During the summer of 2021, Camila Marambio stayed in Denmark for some time. We went together to Lille Vildmose – a 7600 ha protected peatland in the North Eastern part of Denmark. Lille Vildmose has for decades been protected, among others by the European Natura 2000 protected areas network. Since 2013, this peatland has also been designated as Ramsar Area, using climate as criteria for protection as part of the Nordic Baltic Wetlands initiative NorBalWet – in line with the international Convention on Wetlands, signed 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar.
We visited the peatbog together with the biologist Mette Risager, a Danish expert on peatlands. Mette has studied peatbogs for decades, and is the only Danish biologist, really specialized in peatbogs. Mette has participated passionately in ecopolitical debates on peatland conservation in Denmark, Europe and worldwide. She has contributed to several international reports on the issue (Barthelmes et al 2015; Risager et al 2015). We came to know about Mette through a You Tube film on the importance of peatland conservation (Naturstyrelsen 2015). When we contacted her, she generously offered to take us on a tour to Lille Vildmose to share some of her very comprehensive knowledge on peatbogs with us. Among others, she made it possible for us to go on an awe-inspiring walk with her through areas of the bog, which normally are closed to visitors. We learnt a lot from the day we spent with Mette in Lille Vildmose. Our conversation with her covered both science, politics, history, arts and spirituality of peatbogs. I will give a snapshot, and further recommend the You Tube film and the referenced reports, if you want to dig further (see the reference list).
A glimpse of the history of peatbogs in Denmark
The lands around the bays of the North Sea, now called Denmark, used to abound in peatlands. In the Ice Age10.000 years ago, the ice cap stopped in the middle of the Danish peninsula, Jutland. When the ice started to withdraw due to warmer climates a lot of meltwater rivers flooded the landscapes, giving rise to wetlands, eventually forming into peatlands. However, at least since the Iron Age, 1-2000 years ago, peat has been used in the area as fuel for heating of human living spaces, which already back then reduced the peatlands, though still only in moderate ways. During the most recent centuries of modern capitalist development, the situation has changed drastically, though. In certain periods of capitalist modernity, among others intensified during World War II, systematic peat digging for heating purposes has been taking place in Denmark. But even more destructive to the peatlands, major drainage operations have been undertaken during the 19th and 20th centuries with the purpose of securing large scale expansion of farmlands. Denmark is a small, flat country (43000 square kilometers without any mountains), and today one of the most intensively cultivated countries in the world. Only minute areas of socalled ”wild nature” (i.e. uncultivated areas) are left, and only very few of these (if any) bear some kind of likeness to what reasonably could be defined as ”pristine” areas, i.e. areas not terraformed through human intervention. Parts of the peatbog in Lille Vildmose represents such an area (even though drainage and farming activities in the surroundings have had an impact). Mette took us to this ”pristine” part of the bog.
Peatlands and spiritmattering
It was awe-inspiring to walk out into the bog, and experience how that which at a distance looks like a browngreenish, rather homogenous surface, changes drastically into a beautifully multicoloured and diverse flora, when you get close. As we walked further and further, Mette showed us a multitude of different plants, including several species of sphagnum moss that make up a key component of the bog. Sphagnum is an amazing plant with its capacity for immortality in terms of adding layer upon layer of living plant on top of already decomposing remains of earlier sphagnum plants. Mette shared her thoughts on the ecosystem diversity, and her in-depth knowledge of Lille Vildmose. She has walked in the bog for decades; she knows every detail, and holds a big admiration and fascination of the bog. She also told us about the spiritual feelings, which the bog inspires in her, who otherwise considers herself a non-religious person in a conventional sense:
”When I take people to bogs to try to tell them how fantastic bogs are … I am not a religious person, but I feel there is something religious about bogs because when you go to these huge areas without trees, you get this special light, and you stand out there, and you are in an area, which is uninfluenced by anything. It came by itself, and it will be able to grow forever, if people could leave it alone. And sphagnum is also an immortal plant, which is very fascinating, – you can take a plant and shred it, and it can form thousands of new plants, in theory every leave can make a new plant, but at least the branches can, so I think that it is a fantastic plant. So you go to these really untouched areas with the immortal plants and high to the sky, so for me bogs are fantastic…” (Interview with Mette Risager, July 2021).
