, the Macaulay Institute for Soil Research, that boasted in 1968 that we could convert a million acres of ‘bog into pasture’. A news story at the time reported that ‘the institute’s know-how had been applied to make a peat bog 20 feet deep (at Carnwath) yield crops and afford good grazing ground.’ The same site, a lowland raised bog in Lanarkshire, is now being rewetted. Such reversals are a good thing, but they complicate a narrative that sees peatland as an object of capitalist ruin awaiting redemption. The old ambition to make land productive and to feed a growing population wasn’t all bad, just as the advent of carbon markets isn’t all good.
The character of our cultural engagement with bogs tracks some of these changes. Proulx shares the concerns of nature writers who mourn ‘the loss of natural places and [the] discarding of their vocabularies’. She worries that ‘general references to the outdoor world have become rare.’ It’s a fair point that the loss of habitats can drain richness from our language, further estranging us from the world we inhabit. But losses can arise from conservation too. Proulx is encouraged by efforts to restore the Flow Country in Caithness, the largest extant stretch of blanket bog in Europe, named after the Old Norse flói, meaning ‘marshy ground’. Locals over the age of fifty always pronounced this word to rhyme with ‘cow’, not with ‘toe’, but now it is the sound and meaning of the English word – the image of water flowing – that predominates. In other instances, the language that is being lost describes precisely the kind of human use of peat that is implicitly in the frame here, the vast vocabulary of peat-cutting being an obvious example.
For the last decade I’ve taken undergraduate geography field classes to North Uist where they can learn first-hand from crofters about the cultural landscape. Every year, my friend John Macaulay takes the group to his peat bank, as he took me in the 1990s, to show us the art of cutting and let us get the feel of the treisgeir slicing down into the wet peat. From him they learn the distinctions between the different layers of peat: bàrr-fhàd, fàd a’ ghàraidh and caoran. He’s in his seventies now, but still cuts enough for his family. One year when we visited, he pulled a piece of silver birch out of the caoran, from a depth of nearly two metres. He put the treisgeir aside and held out the birch root in his palm, the bark bright as a coin in the evening sun. Here was a fragment of the Princess Forest, Coille na Bana-phrionnsa, the mythical hunting domain of a female warrior. It grew six thousand years ago, before the climate changed and a cooler, wetter era engulfed the islands with peat. The students were unmoved. Their attention was taken with the peat that John had cut a month earlier, which they all picked up and weighed in their hand. I realised that every year the students did this. They would lift a dried peat to their nose, inhale, and then bang it on their knee. Cutting wet peat gives no preparation for its properties when dry. It smells like nothing, not until you burn it, and it’s not even all that heavy, but it’s so much harder than anyone expects. They were taken with this, and not with what seemed to me like the perfect teachable moment: the birch kept fresh by the anaerobic acidic conditions of peat, as if there had been a rip in the fabric of the Holocene and we’d all stepped into prehistory.
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