Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses – Robin Wall Kimmerer, 2003

I rarely buy new books these days, but I got myself a copy, as I had done for Braiding Sweetgrass (2013). When we read Braiding Sweetgrass in the Nature & Environment book group, Robin Wall Kimmerer immediately became one of my favorite authors ever, so choosing her first book as a selection was easy. We have read a lot of single-organism books (ants, beavers, coyotes, octopuses, rattlesnakes, ravens, trees…) but this was one of the best, and features in embryo many of the themes woven through Braiding Sweetgrass. The chapters can also be treated like free-standing essays – “The Owner” stood out in particular: a truly compelling essay, more of a short story, with a twist ending – a horror story, really, both beautiful and heart-rending.

Short quotes

  • “Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. They give me faith.”
  • “Mosses engineer the movement of water simply by harnessing the attraction of water for surfaces. Their forms take advantage of the adhesive and cohesive forces of water, to move the water at will over their surfaces, without expending any energy of their own.”
  • “‘If you’re going to have livestock, you’re going to have deadstock.'”
  • “I think we need a new aesthetic that honors a mossy roof as a status symbol of how responsibly the homeowner behaves in maintaining the ecosystem. The greener the better. Neighbors would look askance at the owner of a roof scraped bare of friendly moss.” I love the idea… but mosses surely do damage roofs simply by keeping water in touch with the roof for longer?
  • “In the alveoli, your breath is but a single cell away from your blood. The cells are glistening and wet, so that the oxygen may dissolve and pass over. Through this thin watery film, deep in the lungs, our bodies become continuous with the atmosphere. For better and for worse.” Like mosses, which is why they are good indicator species of air quality.
  • “The average person knows the name of less than a dozen plants, and this includes such categories as ‘Christmas Tree.’ Losing their names is a step in losing respect. Knowing their names is the first step in regaining our connection.”
  • “Every way of knowing has its own strengths and weaknesses.”
  • “There is more living carbon in Sphagnum moss than in any other single genus on the planet.”
  • “This global cloud of spores powders every surface with the possibility of mosses.”
  • “It was not money that the rocks required, it was time. And the ‘time is money’ equation doesn’t work in reverse.”
  • “Wildness cannot be collected and still remain wild. Its nature is lost the moment it is separated from its origins. By the very act of owning, the thing becomes an object, no longer itself.”
  • “I think you cannot own a thing and love it at the same time. Owning diminishes the innate sovereignty of a thing, enriching the possessor and reducing the possessed.”
  • “trees alone don’t make a forest”
  • After discussing slug feces: “biologists may make unsuitable dinner conversation, but we are seldom bored”
  • her daughters “ate up the summer in heaping spoonfuls like homemade peach ice cream”

Long quotes

Day by day, [students’] vocabulary stretches and they proudly refer to leafy green shoots as “gametophytes” and the little brown thingamajigs on top of the moss are dutifully referred to as “sporophytes.” The upright, tufted mosses become “acrocarps,” the horizontal fronds are “pleurocarps.” Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.

Initial research on Tetraphis shed no light on why some patches produced spores and others gemmae:

There seemed to be no rhyme nor reason to Tetraphis‘ reproductive choice. But if there’s anything that I’ve learned from the woods, it’s that there is no pattern without a meaning. To find it, I needed to try and see like a moss and not like a human.

In traditional indigenous communities, learning takes a form very different from that in the American public education system. Children learn by watching, by listening, and by experience. They are expected
to learn from all members of the community, human and non. To ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken, it must instead be given. Knowledge is bestowed by a teacher only when the student is ready to receive it. Much learning takes place by patient observation, discerning pattern and its meaning by experience. It is understood that there are many versions of truth, and that each reality may be true for each teller. It’s important to understand the perspective of each source of knowledge. The scientific method I was taught in school is like asking a direct question, disrespectfully demanding knowledge rather than waiting for it to be revealed. From Tetraphis, I began to understand how to learn differently, to let the mosses tell their story, rather than wring it from them.

Mosses don’t speak our language, they don’t experience the world the way we do. So in order to learn from them I chose to adopt a different pace, an experiment that would take years, not months. To me, a good experiment is like a good conversation. Each listener creates an opening for the other’s story to be told. So, to learn about how Tetraphis makes reproductive choices, I tried to listen to its story. I had understood Tetraphis colonies from the human perspective, as clumps in various stages of reproduction. And I had learned little by doing so. Rather than looking at the clump as an entity, I had to recognize that the clump was simply an arbitrary unit that was convenient for me, but had little meaning for the moss. Mosses experience the world as individual stems and to understand their lives I needed to make my observations at the same scale.

Driving the Adirondack roads, past glittering lakes and deep woods, you’ll scarcely ever see roadside litter. People love this wild place and the care for its well-being is obvious. But where Route 3 cuts through the mined land, plastic bags are caught in the alders and beer cans float in the ditches full of rusty water. Disregard is also a positive feedback loop; garbage attracts garbage.

