Peat: it covers roughly three percent of the Earth's land surface, yet most of us know virtually nothing about it. Local author Hugh Timmerman on the other hand knows a lot about peat, and he has poured his knowledge into his most recent book, For Peat's Sake.
Why write a book about peat?
“Are there many that do?” answers Timmerman with a smile. “It's something that's gone, and I'm working with history a lot these days, so much has changed, and I'm living in a generation that's basically seen it all from today what would be considered poverty – living on a farm with no running water, no electricity – to the computer age. That's really something. I don't think this will ever happen again, that a person can go through all of that change. We heated our homes with peat, and making peat and drying peat is quite a job. And because I've wandered on an immense stretch of peat myself as a kid (in the Netherlands): if you were looking for serenity, quiet, and mother nature, that was the place to be. So it's always been an attraction for me.”
Peat is an organic material that forms in the waterlogged, sterile, acidic conditions of bogs and fens. These conditions favour the growth of mosses, especially sphagnum. As plants die, they do not decompose. Instead, the organic matter is laid down, and slowly accumulates as peat because of the lack of oxygen in the bog.
Timmerman says that while the use of peat for heating and cooking was once common, the commercialization of peat beginning in the 1850s led to virtual elimination of it within 100 years.
“They now realize it was a mistake to let that happen. But it's like this building downtown: we know that it's not in very good shape, but if we tear it down, you lose something from your past, which is irreplaceable.”
Agriculture and forestry have damaged large areas of peat-land. The traditional hand-cutting of peat is a slow, labour-intensive process that can allow the bog partially to recover. This is not the case with industrialized, mechanical extraction practised by peat companies, which drain and damage whole bogs. The companies deep-drain peat-lands and strip all vegetation from vast expanses of bog surface.
Preparation for the book began in 1996, when Timmerman began sourcing and collecting photographs, and the project has been a labour of love since. While he is nostalgic, Timmerman doesn't imagine a day when peat is once again used for heating and cooking.
“I think it had its time in history. Its time and place has gone,” said Timmerman.
Peat's mainstream use as a heating fuel may be a thing of the past, but Timmerman's book, For Peat's Sake, is available from Lulu ( www.lulu.com/shop/hugh-timmerman/for-peats-sake/paperback/product-21948503.html )