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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Lush, Mysterious Bogs

Air Date: Week of November 27, 1998

Commentator Sy Montgomery likes to visit her favorite bog where life seems boundless, mysterious, and where time seems to stand still. Ms. Montgomery is the author of "Nature's Everyday Mysteries". She comes to us from New Hampshire Public Radio.

Transcript

CURWOOD: English author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle called them "dark, quivering mires." But our commentator Sy Montgomery says not so of her bogs. As autumn races toward winter in the high latitudes, she likes to visit her favorite bog, a place where time seems to stand still.

MONTGOMERY: The path leads through what at first looks like any wetland forest. Red maple, royal fern, thickets of blueberry and huckleberry. But as you continue along, the trees get shorter and smaller. Until, at a bend, a vista opens that takes your breath away. A meadow of garnet red sphagnum moss, teal-colored bog rosemary, round white tufts of cotton grass, and the occasional struggling bonsai-like black spruce. The needles of the tamarack tree are yellow, the mossy meadow haloed in gold.

North America hosts many tens of thousands of bogs, and each is different. Some have open water. Some are jammed with orchids in spring. Some are used to grow Thanksgiving cranberries. But all have fibrous peaty soil made of barely decomposed dead plants and animals, and all have standing acidic water. A floating mat of sedges, mosses, and shrubs congeals across the water, and as the mat thickens it may even, incredibly, support trees.

It's a strange sort of netherworld. The plants seem to move visibly, like animals. Craggy branches seem poised like dancers. Mosses creep across the water like snakes. Plants even take up meat-eating here. At least 2 carnivorous plants thrive in bogs: the pitcher plant, which drowns its victims, and the tiny sundew, which snares them with droplets of sticky glue.

But perhaps the most defining characteristic of a bog is one you can't see. All bogs have a strange, magical feeling, for here, it seems, time doesn't fly. Instead, like the bog's peaty soil, time accumulates. Peat, you see, forms very slowly. The top 20 inches in the hollows of certain bogs take more than 2,000 years to build up. Because the waters are acidic, what accumulates stays. In that way, the peats archive history. In the pollen and leaves, sedges and moss preserved in each bog, scientists with microscopes can read its entire life story.

Northern Europe's ancient people must have known this. Scientists have recently retrieved from certain bogs the bodies of Iron and Bronze Age people who lived between 1500 and 500 BC. They may have been sacrificed to the Earth goddess Nerthus. The bog's acidic waters have preserved these human offerings, giving them a sort of immortality, and reminding us, in our frenzied, forgetful age, of the true weight and the richness and the slowness of time.

CURWOOD: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of Nature's Everyday Mysteries. She comes to us with thanks to New Hampshire Public Radio.

 

 

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