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Peat Ontologies

I went to the Irdynsky peat swamp forest for the first time in late 2019, having begged my friend Zakhar to be my guide. For him these solitary places are sacred; he didn’t want to draw too much attention to them. The Irdynsky bog occupies the old river bed of the Dnieper, which has separated from its modern floodplain. Considered an unproductive hindrance, swamp forests offer little economic value, and are therefore one of the most threatened, least studied and most poorly understood biotypes. The Irdynsky bog was itself cleared and drained multiple times: first during the Russian Empire; then under the reign of a landowner to expand hunting territory; and again for Soviet-era peat mining.

My expeditions mainly relate to the southern part of the swamp, which was the first to suffer from peat mining. Perhaps the distinctive exoticism of these forests – their weirdness – comes from their double-natured character. The swamp exhibits the repetitive patterns of a seemingly artificial origin, but at the same time, this organised chaos of spongy labyrinths is completely inhuman. A deep understanding has emerged of how the embodied experience of travelling through a marsh can destroy all the cultural clichés, superstitions and myths that surround it. To paraphrase the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, the swamp shows us an image of ourselves in which we do not recognise ourselves.

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