Peat

by Patrick Laurie

28 September 2021
190925 Patrick Galloways Duncan Ireland Photography 017

The Anne Brown Essay Prize for Scotland was held for the first time at Wigtown Book Festival 2021. Patrick Laurie's wonderful essay about peat was one of the shortlisted entries.

Peat

I carry my boy to the bogs. He rides in the saddle of my shoulders and cotton bobs in the trembling moss. He’s never come this way before, and I mark the day by playing daft. I place a ball of cotton in my mouth to suck until it comes up slick as ‘fifties hairdo. He laughs at that and tries it himself, and soon there’s a pile of suckings in the sun.

There are pictures of me as a boy in this place at the age of two or three. I’m knee-high to my grandfather, who was strong back then and his shirtsleeves rolled to reveal red, cordy forearms. The pictures were captured by a disposable camera, and they’re overexposed so the bog fades into the sunshine and you can’t see the hills beyond. Our figures float in the dozy brightness, and they remind me of those painted boards at the beach where you place your face through a hole and have funny photos taken. Our board shows an old man beside a young one, and as my boy creeps in behind me, I think it’s funny how your face will appear at each hole in due course. 

Long views open up before us. Standing on the rim of the bog, we look west towards wind turbines and new forest plantations which rise above the moors towards Carsphairn. It’s an ancient landscape in the midst of an upheaval; more change has come in forty years than in the previous four thousand. Pressed by fears of climate change, Galloway is being future-proofed. The new trees will capture carbon, building resilience and self-sufficiency. We’re told it’s a win:win for the world, but it’s not always a clean transition. Forest ploughs grumble in the warming day. The land lies uneasily. 

It’s true that trees store carbon, but only for so long as they’re alive or the wood is in use. When the timber is felled, it begins to decay and the carbon leaks back into the world again. Most of these million trees we can see will be felled and replanted twice more in the space of my lifetime. It’s merely a loop which feeds upon itself. If you’re serious about tackling climate change, it’s better to store carbon in peat. 

With every passing summer, a peat bog will grow and die upon itself. The weight of its own water and the pickling pools of new rain will keep it from decay so that death stands in perpetuity. There is no rot or leaching away, just a gradual acquisition of matter; a steady, swollen draw-down of carbon. Forget decades or centuries of woodbound storage; peat will trap carbon and store it for eternity. Scientists say that peat accrues depth at a rate of one millimetre per year. There’s a bog in Ayrshire which is more than twelve metres deep, and that might be twelve thousand years of carbon storage. It sounds slow, but that’s because you heard it with human ears and it’s hard for folk to fathom that kind of time. 

Under the right conditions, peat formation is relentless and it lasts forever. It’s a permanent answer, but try telling that to civil servants and green investors who work on a fixed parliamentary term. These people want quick and pretty results. Peat could save us, but it’s unloved and unlovely; a limpid, ghoulish void which lies on the fringes of human experience. A recent survey asked people to describe what they knew of peatland. The respondents did not know much. What little they knew was bound up in recurring associations with words like “wasteland” and “desolation”. It’s no wonder that public enthusiasm tends to focus elsewhere. Trees have become an internationally recognisable currency of virtue. Forests are the future. If peat is anything at all, it’s the past. 

Besides, I’m in no position to tut. I’ve inherited an unhealthy relationship with peat. I think of it as fuel, and perhaps that’s worse than indifference. I could ignore peat, but instead I go looking for it; I carve it from the ground and set fire to it. Surely indifference would be better than this targeted harm? When the winter rains come up from the Irish Sea, I’ll burn that peat like there’s no tomorrow. It’s pure hypocrisy that I should claim to love the stuff and destroy it all the same. I can’t plead ignorance either; I know exactly what I’m doing, but it’s not without logic. 

We find a bird in the grass as we come to the haggs. She runs in the sunlight, dark and laced with honey-coloured feathers. Her trailing wing is just for show; she wants us to follow her, and I know why. Down in the roots and the splayed tongues of butterwort, we find her chicks, ill-feathered and young. My boy leans down over my shoulder and there is the sound of a bogey-stuffed nostril in my ear. I can feel him staring, but we have not discussed a name for these creatures. I could say “grouse” and encourage him to copy me, but we are each transfixed in silence. Under normal circumstances, he would use a system of “the nearest best fit” and maybe say “chicken” or “duck”. But this situation is a logjam; something too interesting to categorise. One by one, the chicks rise and flutter weakly to their mother like sparrows. That’s when he shouts “ack!”, which means flight or the action or flapping. I think of that verse by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid - “I love you earth in this mood best of all”, as the grouse and the light clouds move further into the hills. 

