The genius of moss

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22 March, 2012

What do you see when you look at these photos?

IMG_0928.jpgBad lumber? Difficult walking terrain?
We are conditioned to see places through the lenses of tourism, or industry, or comfort. Where are the vistas, the cozy spaces, the economic opportunity? What is worthwhile here?
Places, though, can speak in more subtle and sophisticated ways, if we are able to appreciate them. “If you don’t manage to take in the genius of the place, let it say its piece through you, the place will throw you out,” Tom Lilburn writes in Going Home.
Much of the country where I lived as a child, the western Alberta boreal forest, is muskeg. Bog. The trees are stunted black spruce and thin-limbed lodgepole pine, often leaning into standing water.
IMG_0889.jpgAt a glance, this is a land of few vistas. The Rocky Mountains are close by, to the west, but not visible from most parts of the west Pembina country. The trees are not glorious proud stands of oak or redwood or fir. Nor is it a cozy and comforting land, the way that pleasant meadows or mixed parkland to the east can be.
This week, in trying to take in the genius of this boggy country, I have started shifting my gaze. Instead of looking across the land, at what stands on it, I have started to look down. At and into the bog itself – the peat moss that underlies so much of this world.
And to understand that moss I have been reading Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Yes, this must be among the nerdiest reading on the planet. Yes, to me, it is fascinating.
When learning to see mosses, “a cursory glance will not do it,” Kimmerer notes. Mosses are among the oldest and simplest plant forms on earth. They have no flowers, no fruits, no seeds and (surprisingly) no roots. But they work. As Kimmerer says, mosses are elegant in their simplicity.
To most of us, most of the time, mosses are of zero interest. Unless we are cutting open a plastic-wrapped bale of peat moss to spread in a garden, we are oblivious to its value. Yet mosses play significant roles in water control and retention, in acting as heat sinks, and in the propogation of many other species.
A peat land is quiet and patient. It can hold moisture forever. If it dries out, it can wait in a dormant state forever, until the water returns. The genius of a mossy bog is a quiet genius.