The city mosses have much in common with their urban human counterparts; they are diverse, adaptable, stress-tolerant, resistant to pollution, and thrive on crowded conditions. They are also well traveled.

A city offers mosses a multitude of habitats which may otherwise be quite uncommon in nature. Some moss species are far more abundant in the human-made environment than they are in the wild. Grimmia
doesn’t discriminate between a granite crag in the White Mountains and a granite obelisk on Boston Common. Limestone cliffs are not abundant in nature, but there’s one on every Chicago street corner and
mosses perch contentedly on its pillars and cornices. Statues provide all kinds of water-holding niches where mosses abound. Next time you walk through the park, look in the folds of the flowing coat of whatever general sits mounted on a pedestal, or in the wavy marble locks of Justice’s hair outside the courthouse. Mosses bathe at the edges of our fountains and trace the letters on our gravestones.

We tend to devalue the flora of cities as a depauperate collection of stragglers, arising de novo with the relatively recent development of cities. In fact, the urban cliff hypothesis suggests that the association between humans and these species may be ancient, dating from our pre-Neanderthal days when we both took refuge in cave and cliff dwellings.

I take great pleasure in gathering plants, filling my basket with roots and leaves. Usually I go with a specific plant in mind, when it’s time for elderberries or the bergamot is heavy with oils. But it’s the wandering itself that has such appeal, the unexpected discoveries while looking for something else. I get the same feeling in the library. It’s so very much like picking berries—the peaceful field of books, the concentrated attention of the search, and the knowledge that hidden somewhere in the thicket is something worth finding.

Its tremendous water-holding capacity allows Sphagnum to modify the ecosystem for its own purpose. The presence of Sphagnum causes the soil to become saturated, filling the spaces between soil particles that might otherwise hold air. Roots need to breathe, too, and the waterlogged peat creates an anaerobic rooting environment which most plants can’t tolerate. This impedes the growth of trees, leaving the bog sunny and open.

[The hairpiece’s] intricate design of bees and flowers was carved from luminous ivory. I was immediately struck by how out of place it seemed on its velvet platform, more like a stolen treasure than a work
of art. How much more beautiful it would have been in the black oiled hair of the artist’s wife. And more authentic. In a display case, a thing becomes only a facsimile of itself, like the drum hung on the gallery
wall. A drum becomes authentic when human hand meets wood and hide. Only then do they fulfill its intention.

At the center of the garden stood a sculptured rock taller than either of us and beautifully covered with mosses. Each carefully chosen clump accented the irregularities of the boulder. An eroded pocket in the rock was filled with a perfect circlet of Bryum. The artistry rivaled any piece we had seen in the gallery and yet it struck the wrong note; the collection was only an illusion of nature. Plagiothecium can’t grow in crevices like that, and Racomitrium wouldn’t share a habitat with Anomodon, despite the beauty
of their colors side by side. I wondered how this beautiful but synthetic creation passed the owner’s standard of authenticity. The mosses had been reduced from living things to mere art materials, ill used. “How did you get these to grow like this?” I asked. “It’s very—unusual,” I hedged. Matt smiled like a kid who had outsmarted his teacher and answered, “Superglue.”

Mosses have an intense bond to their places that few contemporary humans can understand. They
must be born in a place to flourish there. Their lives are supported by the influences of previous generations of lichens and mosses, who made the rock into home. In that initial settling of spores they make their choice and stick to it. Relocation is not for them.

Here on the shadowy edge of where green life seems barely possible, Schistostega has all it needs. Rain on the outside, fire on the inside. I feel a kinship with this being whose cold light is so different from my own. It asks very little from the world and yet glitters in response. I have been blessed by the companionship of good teachers and I count Schistostega among them.

In this book I learned

  • Boundary layer where moss lives: more heat, water, carbon dioxide (10x!), less turbulence
  • Gemmae cups on moss – little eggs that are clonal propagules! They don’t go far – they “carry a combination of genes that has already proven successful on this stump,” whereas spores are “a powder of potential sent off to seek its fortune in the unknown realm beyond the stump.”
  • Psychrometer – wet-and-dry bulb thermometer
  • “The predominant cause of tree mortality in the northern deciduous forest is windthrow.”
  • Gap dynamics: different species can colonize different types of disturbance gaps. “This decaying log is a stage, and the scenes take place in the gaps, where the colonists act out their drama.”
  • Silvery Bryum is everywhere! “I have never traveled without encountering Bryum on my journey. It was on the tarmac in New York City and on the tiled roof outside my window in Quito the next morning.” Unlike larger organisms, mosses are truly omnipresent because their spores can travel the entire world easily.
  • The artist Jackie Brookner, who alas has died since this book came out. I want to visit the boulder Prima Lingua, which is at East 9th & Ave. C in Manhattan.
  • Uses of moss for diapers and sanitary napkins – knowledge male scientists didn’t get

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