Peatland folklore lent us will-o-the-wisps and jack-o-lanterns, and can inspire climate action today

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<span class="caption">Northern European folklore had different ways of referring to distant lights known to spontaneously appear on peatlands, including will-o’-the-wisp, and the more familiar jack-o’-lantern.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(Shutterstock)</span></span>
Northern European folklore had different ways of referring to distant lights known to spontaneously appear on peatlands, including will-o’-the-wisp, and the more familiar jack-o’-lantern. (Shutterstock)

In northern European cultural and literary traditions, peatlands — an umbrella term for various types of bogs, fens and moors — all have associations with fear, danger and uncertainty. Folklore associated with peatlands has also lent us some Halloween symbols, like the jack-o’-lantern.

And yet, fears or dangers associated with Halloween don’t hold a candle to the clear and present planetary threat of climate change. Learning about and protecting peatlands matters for taking positive climate action today.

Peatlands act as carbon sequestration units (or sinks) — where carbon dioxide (CO2) is captured from the atmosphere and stored over many millennia. In fact, peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon storage on the planet (about 25 per cent of all soil carbon and double the amount held in forests).

Peatlands have been central to how northern European folklore has explored fear, a sense of the uncanny and the supernatural for hundreds of years. Their persistence is also key to slowing down climate change.

Read more: Peatlands protect against wildfire and flooding, but they're still under attack in Canada

Landscapes of mystery and fear

In my book, Contentious Terrains: Boglands, Ireland, Postcolonial Gothic, I examined how cultural and literary narratives about peatlands in Ireland often evoke gothic elements through the mysterious and macabre as a response to colonial histories. The gothic refers generally to modes, themes and stylistic representations of horror or the uncanny across European cultural history dating back to the 18th century.

Northern European storytellers have often relied on peatland landscapes to capture a frightening or spooky mood or atmosphere, such as in English classic novels like Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles. Such tales drew on longer-standing oral and cultural traditions that looked to peatlands as liminal spaces, places that appealed to a sense of the uncanny and the supernatural.

A farmhouse ruin on an English moor.
Ruins of the farmhouse that some believe inspired Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ set in the West Yorkshire windswept moorlands. Both wet and dry moors are peatlands, but if wet, a moor is generally synonymous with a bog. (Shutterstock)

Folkloric accounts

A rich folklore involving fear and death, in addition to ghosts and hauntings, emerges from accounts of peatlands. According to Irish folklore, the púca or “pooka” is a shape-shifter that uses the mysterious terrain of bogs to either deceive or assist people.

Often appearing in rural or marine environments, the pooka is a trickster figure capable of morphing into various forms: black horses, goats, rabbits and cats, as well as humans. In The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places, under the “fairies, demons, goblins and ghosts” section, Irish historian and etymologist P.W. Joyce describes the pooka as a contradictory mix of merriment and malignity.

Folklore commonly referred to distant lights known to spontaneously appear on peatlands as will-o’-the-wisps (or ignis fatuus — Latin for “foolish fire”) — a type of ghost also known as “bog sprites,” “water sheeries,” “fairy lights” and even the more familiar jack-o’-lantern.

Science journalist Kit Chapman explains that a scientific theory for these lights exists, but is still debated. Some scientists maintain that in some peatland environments, the highly flammable chemicals of phosphine and diphosphane that are produced from the fermentation process in these highly anaerobic marshy lands can spontaneously ignite with exposure to oxygen at various temperatures on the surface.

Storytellers told of how flickering forms, often resembling candles or fire bursts, would sometimes help wayward travellers find their way. Or, according to other accounts, will-o’-the-wisps sometimes led travellers to an untimely death. Wet peatlands (bogs) can be visually deceptive: what looks like solid ground can give way and claim a person by suffocation or drowning.

A painted wood engraving
Plate 25: ‘The Ignis Fatuus’ in the book, ‘Phenomena of Nature,’ 1849, from Science Museum Group Collection. (The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London), CC BY-NC-SA

‘Bog bodies’

Peatlands are also associated with the now-famous mummified “bog bodies” found in various parts of northern Europe.

These bodies have been preserved for thousands of years, including fingerprints, nails, hair and facial features, all due to the decay-defying, oxygen-deficient (anaerobic) environment.

Read more: Bogs are unique records of history – here's why

Commentary about the environmental insights afforded by studying and contemplating bog bodies, and the ethical issues inherent in excavating, displaying or writing about them, point to how peatlands continue to encourage deep reflection about our relationships with cultures and environmental history.

A head of a mummified person with eyes closed.
Head of bog body known as ‘Tollund Man.’ Found in 1950 near Tollund, Silkebjorg, Denmark, and about 2,300 years old.

The wonder of peatlands

This year, Halloween falls on the first day of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.

This is a fitting location considering the history of peatlands in the North Atlantic archipelago, but also in face of the climate disaster.

The world has much to fear about the degradation of peatlands, much more than wandering spirits. Based upon the most recent projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we are in dire circumstances.

In the past 10,000 years, peatlands absorbed up to 1.2 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide, producing a significant amount of net cooling on the Earth. The bad news is that the sustained destruction of peatlands accounts for five to 10 per cent of annual carbon emissions from humans.

Ultimately, the removal or disturbance of peatlands accelerates climate change for two interconnected reasons: it reduces the land where carbon can be captured and stored, and it also releases stored carbon over several millennia back into the atmosphere, increasing carbon levels.

Think of peatlands this Halloween

This Halloween, rather than only being lured by jack-o’-lanterns across neighbourhood streets, perhaps we can also consider peatlands and their impact on climate.

The same fear of danger and sense of awe associated with peatlands for thousands of years can be redirected in a contemporary context to increase climate education and awareness. Peatlands remain central to climate action around the world.

Read more: Peatlands keep a lot of carbon out of Earth's atmosphere, but that could end with warming and development

Consider learning about the peatlands nearest to you this Halloween, such as those peatlands across Canada that are part of traditional territories of many Indigenous Peoples.

Perhaps also consider joining some global peatland organizations, such as the youth-led collective RE-PEAT, International Peatland Society or Global Peatlands Initiative.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Derek Gladwin, University of British Columbia.

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Derek Gladwin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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