Futile Land Reclamation

As part of the reading course I’ve set myself on Bronze Age sacrificial finds, wetland archaeology and landscape studies, I’m reading a new book whose title translates as “Swedish bog cultivation. Agriculture, peat use and landscape change from 1750 to 2000”. It’s about various ways that Swedes have tried to make use of wetland in the past centuries. The sites I’m studying are mostly in wetlands, and mostly they have been identified when finds have surfaced during the kind of projects the book covers. Its main focus is on the Swedish Bog Cultivation Society, that operated from 1886 to 1939.

It’s tragicomical reading, really. Because regardless of whether people were trying to drain and cultivate bogs, or if they were digging for peat and trying to process and sell it, there was a major disconnect between their high hopes and the actual outcome. Generally, these huge projects were undertaken, making huge dents into the ecology, for no long-term practical gain. And it took ages for them to realise their collective mistake.

The peat fuel couldn’t compete financially with imported coal. The reclaimed lands proved unproductive. The drained areas wouldn’t stay drained, because as the peat oxidised and compacted, the land would sink back down into the lowered water table. For 200 years there was just this enormous unfounded optimism about bogs on the part of big landowners. They had a completely erroneous vision and the capital to realise it. Middle- and small-size farmers generally opposed the projects because they didn’t have any extra capital and stood to lose a lot of wetland pasture to the drainage efforts. But really poor tenant farmers also did a lot of small-scale land reclamation: not because they had any grand vision but because they had more labour than land.

So much toil. So much destruction of the environment and the archaeological record. And all pretty much for nothing.

Svensk Mosskultur. Odling, torvanvändning och landskapets förändring 1750-2000. Ed. Leif Runefelt. Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry. Stockholm 2008.

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  1. #1 Sharon Astyk
    January 28, 2010

    How fascinating. And how fascinating that we are still playing this out.


  2. #2 Jens Heimdahl
    January 28, 2010

    Historien om mosskulturrörelsen i Sverige är spännande. Det hänger ju samman med att man i början av seklet fruktade den s.k. “försumpningen”, ett av de tidigaste uppfattade miljöhoten (dock oerhört överdrivet). Det rådde verkligen en skräck för att hela Sverige långsamt förvandlades till en våtmark. Man hade sett att torvmarker i Norrland kunde växa spatiellt, genom att den angränsande marken successivt försumpades (en process som fortfarande inte är helt vetenskapligt klarlagd). Mossekultur och dikning ansågs vara lämpliga metoder för att motverka hotet. Tidsandan kan bl.a. studeras i förordet till Erik Granlunds avhandling från 1932, en kvartärgeologisk klassiker.

  3. #3 kai
    January 29, 2010

    Hm, I realised that this idea is still present in Civilization, where if you irrigate a swamp, it turns to more fertile plains.

  4. #4 Martin R
    January 29, 2010

    Even the word “civilization” is a remnant of a long-abandoned theoretical stance in history and archaeology. The various genres of historical fiction usually preserve outmoded models that were once taught to their authors but then abandoned by academe. (-;

  5. #5 Monte Davis
    January 29, 2010

    “…we are still playing this out.”

    And for the other extreme, try Marc Reisner’s splendid _Cadillac Desert_, about 125 years of water projects in the American West: first-class popular history and popular science.

    He dissects the roles of land speculators, politicians, contractors, and settlers. But they wouldn’t have gotten so far without a broad cultural consensus that “making the desert bloom” was a good thing — in the face of all hints to the contrary from geology, hydrology, climatology, etc…

  6. #6 Gerry Callaghan
    January 29, 2010

    I grew up on a tiny farm in the west of Ireland and spent lots of my childhood working on the bog. We cut and saved turf (peat) for heating and cooking fuel.

    On a fine day the bog itself was astonishingly beautiful with white bog cotton, purple heather, even carnivorous orchids that made a living eating insects. Larks singing high in the sky, the strange and wonderful call of the curlew. On a wet day it was hell with the fire out.

    It was incredibly hard work though. Long days spent bent double scattering and ‘footing’ the turf.

    Commercial development of peat for electricity production has destroyed large area of bogland. Interestingly even the people who benefit from peatland ‘development’ don’t benefit in the long term. The rural area with the highest bogland employment has the lowest participation in 3rd level education.

  7. #7 Gerry Callaghan
    January 29, 2010

    And, of course, you cannot write or think about bogs without remembering Die Moorsoldaten – The Peat Bog Soldiers


    This was written by prisoners in the Börgermoor prison camps, a chain of fifteen camps opened in Nazi Germany in 1933.

  8. #8 Tassilo
    January 29, 2010

    This is interesting. There was a peat mining operation in Colorado which destroyed acres and acres of wetlands because they thought the peat had commercial value for growing plants. In the end, and after digging up many acres of an ecologically unique calcareous fen, they discovered the peat lacked the required nutrients and was worthless. The operation closed, mostly, and the fen is being restored. What a waste.

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