'Swamp as sacred space': Save wetlands to save ourselves, say experts

Our relationship with wetlands is nothing if not troubled; swamps, bogs, and marshes have long been cast as wastelands, paved over to make way for agriculture and human development. But with wetlands proving crucial for life, artists, ecologists and activists say we need to rewrite this squelchy story.

Wetlands have been cast as useless wastelands, but in fact they store more carbon than forests

Forty years ago, Highway 101 was built to cross over the Avon River. The road is now being expanded, cutting into the Windsor Salt Marsh, and ecologists say construction will mean the loss of valuable habitat and ecosystem services. (Moira Donovan)

*Originally published on October 17, 2022.

On a muggy July day, on a stretch of grass beside a strip of highway under construction, a small team of workers is digging up a hidden world.

This innocuous field just outside Windsor, Nova Scotia, is a saltmarsh: a wetland ecosystem that sequesters carbon, protects against storm surge, and supports a wealth of biodiversity. 

"[Marshes] are what connects the land to the sea," said Tony Bowron, a coastal wetland ecologist and co-founder of the Transcoastal Adaptations group.

"The plants that we find in the salt marshes, we don't find anywhere else in the system. There's birds that nest only in salt marshes, there's fish that only breed in salt marshes."

But like wetlands the world over, this ecosystem is under threat. In this case, the threat was posed by the expansion of the highway, which is why Bowron and his team were cutting into the marsh with sharp spades, in order to rescue some of the plants that would otherwise be paved over.

Tony Bowron, coastal wetland ecologist, and a colleague are working to save marsh plants that are slated to be lost due to the expansion of Highway 101. These plants will be used in wetland restoration projects elsewhere. (Moira Donovan)

"Their simplicity does very much belie the importance of these habitats," said Bowron. "The marsh plants we have here, they're our rainforests."

Despite their importance, wetlands have long been treated with indifference or even outright hostility — an attitude researchers say can be traced back to the beginnings of agrarian civilizations, and seen running through works ranging from the Old English Poem Beowulf to the 1971 comic Swamp Thing

But in a time of accelerating climate change experts say we need to take a closer look at wetlands: for their survival, and our own. 

'A good wetland is a destroyed wetland'

Wetlands are under increasing pressure — according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, about 35 per cent of the world's wetlands have been lost since the 1970s — but those pressures date back far beyond the present day.

According to Faisal Husain, assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, the roots of the negative perception of wetlands can be found in the development of societies that depended on the cultivation of land.

"The reason we agrarian societies viewed wetlands negatively is because we viewed wetlands as stumbling blocks to agrarian development, because their soil exerts such a major stress on the growth of crops," said Husain.

"So throughout history, our view has been that a good wetland is a destroyed wetland."

In 2021, the Haiderpur Wetland located near the Bijnor Ganga Barrage in Uttar Pradesh, India, became a UNESCO Ramsar site ⁠— considered a wetland site designated of international importance. (Submitted by Ashish Loya)

This attitude fuelled large-scale wetland projects in the Ming Dynasty, in the United States following colonization, and in 17th century England, where a group of wealthy landowners who called themselves the Gentlemen Adventurers drained wetlands to create farmland.

In some cases, Husain— who is an environmental historian focusing on the Ottoman Empire — said the perception of wetlands fed into the treatment of the people who lived there. From the 16th century onward, Arab tribes living in The Mesopotamian Marshes of Southern Iraq, used the wetland to resist the control of the Ottoman Empire; the tribes had intricate damming systems, which they would break when an invading army approached. In return, the Ottoman authorities cast them as less than human.

"It was a very violent, and zoological language that Ottoman authorities would use to describe the inhabitants of wetlands: they were dogs, they were insects, they were locusts, they were rats, and so on, and so forth," Husain said.

"We inherited those biases. That's why for a very long time, we failed to appreciate the political and ecological significance of wetlands."

The Mesopotamian Marshes, in southern Iraq, were once the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East. Overtime they have been reduced to 10 per cent of their original size. The marshes were partially recovered but drought and dam construction affected the progress. (Essam al-Sudani/AFP via Getty Images)

In many cases, these attitudes bled over into art. In the Old English poem Beowulf, the titular hero challenges and defeats Grendel and his mother, monstrous creatures whose lair was found in the middle of a hostile swamp.

Hundreds of years later, Old English scholar J.R.R. Tolkein drew on this inspiration — and his experience as the western front in World War One — to create The Dead Marshes, a haunted wetland landscape in The Lord of the Rings

'The marrow of nature'

Yet not everyone saw wetlands as forbidding. 

Starting in the 17th century, the Great Dismal Swamp, a vast wetland stretching from southeastern Virginia to northeastern North Carolina, sheltered maroons — people of African descent who'd escaped slavery — and Indigenous people who had been forced off their land, in multi-generational wetland settlements.

