Article Title

After Wetlands

Document Type



Since 1900, 64% of the world’s wetlands have disappeared. But in western literature, wetlands have been dead and dying for much longer. In Dante and Milton, their association with Hell suggests a fathomless, slimy eternity. In chorographies and drainage pamphlets, they represent a benighted past to be wrested, by human hands, into a profitable future. This essay takes wetlands’ real and mythic links to the living and the dead, the past and the present, as an occasion to contemplate two interlinked visions “after wetlands.” In our lived present, “after wetlands” is at once a material fact (since we can measure wetlands loss and count its costs) and an as-yet unrealized fantasy. Attentive to this double vision, I consider two landmark texts in the history of drainage and improvement in England that hail a time “after wetlands”: Walter Blith’s 1652 The English Improver, Improvedand Sir Jonas Moore’s 1685 History or Narrative of the Great Levell. I argue that the promotion of large-scale drainage efforts, based on logics of agrarian improvement and technological progress, is tightly bound up with notions of historical time. Yet for all their fervent commitment to a future “after wetlands,” these texts’ conceptual margins and drifts reveal how the ever-transforming past and present seep upward into the imagined future. Though wetlands seem to invite attempts to bring their amphibious untimeliness into the calendrical regimes of settled agriculture and the historical purview of the law, centuries of human intervention have paradoxically given rise to various forms of wetlands resurgence, from human-animal partnerships in habitat rehabilitation, to forms of “reverse reclamation” that follow anthropogenic disasters, to more lyrical manifestations of the unfastness of the ground beneath our feet. Looking backward from such contemporary resurgences to the early modern prolepsis of wetlands’ disappearance offers ways of thinking about loss that eschew apocalypticism, elegy, and narratives of decline, and ways of thinking about resurgence that avoid the romanticizing temptations of restoration and repristinization.