This is an excerpt from “Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the From Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat,” by Edward Struzik Copyright 2021 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
In 1991, the Johnson and Johnson Company introduced a peat-based sanitary pad that promised to be thinner, lighter and more environmentally friendly. More than $40 million was spent over a 15-year period to develop it. They spared no expense promoting it in major daily newspapers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Company officials described it as being made from “a honey-colored plant” (sphagnum moss) that is “grown in the cold, clear waters of Canada.” The moss, they said, was once used by Native American women in its raw form as sanitary protection and for diapering babies. It was also harvested during the First World War, when sepsis, a potentially lethal reaction to infection, threatened to exhaust the supply of cotton used for bandages and uniforms. Medical experts tried everything from treating the wounds with chlorine solutions to making bandages out of carbolic acid, formaldehyde, mercury chloride and cotton. They settled on sphagnum, which Irish soldiers used to treat wounds during the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.
This wasn’t the first time a company saw profit in peat that might serve the hygienic needs of nonnative women. When the First World War ended, a company based in Portland, Oregon, created a napkin called Sfag-Na-Kins, which was manufactured with paper and sphagnum moss. The venture lasted only a year because of competition from cheaper, cellulose-based products.
The peat that Johnson and Johnson used for their product, sold in 85 countries, was extracted from a bog twice the size of Central Park in the Saint-Fabien-sur-Mer region of Quebec. The company, however, decided to stop producing the napkins in the late 1990s, partly out of concern that the environmental message it was promoting might backfire if women learned that the products they were using resulted in the draining of a wetland.
Restoring peatlands is a promising way of storing terrestrial carbon, regulating climate … and protecting low-lying coastlines from rising sea levels.
Faced with the need to restore the bog once the project ended, Johnson and Johnson looked to Dale Vitt, one of the first peatland ecologists in North America, to restore a peatland extraction site to an ecologically functioning state. A serendipitous moment put them in touch with Line Rochefort, a Canadian scientist who had done graduate work with Vitt before joining the faculty at Laval University in Quebec City. She was ideal because she spoke French and was much closer to the bog site.
Restoring peatlands is a promising way of storing terrestrial carbon, regulating climate, filtering water, mitigating floods and protecting low-lying coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges that are extending their reach inland. It may also be the best way for peat moss companies, already banned from extracting peat in many parts of Europe and the United Kingdom and increasingly in some parts of North America, to stay in business.
The science of “growing” peat is a centuries-old work in progress that continues to be elusive, depending on the criteria used to measure success. There are those like Dutch peatland ecologist Hans Joosten who insist that restoring peatlands to their original functioning state cannot be done, and those like Rochefort who are convinced that success is already at hand and that near perfection may not be far off as scientists strive to better understand how the interactions among water, vegetation, microbial communities and climate promote the growth of moss, the building block in peat production. For Joosten, the solution is to stop extracting peat altogether and rewet peatlands that have been degraded. For Rochefort, its conservation as well as helping the peat industry achieve sustainability.
The idea of growing peat began sometime around 1658, when Martin Schoock, a professor in the Dutch city of Groningen, wrote the first book on peat. In one chapter, Schoock asks: “An material cespitita effossa, progressu temporis restaurari possit?” Roughly translated, this means: “Can this excavated combustible matter, after the course of time, be restored?”
It was an important question. Two-thirds of Central and Northern Europe was once covered in trees. After most of those trees were felled, peat extracted from bogs and fens replaced wood as a primary source of energy. As time went by, many in the Low Countries, Germany and elsewhere in the North Sea region feared that if peat extracted from fens and bogs were to be exhausted someday, there would no longer be a reliable source of energy, nor the revenue that came from the sale of peat. It was akin to concerns that arose during the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, when the shortage of oil and gas sparked fears of economic collapse.
Because the Dutch were so skilled at draining peatlands for energy and agricultural purposes, the country now known as the Netherlands was well on its way to becoming a superpower in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was wealth from peat that gave the Dutch a dominant navy, control of the silk and spice trade, colonies in North America, South America, Africa and Asia, and the affluence to support renowned artists such as Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), Pieter Brueghel (c. 1525–1569), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), and Jacobus Mancadan (c. 1602–1680). No other country as small has been so dominant in so many ways since the Dutch Golden Age ended with a series of disastrous events that followed the Franco-Dutch War in 1672.
For the Netherlands, the extraction of peat was often more valuable than the harvesting of grain. Wheat, oat and barley did not grow well on peatlands that had been drained as had been done progressively since 1050, when people in Delft in South Holland began mining peat in the estuary of the Maas and Rhine rivers. The remaining peat eventually lost its buoyancy, sank and compressed the underlying layers of peat below the water table.
Grain crops literally drowned in those wet conditions. (Cows did not, which is perhaps the reason why cheese and other dairy products became another measure of the country’s considerable wealth.) By some estimates, peatlands were three times more valuable than farmland. So the Dutch continued to do what the residents of Delft taught them when they finished draining the bogs: they canalized the water from the polders and the mires, and they built cities on top of them.
For the Netherlands, the extraction of peat was often more valuable than the harvesting of grain.
This went on for the next three centuries. Municipal officials who attended a general meeting of cities in Holland in 1453 were so concerned about the possibility that the country’s reservoirs of peat might one day disappear that they proposed banning the export of peat altogether. In 1514, 14 cities in Holland informed tax officials that they derived all their income from this one resource.
No one seriously listened, as Hans Joosten, water historian Petra J. E. M. van Dam and others have documented so succinctly in several books and essays describing the demise of the hoogvenen and laagvenen, Dutch words for the raised bogs and low bogs that so dominated the country’s landscape at one time. There was simply no alternative to peat.
By the 17th century, the peat in the bogs and fens around Amsterdam was almost exhausted, forcing miners into wet, sodden outbacks such as Groningen in the lowlands of the northeast, where scholar Martin Schoock penned his book on peat and where artist Jacobus Sibrandi Mancadan put his brush to one of the first paintings of peat being harvested. (German artist Albrecht Dürer is thought to have painted the first in 1495.) Holland in the 17th century was like Alberta in the 1960s, when conventional oil reserves were in decline and the provincial government was offering energy companies generous subsidies to find a way to extract bitumen from the oil sands in peatland country.