The Peat Bog, Impressions from Another World – by Christian Schroeder

While I’m writing these lines, the Corona pandemic forces me to stay at home – you fellows will probably go through the same situation. Today is Saturday, March 21, and Germany has just cracked the number of 20,000 infected people. As the future seems uncertain as it never did anytime before in my life, I dive back into the past.

I remembered a particular trip to a peat bog in autumn 2016. Together with a friend, we discovered this bleak landscape. It was a mild in late October – so mild in fact that I could even wear a T-shirt. To find the images from back then, I had scroll up a little bit in my Lightroom catalogue. Well, consider this article as a novelty. It’s the first time I show you a set of photographs taken with a digital camera.

Very likely that I told you this a million times, but I’m going to tell you again: I feel drawn to landscapes man has formed. Nature reserves and national parks are fine and I love to spend my time there hiking or biking. But in terms of photography, I prefer anything that exhibits an industrial impact. To come right to the point: the bog provided us with heavily altered landscape and some uncommon equipment. So I wasn’t disappointed at all.

A wet plain found in the peat bog.
I was looking for wet areas and ditches as the water surface reflected the bright sky. This created a strong contrast to the dark brown soil.

The Part About my Inspiration

As usual, I like to say a few words on my inspiration for the actual project. Eight years prior to my field trip, I saw an exhibition at the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museum in Mannheim. It showcased a series of black-and-white images made by photographer Robert Häusser. Back in the Eighties, he had spent three weeks like a hermit in a small town. Häusser did this for an art project. From day to day he left his guesthouse chamber to explore the nearby peat bogs. As the stay took place during January and February, the photographer had to deal with bad weather and sparse lighting. Oftentimes, this took Häusser on a emotional rollercoaster ride: frustration over persistent rain as well as relief when he captured a promising shot. I know this because the museum also revealed the notes from Häusser’s diary. These short and personal records made the exhibition so special.

Not only that I found the peat bog exciting as subject matter, I also dreamed of this approach. Let your usual world behind and focus completely on your project – no distractions. I experienced the peat bog three and half years ago. To be cut off from normality, I’m experiencing now.

I found a website that features some images from Häusser’s “Moortagebuch” series. The page is in German, but you can use Google Translate if you interested in the written part.

The Part About the Peat Bog

Time to start the trip! We went there by car, a one-hour ride from home. The long straight road divides the bog: to the left lies the renaturated part, to the right the one still in industrial use. A company exploits the peat to sell it as an ingredient for potting soil. We parked the car at an inconspicuous driveway and proceeded on food. Although a rusty sign told us we were not allowed to enter the site, my friend and I continued our way. The whole area was simply too exciting! Soon, the noise from the road faded away. I could hear nothing except the twittering birds – a strange feeling for someone who lives close to the center of a large-ish city.

We trekked on a dirt path slightly elevated to the surrounding peat fields. In retrospect, I assume our track shouldn’t have been longer than maybe two or three kilometers. As we stopped countless times to take images, I quickly lost my sense of time and, concomitantly, I lost my sense of distance. The open plains of the exploited peat bog allowed for a wide view. It felt unfamiliar – almost creepy – to come across no other human being besides my friend. We saw birches, grasses, deadwood and dead straight ditches – objects I was keen to photograph. However, I desired to see some machinery: excavators, tractors, conveyor belts or something of that kind.

Black and white photograph of bent railroad tracks through the peat bog.
Hard to believe these bent tracks do their job.

Roots of a dead tree.

The Part About Reaching my Goal

As the sun was already about to set, my friend and I reached a junction. And there they were! We found a conveyor vehicle and some pieces of equipment – rollers, shovels – located nearby. Finally! The fading light forced me to act quickly, and I had to make choices. Two modern excavators in the distance? Screw it! I sacrificed them for a specialized vehicle I had never seen before. How to describe this thing? A caterpillar driven peat harvester with gripper at the front and a large storage bucket in the back. Fortunately, I took some photographs of the harvester, so have a look yourself.

In this area, I also discovered endless rows of peat bricks. These so-called sods are so typical for industrialized peat bogs – thus, the sod rows perfectly completed my series. At a certain place the sods even piled up to a little hill (my featured image). Lit by the last rays of light, this symmetrical pile of peat appeared like a religious cult site.

