Isn’t it plain the sheets of moss, except that
they have no tongues, could lecture
all day if they wanted about
I’m here to confess a preoccupation with mosses. I suppose it was bound to happen, after having lived in the desert for 8 years. I chose to move to the Pacific Northwest because of trees and mountains and the color green. The mere color green, as manifested in plants, had become such an elusive sight that I could look at photos of Olympic National Park online and just cry. That such wealth of green existed, somewhere, was promising. But I dreamed of living there, of being immersed in the green light of reflected leaves, needles and tendrils brilliantly photosynthesizing. I dreamed of moss. Moss all over everything.
So I was primed to appreciate moss, and I have been, but it wasn’t until I heard an interview with Robin Wall Kimmerer and then read her book Gathering Moss, that I realized how little I knew about mosses. Even this plural, “mosses”: it’s a code word showing familiarity and appreciation, for only those who look closely even realize the wealth of variety in what we normally call “moss.” For example, in the photo above, taken in the Hoh Rainforest two years ago, I was thrilled with all the glorious moss, and would have said just that. Now, after only a short period of looking and learning, I zoom in on any patch of moss and start seeing how many different types I can distinguish. Without being able to identify species, I can still see characteristics that I was completely unaware of before. And knowing that there are so many different species and shapes in most clumps of moss, I can no longer talk about them without saying “mosses.”
Now, whenever I walk, I take my magnifying loupe to examine the mosses in detail. Sometimes I bring home tiny samples so I can look them up and compare them to others I’ve found. I have a moss notebook for notes and little pressed samples. Using Kimmerer and Annie Martin as a starting point, I look up images by species name, and try to match my samples. The names are lyrical, poetic in their rhythmic syllables, and my language-loving mind and mouth delight in pronouncing them: Plagiomnium ciliare… Brachythecium populeum… Dicranium scoparium… Rhytiadelphus squarrosus. The Latin words sound like an invocation, and indeed, I feel an entering, an opening, as I begin to learn their names. Although the Latin binomials are, as Kimmerer notes, “arbitrary constructs,” they are individual and lovely, “as beautiful and intricate as the plants they name,” and as she also explains, to call a being by name is a sign of respect. (Gathering Moss, p.12)
This process has taken hold of me, and I’m unsure why the urgency, but I’m not resisting. I’m planting ferns in my garden and encouraging mosses to grow among them, but gardening is not my main motivation. No, it has more to do with expanding and deepening my interaction with my immediate surroundings. Making a home here by looking closely, paying attention, learning the details. In trying to distinguish between different moss species (without the aid of a microscope, which would be really helpful,) I’ve been forced to notice the shape of leaves only one millimeter long, whether they have serrated edges, whether they taper at the tip, how they are placed on the stem in relation to each other. All of these factors have botanical terminology, yet another set of new words to learn. But the important thing is seeing it, noticing that how leaves grow tells something about the plant, and that such characteristics are present and distinct even if it takes a microscope to see it. Each living being has so much going on. Then, when I look up and survey the larger world again, I notice and understand more about big trees and other plants, because they are like giant versions of the mosses. It seems that the mosses are teaching me how to see - an unanticipated and very welcome lesson.
I do need to find more people with this preoccupation, since I often hit a wall with my attempts to identify. But the looking is still fascinating, even when I don’t know exactly who I’m looking at.
I’m gathering my images into a Flickr album so they are easier to peruse all together.