For me, Mette’s description of her spiritual feelings resonates very much with the awe, which I oftentimes have experienced when encountering the non-human, deeply material vitality and sympoietic existence*) of the diatomaceous cliffs at the Danish island of Fur. These cliffs are made of algae, species diatoms, that fossilized 55 mio years ago. My lesbian lifepartner’s ashes are scattered outside of the cliffs, and I visit them often. Drawing on these earlier feelings of awe towards spiritmattering agency of matter, and empathizing with Mette’s words about her spiritual experience of the bog, I became strongly bodily aware of the non-human agencies, which surrounded us, while standing at a little lake in the middle of the bog, which Mette led us to. While standing there, we also discussed the Iron age people whose bodies have been found in bogs in several places in Denmark and other North Western European countries – among others the Grauballe Man, excavated in Denmark in 1952 (Asingh 2009). Due to the acidification of the bog, these bodies look as if they died yesterday and not 2000 years ago. According to archeologists, these ancestors considered the bogs as holy places. I think we could somehow understand why, when we stood together with Mette at the little lake in the middle of the ”pristine” part of Lille Vildmose.
Peatbog Conservation and Restoration
We also discussed ecopolitics with Mette. We found out that we shared the wish to make the role of peatlands in climate change regulation much more known. By contrast to the role of forests, of which there is a growing public understanding today, little is publicly known about peatlands, and the ways in which they bind big amounts of CO2. Draining of peatlands, which still goes on in many places, means high level release of CO2 to the atmosphere, while restoring of peatlands can help binding CO2. We would like this knowledge to be spread, and hopefully get an impact among others on the widespread, problematic consumption of sphagnum for gardening and houseplants.
We also discussed the sad fact that around 90% of the Danish peatbogs have already been lost due to drainage in previous centuries. However, Mette underlined that this nonetheless makes two efforts very important. To engage in conservation efforts to keep what is left, and to try to find ways to restore as much as possible, even though the process overall is to be considered as irreversible. Through her work as consultant, Mette has developed suggestions for experiments with peatland restoration methods. However, she told us that, working as a consultant is sometimes difficult, because the stakeholders that consult her, often adapt and simplify her suggestions in ways which end up making them non-effective. But she also had a piece of good news – the private foundation, Aage V Jensen’s Natural Fund, which owns the most pristine parts of Lille Vildmose, has hired her to carry out an experiment in restoration, which she shall lead and set the conditions for herself. She has high hopes for this.
We wish to warmly thank you, Mette for the tour and for generously sharing so much knowledge with us, and we also wish you all the best for your further efforts to contribute to the conservation and restoration of peatlands.
Asingh, Pauline (2009): Grauballe Man. Portrait of a Bog Body. Jutland Archeological Society Publications. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.
Barthelmes, Alexandra, Couwenberg, John, Risager, Mette, Tegetmeyer, Cosima, and Josten, Hans (2015): Peatlands and Climate Change in a Ramsar context. A Nordic-Baltic Perspective. Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers (TemaNord 2015: 44).
Haraway, Donna (2016): Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press.
Naturstyrelsen (2015): Peatlands – climate regulation and biodiversity. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZcxZ9gvNfSU, accessed September 19, 2021.
Risager, M., Aaby, B. & Greve, M.H. (2015): Denmark. In: Joosten, H., Tanneberger F. & Moen, A. (eds): Mires and peatlands of Europe – Status, distribution, and nature conservation. Stuttgart: Schweizerbart Science Publishers.
*) Sympoiesis is a notion, defined by feminist biologist Donna Haraway (2016), to be understood as every little biological component’s inherent ability to develop in synergy with all other small biological components which make up an ecosystem.
Nina Lykke is a Danish writer, poet and scholar, Professor Emerita of Gender Studies at Linköping University, Sweden.
Ill – 1- Mette Risager
Ill – 2. Lille Vildmose – overview
Ill – 3. Lille Vildmose – close-up
Ill – 4. Lille Vildmose – close-up
Ill – 5. The Lake
All photos by Nina Lykke.