This bog leans up to a cairn on the highest point, and from there you can see all the way to Langholm, the Muckle Toun where MacDiarmid grew up. It’s thirty miles as the crow might fly, and it’s fine to think of that man blazing in the wild-eyed madness of his own words. Nobody sees the Southern Uplands like MacDiarmid did; the tumbling, cloud-stacked void, and the accumulative truth that emptiness is relative. It takes a certain understanding to ignore the vast horizon and stare instead upon tiny realities of sundew and the dirling leaves of light and shade at the height of a matchbox. Half a century after his death, MacDiarmid’s poems continue to prove and grow. I can read them easily on winter nights, but they’re heavy things to hold on a day like this. 

When the time comes to dig, I place my boy in the heather and he frowns at me. It’s too bright in the sunshine, but soon he is picking up small flakes of lichen and placing them in his upturned hat. He points at his hat and says hat and I agree. Then squatting down, he selects a pellet of sheep shit between his thumb and forefinger. Judging by the look on his face, it is the best bit of shit in the broad expanse of the sunlit world. I tell him he’s done well to find it. 

I remember my grandfather driving a spade into the very same land and other men around him in the haggs, tossing peat to the wind. Everybody stood to gain a winter’s fuel from the work, but recalling the blown-out, overexposed horizon of old photographs, we seemed to be standing in thin air. We could be doing this work anywhere from County Kerry to the Barents Sea. In stance, expectation and fibre, we are so cleansed of context that we could be Picts. And perhaps the folk who first burnt peat as fuel would regard the Picts as precocious whizz-kids who’d lost their way in the world. For me, it was just work. I could not see how our actions could be multiplied and magnified by endless repetition. Unlike the conscious rite or observance of ritual, work like this endured for so long because there were no shortcuts or brighter ideas. If we could do without digging, we would have done, but the basic need for heat and light made for a loop and a turning spiral which ran without interruption for thousands of years. My grandfather used to take an entire winter’s fuel off this place; not only us and himself but the neighbours and their tenants next door. Our homes would smell of moss and it was easy to keep the fire in with cakes of red ash smouldering at the grate. 

And then all of a sudden, we found a way to do away with digging. We came up with oil-powered central heating; kiln-dried logs for the woodburner; heat at the flick of a timer. Folk say time is money, and if you aren’t earning cash then you must be on holiday; and who wants to spend their holiday digging holes, all covered in clegs and your own salt sweat? Thirty years ago, digging was common. For the last ten years, I’ve been the only one left digging in this bog. I look over to my boy and think it’s nice to have some company again. 

Always cut peat on the cusp of a cool wind, then leave the sky do the legwork. Because the ground will come and go with dryness like a passing tide, and the wind does more good than sunshine. In a wet year once, I came back with a sack of soggy peat blocks. I hoped that I’d be able to dry them by the stove, but the heat only turned them to powder. It’s wind that keeps it together and gives shape to the fibre. Pared and parching, the peats develop a skin which cracks upon itself like old leather. 

When they’re dry enough to stand on their heels, you build the peat blocks up into stooks. That’s when the best peat turns silver and the worst is revealed to be rooty and red and you might as well ditch it. The Danes called the red stuff “dog’s meat”. I read a book about it. Dog’s meat and a load of iron-age bodies they found buried in the roots with their fingernails like nut rinds. When I find dog’s meat now, I hope for some sign of an old body below it. Wouldn’t that be grand and spooky work? Turning up the tanned skin and pouched belly of some pagan execution with a noose around his neck; some ancestor so neatly preserved that he could be nagged into disclosing new information. The Danes called it dog meat, but what did we call it here in Galloway? Those of us left above ground have forgotten, but a body buried in the peat for two thousand years would have plenty of time to answer that question from every angle. Even as I dig, I think it’s wonderful stuff, peat. Black amber, and rot forestalled by a stack of moss and sour water. Dig it up and the spell is broken; decay resumes, but how can you see it when it’s buried? Who knows what’s in there, lasting forever? Aren’t you itching to dig it up and look? 

I don’t have to excuse myself for this work, but I’d like you to hear me out when I say that it’s more than mere wreckage. Each cut prepares the next, and there’s a skill to doing it cleanly. Making the stooks is tricky, and that job used to fall to the most senior men. Now it’s just me, and I try to remember how they did it when I was a boy. Build them too high and they’ll fall. Build them too shallow and the sheep will just push them over. Drying peat is skilful, little-and-often work, turning them slowly and allowing the pieces to circulate as the summer goes by. It takes time from your day, and I suppose that’s the main reason why nobody does it here anymore. I tell myself that I persist because I want to turn against the rising world, but even I am under the cosh. I talk a good game, but the peace of my own mind is hard to come by. I can go for an hour’s steady digging and then suddenly surface in a wave of panic that I might have received some email or opportunity which requires my attention; a phone bill reminder, a quote rebounded and then the bog’s an obstacle and a frustration to me. I rush back to find ‘phone reception, feeling daft and indulgent for having played my day away. 

