In a quiet corner of the oldest botanic garden in North America grows a tree with long, graceful branches and leaves that curl like rust-colored tongues. When it’s blooming, the tree’s snow-white flowers are said to smell like honeysuckle, but at the end of November, its branches are bare, and its leaves are mostly heaped on the ground, a browning pile on the edge of the lawn.
Though it looks unassuming in winter, the tree has a prominent place on the maps of the garden where it’s cared for, Bartram’s Garden, on a stretch of land in Philadelphia hemmed in by the city on three sides and the Schuylkill River on the fourth. At the base of the trunk sits a placard with its name: Franklinia alatamaha, a species of tea tree that has been extinct in the sandy southern swamplands it came from for more than a century.
The elusive Franklinia appears in the writer Annie Proulx’s new book “Fen, Bog & Swamp,” one more unique treasure in a litany of treasures that Proulx uncovers in the world’s wetlands, past and present. Proulx writes about the father and son botanists John and William Bartram, who found a grove of Franklinia growing along the banks of the Altamaha River in Georgia in 1765.
The Bartrams named the tree for Benjamin Franklin and carried its seeds back to Pennsylvania, where they cultivated the plant. All of the Franklinia trees that still exist are believed to be descendants of those original seeds; in a way, the Franklinia trees in Bartram’s Garden are wetland refugees, transplanted from their shrinking, warming natural habitat to the North, where curator Joel Fry told me the caretakers mimic the Altamaha’s acidic soil by spreading pine needles around the roots.
In William Bartram’s 18th-century work, which detailed his travels through the swamps and forests of the American Southeast, Proulx writes that we can experience “a wild tropical south we can know only through his words and drawings.”
Proulx’s project is not so different from Bartram’s. In our age of escalating environmental crises, she is driven to document the disappeared and the disappearing, all the threatened remnants of our precious wetlands, from ancient English fens to Ohio’s now-drained Great Black Swamp. It’s a mission that has never been more urgent: The 2018 Global Wetland Outlook announced that wetlands are “disappearing three times faster than forests” and that 35 percent of the world’s wetlands were destroyed between 1970 and 2015.
Wetlands provide refuge for biodiversity, help protect coastlines and control flooding. They are also carbon-dense, making them crucial bulwarks against global warming. Peatlands are especially essential; though they cover only 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, peatlands “store twice as much carbon as forests.”
For all their importance to sustaining human life, few people in 21st-century America are likely to be as eager to express their affection for wetlands as Annie Proulx. “I personally find wetlands intensely interesting,” she said, in an interview via email.
“Fen, Bog & Swamp” pays the kind of artistic and emotional attention to swamps that is usually reserved for sunsets and canyons. “It is, of course, possible to love a swamp,” she writes, of a larch swamp in Vermont with “dimpled pewter” water and a “flurried brook.” “It has been fifty years since I last saw it,” she writes, “but it is still with me.”
For many of us, dwelling as we do in paved-over suburbs and gridded cities, wetlands are something glimpsed on a school field trip or a day hike, if we encounter them at all. I was lucky that the natural landscape of my Northeastern childhood was made of cold creeks and lily-dotted ponds, but I knew of nothing that would qualify as wetland.
I took a swamp boat tour in Louisiana once: the guide tossed marshmallows into the rippling brown water, and we watched a parade of alligators eat them with gusto. As a lightning storm crashed above us, he explained that the mangrove-lined canals we were cruising through were manmade, created by oil and gas companies to allow for the easy transport of drilling rigs and equipment. Suddenly I understood why the empty corridors of this “swamp” felt more like shipping lanes than the tangled ecosystem I had expected to encounter. Love a swamp? I’ve never even met one.
To cultivate love, first we need to get to know wetlands, and for Proulx, knowing begins with history. “How can we know a place without knowing its past?” Proulx asked, in her email. In the book, we learn about bog bodies, like that of the Dutch Yde Girl, and prehistoric wetlands like Doggerland, the submerged landmass that once connected Britain to the European continent.
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We learn about the lost language of wetlands, like “roke,” meaning “the rising of the evening fog,” or “fizmer,” “the sound of grass moving in light wind.” Some of these words have not completely vanished from modern speech, though they may be cloaked in other contexts. “You will be surprised by the huge vocabularies that are still in use,” Proulx said. In our interview, Proulx pointed to a recent a New York Times piece explaining how the cardboard boxes on our doorsteps come from loblolly pines that grow in Southern swamps.“‘Loblolly’ is an obsolete word that once referred to boiling soup, but came to mean a gulping mirey mess of mud and water,” she said. So much is already gone, but some things persist, if only we know to look for them.
Love can also be fostered in the act of “looking carefully.” Proulx writes admiringly of practitioners of the slow art of “repetitive observation,” from climate scientists and Indigneous people to Henry David Thoreau, who counted tree rings and noted “the dates when wild plant species flowered” for years.
No matter where we live, we can train ourselves to better notice the world around us as it changes, acknowledging when we see spring flowers blooming earlier, birds no longer migrating south, rising floodlines on our shores. We can go in search of “intimate local places” and “smaller hidden wetland gems” like vernal pools, as Proulx suggested. We can seek to protect wetlands nearby, and we can support efforts to restore wetlands that were drained in the past.
One such effort can be found on a section of the Bartram’s Garden property that borders the Schuylkill River. In this 1.5-acre tidal wetland, which was created in 1997 and expanded in 2013, the city skyline is just visible above the thick stands of marsh grasses growing alongside native plants like bulrush, pawpaw and persimmon.
Joel Fry, the curator at Bartram’s Garden, said that the project has been “very successful,” with wildlife returning to an area that was once choked off by heavy industrial pollution. “We’ve had beaver coming in off the river, we’ve had otter coming from time to time. The birds come through in very large migrations,” he said.
The project is a small example of the many wetland restorations currently underway across the U.S., from Jamaica Bay in New York to San Francisco Bay in California. “To follow restoration efforts to rewater the ground is joy,” Proulx said, “and the hope that more can follow.”
Proulx has said her book is not a “call to action”; in her responses to my questions, she said that she “makes no activist claims.” But it’s hard not to see this book as a love letter to wetlands and to conclude that perhaps Proulx hopes to foster that lifelong love in her readers as well. If we can truly learn to love wetlands, maybe we will act to save them before it’s too late.