Dear Reader: Prepare for a literary treat. Today I am excited to bring to you a guest post by one of my favorite science and nature writers, Meera Lee Sethi. Sethi self-published a book last year called Mountainfit, which I reviewed here, about time she spent birding in Sweden. And yet, it was about so much more. And this is the main thing I love about Sethi’s work, an essay on any certain topic illuminates not only it but layers of many other things.
Since publishing Mountainfit, Sethi’s work has turned heads, including a few at CCLaP Publshing which picked it up and is now publishing and distributing hard cover versions. Meera also blogs at the Coyot.es network, where you can find her words at Dispersal Range. This post is the first of her blog book tour, so you’ll be able to find more of her beautiful writing elsewhere over the following days and weeks. And now, here’s Meera Lee Sethi, with a glimpse of some thoughts from Sweden. – TDB
It was like the surface of the moon, people say, meaning strange. Meaning wild. I didn’t think about it much before that summer—so much of my life spent walking on concrete, on asphalt, on soil made smooth by human hands—but the surface of the earth can be all those things, too. The planet has many different skins. In a small zip-lock bag inside an envelope inside a box, I keep a little piece of one of them.
There are well over 130 species of Sphagnum known to science. About three dozen of those are found in Sweden alone, a country whose surface area is about one quarter peat bog. In the wetland tundra surrounding the observatory where I began writing Mountainfit I might, for example, have been tramping over the tightly clustered branches and tiny toothed leaves of Sphagnum fuscum, or balticum, or magellanicum.
It is this last I have with me, a keepsake mailed to me by a sweet friend months after I left. Its yellow fascicles and tiny, deep pink leaves are dry and disarticulated now, but once they were part of a vast, interconnected mantle.
The biology of Sphagnum mosses is remarkable. Two characteristics in particular make them keystone species in their eponymous peat bog habitats. One, they can hold 20 times their mass in water in specialized leaf structures called hyaline cells, so named because unlike chlorophyll containing cells they are colorless. (“Hyaline” means glass-like.) And two, chemical properties make these mosses very slow to decay. Dead plants, rich with nutrients like nitrogen and magnesium, accumulate in the form of a dense substrate that keeps deepening. In other words, these minute bryophytes create their own habitat.
Many Sphagnumspecies are impossible to tell apart without a microscope, but in fact this is a marvelously varied genus. While multiple mosses share the same environment they often occupy different environmental niches—some growing entirely submerged in water, some forming spongy hummocks above the water line, and some carpeting the dry tops of those hummocks. As micro-conditions change, so does the fine-scale topography of the mires.
At the time I met them I knew nothing of this. The small, practical lessons I came to learn about them were acquired hands-on, only with feet instead of hands. Once a boot became stuck in a sucking morass a chain reaction often began that usually ended poorly, and there were many partial—or, in some cases, almost full-body—immersions. Eventually I learned not to step on anything wetly green. Wine-colored sphagnum was sometimes okay, but only if it was sitting fairly high and perhaps verging on crunchy. Finally my preferred technique became hopscotching across large patches of seemingly impassable bog on islands of neon orange, which was often safe even if it looked soggy.
But the mires were unpredictable, and my footing even more so, and to the end there were days when I would come back to the observatory with wet feet. After one particularly spectacular dunking I wrote an email home: BOGS ARE NOT MY FRIENDS.
I didn’t mean it, really, even then. I was in love—among other things, Mountainfit is an utterly undisguised and unrepentant love letter—and bogs were part of the place I loved and they were as dear to me as that mole you can’t help smiling at on the back of the thigh of the person next to you in bed.
I wasn’t the only one fond of these acidic wildernesses. The peat bog habitat is distinct, and distinctness is a quality ecological systems tend to prize. There are such things as “bog orchids.” Swedish orchids, unlike their flashy tropical counterparts, are tiny plants that grow low to the ground: some with blossoms no bigger than a lemon seed. They tend not to depend on photosynthesis, drawing moisture and nutrients from the dead mosses that make up the mire substrate. Many are thus very rare and can grow only in peaty soil.
Will you be surprised if I tell you that bird diversity increases in richness in synchrony with increasing bog area? You ought not. Mires make excellent feeding, breeding and staging grounds for all manner of species, including the magnificent Ruff (Philomachus pugnax), whose males wear enormous, variegated frills around their necks in courtship season and tussle with each other on mossy hummocks. (Ruff are lekking birds, like the great snipe I write about at length in the book.) Galumphing around with my tracking equipment I would often come upon nesting redshank (Tringa totanus), or Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea), and be inundated with whirling and alarm when I neared a wet patch.
All three are threatened birds.
Sweden’s peat bogs are still expansive, but they have shrunk since the 19th century, when people began draining bogs to use as cultivated land. Globally, these habitats and the life they harbor are threatened by climate change, development and fuel use. Peat mosses are tremendously effective carbon sequestrators; they smolder at length.
Scotland, you may know, is also covered in peat bogs. It is Sphagna that burns to dry out the malt from which some of the world’s finest whiskies is made.
In June came a long day in the mires helping with a census project the observatory has been running for more than twenty years. I was tired and sore, and yes—my feet were wet. And two days prior I had fallen flat on my face while biking downhill from the mountains on the gravel road that Sami reindeer herders use, spilling my tracking antenna on the gravel and rock with no great grace, and now everything I did with my mouth hurt. The elk and mushroom stew we had eaten for dinner on this night tasted like the best possible marriage of must and salt and earth, but oh, it stung to eat.
But after dinner one of my compatriots disappeared into her room and brought out a tall brown bottle. She took a set of little blue eggcups out of a cupboard. And someone put a cup in front of my plate.
Connie floated over it the half-full bottle of whiskey she’d brought to the observatory. Lagavulin, it said on the label. I hesitated. Thought of my lips. You must have a little, Connie said. You have to taste the mires you walked on today.
I let her pour. Then sniffed. Out of the eggcup came a thick, magnificent odor of smoke. Skål, I said, as I had learned to do.
I tipped the cup back. It was like swallowing the surface of the earth.