I dig and my boy drinks into me like moss. I dig for an hour and he plays beside me in the haggs. When I pause and turn away from my spade, I find he’s taken it into his own small hands. I’m sorry that it seems so heavy, and I watch him bear the blade and copy the action of my digging. He doesn’t know what he’s at. He grunts because he’s heard me grunting – he works because he’s never seen me lie. And that seems to be how the habit is transferred, without rationale or explanation; the simple contagion of doing. 

When I was young, the year was so gapingly vast that chores became dislocated from their purpose. For a small boy, planning more than a few weeks ahead was an act of unimaginable forethought, so we mowed and baled hay in the summer simply to fill the shed. Feeding cows in the winter was a secondary concern; the fortunate biproduct of an unrelated chore. In the same way, cutting peat had no connection to burning it, and that’s how it is for my boy who has no idea that we have begun the work of warming ourselves; of bringing that peat reek into the house on days when the rain rides sideways into the skylight and he is just a face in the blankets. 

But when he makes that connection, he’ll see how we fit together in this place, and how the grouse and her chicks rise and fall within the relevance of his own home. He’ll see how it matters when the weather turns and the peats are newly cut because the quality of that winter’s fuel is dictated by the rise of the clouds which swell over the Machars towards Antrim. I need him to know that heat is not a given; that fuel is more than a man who comes in a lorry; that the labour of old ways can be nourishing. I take the spade back from his hands and for a moment it looks like he’ll cry. I can sympathise with that. I value my sense of purpose too. 

Cutting peat is fair and legal work. There’s no need for me to apologise for it. In some parts of the Outer Isles, it’s actually celebrated. Think of all those distilleries which rely on the marque of peatiness and the cultural heft of uisge beatha. It’s not immediately obvious how your dram’s complicit, but think of the maltings smoked in a peaty reek. Then recall the truth of climate change. Every time that peat is removed from the ground, greenhouse gases are leached into the atmosphere. It doesn’t matter why you’ve taken it, whether it’s for whisky, fuel or potting compost. The unavoidable truth is that it needs to stop. 

Nobody’s said that you can’t dig peat, but mark my words - they’ll be saying it soon. The big distilleries are being challenged to leave their peat in the ground. They have no fallback plan to replace the flavour with something else, but we’re in a tight spot now. The sea levels rise and the old folk say that the weather’s gone mad. As we wake up to the importance of peat, we’ll realise how badly we’ve taken it for granted. My spade belongs in a museum, but I can’t deny that I’ll be sorry to see it go. 

It’s fair to say that everything I know about peat has been learned from the act of destroying it. Like those farm boys who used to steal birds’ eggs for their collections, my interest sprang from an act of desecration. I can pass the buck and say this work came into me from others, but there’s something urgent in the darkness of that peat when it slips under your own fingernails. It doesn’t belong to anyone else but you. It’s work and the hurt of digging that climbs inside you and becomes your own. 

When I found the poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid, I saw that peat glow in him, doubled down and digging under the wide skies like so many thousands of others before us both. And so of course I cleaved to his outraged rejection of Scotland as “nothing but heather!” “Scotland small?”; despite the multiform, infinite variety of harebells, myrtle and the black neglected haggs; everything you’ll need in a single self-dependent hillside, accessible on all-fours to a man who saw an entire nation in the square foot of a bog. Hack, slice and bear away the lid of the land; MacDiarmid confirmed my suspicion that we love it most when we feel part of it. And from that foundational, contradictory place, lines lead out to a modern world worth saving from the rising disaster of floods and melting sea ice. 

If you pin me down to a feeling of guilt, it’s only because my boy was born into dire straits. We’re all differently complicit in the emergence of climate change, but my contribution is unusually tangible. It doesn’t matter if I treasure my digging for the old connections; we can’t expect to live like Picts forever. It’s hardly enough for me to say it’s fine because we’ve always done it. That sense of continuity has become an outdated extravagance, like a diesel truck or a plastic nappy. 

I know that I should down tools and move on. I will, but we each find it hard to soften our tread on the world. And there’s sense in digging peat to weigh the cost in your own black hands than passing the damage on to oil and coal from some unseen place you’ll never go. Besides, I’m not so worried about people digging peat as I am about those who think that peat is a man’s name; that bogs lie beyond the necessary span of human experience. There’s more than fuel to be gathered in the hot day’s work, and who would ever long to save a thing they never knew? 

So with the sun well risen and the heat pounding around us, I toss my boy up onto my shoulders and step towards home, pointing out the shapes of the hills and the spark of a burn in the alders below us. I tell him how that burn runs into a bigger one, and how it swells into the sea. He’s only small, and I have to remind myself that he won’t remember this day. But a month later I’m glad to see him point at the crumbly sacks brought down from the hill to be stacked in the close and the byre at sunset. “Peat”, he says, and the scents of ourselves run around us. 

The Anne Brown Essay Prize 2021 is run by Wigtown Book Festival in association with BBC Radio Scotland