Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer took some time to get through for such a slim book. It’s not that the reading was all that difficult, most of the chapters are the perfect length for reading before bed or during lunch. Nor was it over science-y and dry. It was actually a really interesting book. For instance, did you know there are as many as 22,000 different kinds of mosses and that they inhabit every ecosystem on earth? What took me so long to get through the book were some interruptions with books on deadlines, but also a bit of disappointment.
Like I said, Gathering Moss is really good. But I had read Kimmerer’s second book, Braiding Sweetgrass earlier this year and absolutely loved it for its combination of memoir and plant science. I expected Gathering Moss would be the same. In some ways it is, there are a few personal stories about her daughters and her neighbor and stories about field study for her own research and working with her students, but the focus here is definitely on the mosses. Nearly every chapter is devoted to one particular kind of moss, how and where it grows, how it reproduces, that sort of thing. It took me a little bit to get over my initial disappointment, but once I did and no longer had other bookish distractions, I fell pleasantly into the book.
I always thought moss was pretty neat, but now I will never look at it the same way again. And the thing with moss is, you really do have to look. It is such a tiny plant, it requires that you pay attention and get up close and personal with it, preferably with a magnifying glass or microscope. And when you really look, it does amazing things. Moss can lose up to 98% of its moisture and still survive, reviving when it gets wet again. And if you live in a city, you have probably helped pollinate moss and not even known it.
The moss species Bryum agenteum is most commonly found in sidewalk cracks. When we scuffle over the cracks, moss spores stick to the bottom of our shoes and is deposited in other sidewalk cracks, pollinating other colonies and spreading to uninhabited cracks to begin new ones. Moss is also very sensitive to air pollution so you can tell how clean your city’s air is by how much moss you see on trees.
Moss also helps grow and sustain forests. Moss is like a sponge and it shares its water with tall trees and sprouting tree seeds. Moss also shelters insects and these insects in turn become food for birds and salamanders and toads which then become food right up the food chain. Moss also supports fungal growth in the soil, important for good soil health which is important for other plant life as well.
Mosses are tiny, overlooked powerhouses. Without mosses, this world would look a lot different. Come next spring when the moss brightens the bark of the trees in my garden, I will be stopping to look up close. And I will be getting down on my hands and knees to look at the patches of moss growing beneath the apple trees in my front yard. Over the years as the grass beneath the trees has disappeared I have noticed the patches of moss have increased in size and number. It has always delighted me to see these patches getting bigger but I have never bent down to really look at them. Now I will. It is time to get to know the moss in my garden.