A low-lying area saturated with water creates a hollow of decomposed vegetation in wet, spongy ground. This strange land is called a bog, a word that’s been used since about 1450 to refer to such places. The ground sinks underfoot—collapses, sucks under. It is a netherworld dimly lit, and a rank smell hangs in the air. Yet a bog is far from dead. It supports plant life; as an ecological system, it can be described as a plant community. Cattails, rushes, sedges, and bulrushes are plants that initially creep into a lake and begin to transition that body of water into a bog. The term most often applies to wetlands that have little inflow of water through streams and are fed, instead, mainly by precipitation. What happens is that the plant material growing in the lake dies off and eventually becomes peat. When the dead and dying vegetation rises to the water level of the lake, this accumulation of peat forms a dome, which prohibits any new plants from growing. Without the inflow and outflow of water, a black skin forms, an oily and idle mire locked in a world of its own contrivance. A foot stepping in goes beneath the surface, fast like a thief. Bogs can be found throughout the United States—Web’s Mill Bog, New Jersey, for instance, and Hanging Bog near Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The term bog is also often used in literature to represent the cessation of growth, or a human’s stuck place. In The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane uses a bog to express the conditions of the Civil War: “He was obliged to walk upon bog tufts and watch his feet to keep from the oily mire. . . . The youth went again into the deep thickets. The brushed branches made a noise that drowned the sounds of the cannon. He walked on, going from obscurity into promises of a greater obscurity.”

Elizabeth Cox