Fen, Bog & Swamp by Annie Proulx review – where have all our wetlands gone?

In beautiful prose, the Pulitzer-winning US novelist offers a powerful indictment of human complicity in environmental destruction

Hunter S Thompson once said that to get at the truth, especially about something terrible, you had to “get subjective”. He was talking about his sworn enemy Richard Nixon, but it applies just the same to the appalling damage we’re doing to our planet. Newspaper articles, charity reports and activist speeches abound – all earnest and arguably objective, but they somehow fail to capture the true meaning of what’s being lost in the natural world.

Perhaps that’s why novelists writing about ecological issues is such a compelling subgenre – they can’t help but let the subjective seep into their nonfiction. Arundhati Roy on the ghastly impact of mega-dam projects in India, Jonathan Safran Foer’s heartbreaking description of pregnant pigs in concrete pens in Eating Animals, or Bruce Chatwin’s lyrical passages about the Australian outback in The Songlines: each does more to broaden our eco-consciousness than a thousand turgid – but well-meaning – thinktank research papers.

The latest novelist to write about nature is Annie Proulx, who in Fen, Bog & Swamp draws our attention to the largely unloved wetlands that are being destroyed around the world. The Harvard biologist EO Wilson wrote that chopping down the rainforest to make money is like burning a priceless Renaissance painting to cook a meal. Proulx wants us to see the loss of wetlands in the same way – and to appreciate the beauty in these swampy and often stinking places. Boy, does she succeed. The prose is just magnificent, bringing to life hitherto overlooked habitats such as “the primordial intensity of the bog’s unmoving tannin-dark water and massed sphagnum”, where “black arms of drowned forests protrude from the water”.

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