And in an 1862 essay, American naturalist Henry David Thoreau wrote that where most citizens saw a 'dismal swamp,' he saw an opportunity for restoration: "I enter a swamp as a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum. There is the strength, the marrow, of Nature."

In the 20th and 21st centuries, wetland ecologists helped uncover how wetlands' seemingly hostile features are a product of their unique conditions: carnivorous plants like bladderworts and pitcher plants have evolved to survive in conditions with few nutrients, for instance, and even the signature rotten-egg stink is a product of micro-organisms at work. 

Pitcher plants are carnivorous plants. Their leaves are specialized to trap prey which they ingest with nectar that they attract. (Thaddeus Holownia)

But Rebecca Rooney, wetland ecologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Waterloo, said even these advancements have not always led to changes in policy.

"We have so much evidence about their value, and yet they're treated in this way like they don't matter. And it's hard to be, sort of, very slowly losing the battle, year to year, and knowing that we can't effectively put them all back."

That may mean taking a closer look at wetlands not as valuable ecosystems in the abstract, but as environments with which we're intimately connected.

For noted artist Thaddeus Holownia, this has meant a practice of photographing the wetland he calls home: the Tantramar marshes, which stretch between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

For 40 years, Holownia has taken regular photographs of the marshes, treating them with the same attention and reverence typically paid to more dramatic landscapes.

"It's not romantic, it's not glorious, it's not in your face. But if you slow down and look at it, there's an energy and there's a beauty in its mundane richness," he said. 

For artist Thaddeus Howlonia the Tantramar marshes are a constant muse. He compares this wetland to the prairies with its vast, flat landscape. (Thaddeus Holownia)

In Uttar Pradesh, India, the actions of birders have helped save a wetland that's home to 30,000 migratory birds, by making observations and encouraging local people to do the same; those efforts led to the Haiderpur Wetland being added to the Ramsar site Network, an international network of wetlands of special significance.

And in the Creston Valley, in southern B.C., an Indigenous-led project is bringing back more than 1,000 acres of floodplain wetland.

"The Yaqan Nukiy, which are part of the Ktunaxa Nation…relied heavily on the wetlands for food sources, for materials," said Norman Allard, community planner for the Lower Kootenay Band.

"Everything that was utilized…had language and had some type of indigenous practice of harvesting and sometimes ceremony attached to it."

After the arrival of settlers, the natural wetland was altered to create farmland, leading to declines of wetland species and the practices associated with them. As the ecosystem has come back, it has brought with it the culture that had lived in harmony with it for millenia. 

The Yaqan Nukiy, part of the Ktunaxa Nation, once relied on local wetlands for food sources and materials. The Yaqan Nukiy Wetland Restoration Project is bringing damaged wetlands back to a healthy state.
The Yaqan Nukiy, part of the Ktunaxa Nation, once relied on local wetlands for food sources and materials. The Yaqan Nukiy Wetland Restoration Project is bringing damaged wetlands back to a healthy state. (Submitted by Norman Allard)

As the wetland is restored, Allard said, "we can have more and more people go out and start to learn the language around all of everything that's out there, same with the gathering practices and reinstating those ceremonies and having more of a return to Indigenous knowledge from that." 

In the years ahead, wetlands are likely to face further challenges from climate change, which could drown coastal marshes and dry out bogs. But in reconciling ourselves to these once-reviled ecosystems, experts say there's a blueprint for how to restore our relationship with the planet. 

"In my classes, [students] express anxiety, fear, grief; they are really struggling with the reality of inheriting this damaged environment," said Rooney.

"And one of the things that I think can help is engaging in wetland conservation, because when we are successful in stewarding the land, it really has an effect that's quite renewing."

Guests in this episode:

Tony Bowron is a coastal wetland ecologist and co-founder of the Transcoastal Adaptations: Centre for Nature-Based Solutions.

Faisal Husain is an environmental historian of the Ottoman Empire and assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University.

Dan Sayers is an archaeologist and associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at American University in Washington D.C.

Rod Giblett is an Australian writer with an honorary position at Deakin University in Melbourne.

Rebecca Rooney is a wetland ecologist and associate professor of biology at the University of Waterloo

Ashish Loya is a birder at the Haiderpur Wetlands.

Norman Allard is a community planner for the Lower Kootenay Band, working on the Yaqan Nukiy Wetland Restoration Project. He is a member of the Secwepemc First Nation.

Jasper Humphreys is a researcher on conflict and the environment and the director of programmes at the Marjan Study Group at King's College London.

*This episode was presented by Moira Donovan, and produced by Mary Lynk.

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