For the holidays, Russ and I decided to get away from it all – so much safer for us and for others, especially with this new variant of Covid-19 going around. Where better to avoid seeing anyone else than in a bog?
At our cabin in northern Minnesota, we walk regularly past a bog. It’s right next to a gravel road, enticing us with its remoteness and untrammeled nature. The plat book we consult signifies the bog is privately owned, however there’s no owner’s name listed, so we weren’t sure who to ask for permission for access. So, we just took a chance, donned our snowshoes, and trammeled it, just a little bit.
Although they look sterile, bogs are places of unparalleled abundance and life. The vast peatlands of northern Minnesota cover more than ten percent of the state. Unlike the clearing of the prairies and white pine forests, efforts to drain and develop the peatlands were mostly failures, although unnaturally straight ditches in some bogs testify to this toil.
The bottom of a peatland is a breathless place – cold, acidic, anaerobic – with no oxygen to decompose branches or the small, still faces of the weasels interred there. Sphagnum mosses wrap around the fur, wood, skin, casting their spell of chemical protection, preserving them whole. Growth is impossible, and Death cannot complete his spare work.
Minnesota’s peatlands formed over five thousand years ago when the climate cooled and rain increased. The state contains more peatlands than any other in the U.S., except its Alaskan stepsister. (A surprising number of Minnesotans spend time in Alaska and vice versa.) Although in the U.K. and northern Europe the smoky glow of peat still heats many houses, the trend never caught on in Minnesota.
In Europe, bogs are portals to distant worlds, wilder realms. Gods travel the bogs. In America, peatlands are just an inconvenience to be drained or avoided. Even the Ojibwe let them alone. Maybe that’s why birds love bogs, like the nearby Sax-Zim Bog. They are places where people are not. Owls can hunt voles, mice, and moles to peaceful content.
We saw many deer trails crossing the bog. Shrubby bushes of Labrador tea poked their tips through the covering of snow. We investigated an island of red pines at the bog’s edge – an upland out of sync with the rest. Climbing a short way, we came upon a human-made square wooden platform covered with a thin layer of snow. A cache of short, fire-ready sticks lay piled between two tree trunks nearby. It looked like a tent platform, ready for use.
We vowed to check the plat map to see how people could access this red pine “island” in summer. It was surrounded by the bog, but perhaps not too much bog for a person to cross when conditions are more liquid.
Back on the bog, we passed stunted black spruce trees and tamaracks, denuded of their needles by winter. A gentle snow began to fall, consecrating all with a layer of white.
All was silent. All was good.
We completed a circuit around the area, which was surprisingly much larger than we could see from the road. As we took off our snowshoes and walked back to our cabin, we were suffused with the peace of this wild place.
Imagine our distress when, a couple of weeks later, we walked past the bog again, only to see snowmobile tracks leading out onto it. The snowmobiles had run ragged circles around the part nearest to the road that was clear of trees. They churned up vegetation, spewing spatters of green “blood” across the snow.
It made me wonder what the snowmobilers were thinking of when they chose to motor around in the bog. They probably thought it looked like a fun place to tear around in – a wasteland, devoid of life, useless to humans. Why not have some fun in it?
Agh. It hurt my heart to see it. Thus, this blog post – letting people know that just because something looks useless to humans doesn’t mean it has no value. Bogs are home to countless creatures and many rare plants. Please, please don’t misuse them.