Meanwhile we had gone so far that we almost reached the other end of the site. From a distance I could hear a man shouting commands at his dog. The sun had set below the horizon and I had tuned in a high ISO setting at my camera. (This flexibility is definitely a thing I miss with film.) At this point, my friend and I decided to turn round – it would better for us if we rediscovered our car. Surprisingly, we made it back in less than 30 minutes. If you don’t stop every 50–100 meters to take a picture, you can move fast!

Peat sods dry in the open air, stacked to low walls.
The peat harvester found in the bog.
The peat harvester, perfectly parked.

The Part About the Camera

Back then I owned a Leica Monochrom (“MM” or “M9M”), my primary camera at the time. Although I bought it second-hand, I never had spent that much money on a photographical instrument before – and after. The Monochrom was a fine camera, discrete and simple to operate. For me, the only real complaint was that it ate through its battery so quickly. Although I always carried a spare one with me, I never felt completely relaxed.

In the year after our trip to the peat bog, my preferences in photography shifted more and more towards film. When I realized that the Monochrom had been collecting dust for months, I sold it. (This is meant literally, of course – I stored the camera in drawer where it was protected from dust.) In contrast to the film cameras, the Monochrom as a digital camera continuously lost value. So I couldn’t justify to keep it for the day I might want to use it again. Despite my own story, I highly recommend the Monochrom to all rangefinder fans. If you want to know more about this apparatus, have a look at Hamish’s excellent review.

In contrast to the Monochrom, the primary lens from back then survived the reorganization of my fleet. I took most of the images shown in this post with a 50mm Summilux (f/1.4). It remains one of my favorite lenses I virtually use all the time.

A row of birches standing at a dirt road through the peat bog.
Birches flourish in wet soil, they are a popular sight in the peat bog.
An endless ditch cuts through the peat bog.
An endless ditch cuts through the exploited plain.

Thanks for reading!

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19 thoughts on “The Peat Bog, Impressions from Another World – by Christian Schroeder”

  1. David H Thurman

    That was well done and has the beautiful look of FILM and a really GOOD lens and a photographer who knows how to use both…!

    1. Christian Schroeder

      Thank you, Kounos! Although I have say that I’m fairly seldom strolling through the peat bog, unfortunately. Rather special than everyday kind of opportunity for me…

    1. Christian Schroeder

      Hi Rock! That was exactly my intention, to take you with me on this trip – mentally at least. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Trevor NIcholson Christie

    Thanks, Christian, your article and excellent images put me in mind immediately of the Iron Age burials in peat bogs in Denmark and other European wetlands, comprehensively documented by P. V. Glob in The Bog People and illustrated with fascinating photographs. Many of the bodies are preserved in a number of museums, including in Germany and the Netherlands. I believe Professor Glob’s book is still in print and would throw an interesting perspective on your visit – and perhaps prompt more visits to peat bogs and more terrific picture! (And we should be preserving them, not destroying them for plant compost.)

    1. Christian Schroeder

      Hi Trevor. Interesting story – I live closely to our state museum, which has a female bog body as part of its natural history exhibition. This dark brown, crumpled thing scared the hell out of me when I was a kid.

      1. Trevor Nicholson Christie

        The Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s volume North is a wonderful response to and meditation on the Bog Culture and people and the culture of peat in general.

  3. Very appealing and moody images, with long and rich grey scales in evidence! There was a time not too long ago when blocks of pet were used to heat homes. As the war on coal increases intensity, we may see a return of peat-for-heat.

  4. Christian, I love these. What an example of how humans strip and plunder the natural world for some industrial or commercial reason. Burning peat releases a large amount of methane and CO2 into the air. It’s valuable that you are recording these sites for posterity. I suggest you return some day with film. Cheers!

    1. Christian Schroeder

      Andrew, your feedback is much appreciated! I already returned with a film camera once. It was my first attempt to push TriX (for two stops) – unfortunately, I chose the exposure times rather optimistically. Too optimistically, in fact: I ended up with a lot of underexposed frames, none of them worth to share. So there remains an unfinished business between me and the bog… See you!

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