Why I Love the Wetlands

Maine writer Katy Kelleher on her passion for everything from swamps to flarks to fens.

In the Canadian province of Nova Scotia, on the island of Cape Breton, there is a perfect, breathtaking, life-affirming bog. Truly, I know of no finer landscape, save perhaps the Saco Heath, which is far more conveniently located near my home. Or maybe the Orono Bog, with its rough-sawn hemlock boardwalk and its fat, red skunk cabbage buds, which poke their heads from the muck every spring. I also love the salty swamps of Wells and the rough alpine terrain of the Bold Coast. In truth, while I was converted to a bog-lover in the highlands of Cape Breton, there are bogs aplenty in Maine, many of them just as stately as the ones up north. Yet their beauty is undersung—I’m happy to go on.

Cold, dense, drenched, these ecosystems aren’t as beloved as a sandy beach or a wildflower meadow. They breed bugs, they trap moose and deer, they overfill your rubber boots, and they underwhelm leaf-peepers. They aren’t easy to explore by foot or boat, and heaven forbid you try swimming in one. But these ancient ecosystems are full of strange life-forms and deep history. Once you start learning about bogs, it becomes hard to stop seeking them out. They’re addictive, these melancholy places. No matter the season or weather, I always feel rewarded by a visit to a bog.

In the spring, wetlands are among the first places to regain their color. Over the winter their sphagnum moss dries out and turns yellow, but as soon as the ice melts, these hardy bryophytes come back to verdant life. They hold up to 20 times their dry weight in water, which means they’re incredible sponges for all that snowmelt. Soon, after the ferns and grasses begin to creep through, the Labrador tea, blueberry bushes, and cranberry plants all send out their new leathery leaves. The pines, ever green just like the wintergreen that creeps along the forest floor, awaken. Even as early as March, one feels as though they’re in springtime when they step onto a boardwalk and into a bog.

Summer is the high season for wetland life. A recent walk at the Saco Heath had me on my knees, attempting to get closer to a brilliant spot of pink. For once, I was able to ignore the fuchsia tones of the blooming sheep laurel, because here, poking up from the muck, was a single, shy rose pogonia. Also known as a snakemouth orchid, this water-loving wildflower is far more delicate than the bulbous lady’s slipper orchids that grow on my home’s back trail. A few steps farther, I crouched down again, this time to look at the wacky red flowers of a pitcher plant. Like sundews, which also thrive in our New England bogs, the pitcher plant is carnivorous. And like sundews, they have a certain jolie laide appeal. They don’t blush pink or extend velvety blue petals (they leave that business to the wild orchids and irises). Instead, they put up flowers that look like props from a science fiction movie: rubbery, spiky things in fluorescent green and toxic crimson. When you see them against a backdrop of sedges and pine needles, they create a visual symphony of sharps, punctuated by the birdcalls and the buzzing of so many bees and flies.

If you’re looking to eat rather than be eaten, you can do that in a bog, too. Although bogs are not the most biodiverse ecosystems in Maine, they support a highly specialized group of flora and fauna. For thousands of years, Wabanaki people hunted, trapped, and harvested in the bogs and swamps, particularly those located in the riversheds. Too much has changed and too many species have been lost, but we can still glimpse remnants of this food system. Blueberries, bilberries, cranberries, and winterberries are all common summer sights. In West Quoddy, there’s a bog with rare cloudberries (called bake-apple berries by our neighbors to the north), an alpine fruit that looks like a swollen orange raspberry but tastes far sweeter. These are reason alone to visit a rare landscape, but I also like plucking little branches of Labrador tea. The leaves make a fragrant broth that can be, I’m told, hallucinogenic when consumed in too-high doses (some say outright poisonous).

By fall, the bugs have died off, but the birds are even more plentiful, as Canada geese honk overhead and woodpeckers batter the trees for their meals. Autumn is when the swamps of Maine turn brilliant red, all the funny scrubby plants suddenly burning bright with maroon and garnet. The openness of the landscape allows your vision to roam. And unlike most hikes, you don’t have to climb a mountain to achieve that expansive, colorful view. I find bog walking most rewarding on overcast November days, when the sky tends toward purple and the clouds feel like they’re pushing down on my shoulders. This is when bog walks feel particularly necessary. They’re a form of memento mori, I suppose. Bogs are built on decay. In these environments, novelist Karen Russell wrote, “Growth is impossible, and Death cannot complete her lean work.” Under the surface of the bog, air cannot penetrate, decay is suspended, and objects are preserved. What is interred in the bog stays in the bog. The wetland holds its treasures close.

This is just one reason bogs have featured heavily in some of my favorite literature, from the imaginary landscape of Narnia and its Marsh-wiggle-populated wetlands to the ghostly moors of M.R. James. There’s a cultural richness to bogs, gained over centuries of people treading around their margins, foraging in their depths. In recent years I’ve found myself drinking in stories of rural folk horror, basking in the weirdness of Elizabeth Hand, Sarah Moss, and Adam Nevill. All of these writers have chosen to set their stories on moors and heaths, on seemingly empty landscapes that hold both more death and more water than they should. I find these eerie tales comforting, much in the same way that I enjoy a foreboding bog. They incite wariness rather than panic. Sometimes it pays to be wary.

I never take a friend on a bog walk without revealing my favorite wetland word, one that I learned while hiking in Cape Breton. A flark is a natural depression that forms in a wetland. It can suck you in and trap you there. You can drown in a flark, or just die of exposure. It’s a ridiculous-sounding word for a terrible fate—a good thing to remember when searching for cloudberries. Here there be no dragons; only flarks, and fate.

Read More:

Share The Inspiration