Some of you will remember how gobsmacked I was by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. When I learned that she had written an earlier book, I ordered Gathering Moss from one of our local independent bookstores, first read it in December, and just finished delving into it for the second time.
Gathering Moss is as eloquently written and as full of Indigenous wisdom and fascinating facts as the better known Braiding Sweetgrass. Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and a biologist, has unique insights which she shares in her writing and teaching as SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology. She is also a bryologist, a scientist who specializes in mosses (bryophytes), a group of plants I was woefully ignorant of. In the book, she celebrates their astonishing characteristics (e.g. in the absence of water, they enter anabiosis, a state in which they appear dead, which can last for years, only to revive as soon as they are able to rehydrate), diversity (there are at least 12,000 species worldwide, though that number seems in flux), beauty (the volume contains simple yet elegant drawings of different moss species, some of them fashioned by her father), and critical functions in the ecosystem.
Inspired by a visit to Oregon’s temperate rainforest with its abundant moss life but also a legacy of logging and clearcutting, the chapter “The Forest Gives Thanks to the Mosses” details the intricate interactions and interdependencies between various life forms as well as their indebtedness to one another. Wall Kimmerer imagines the forest’s appreciation for the gifts mosses provide and reminds us that in many Native societies gratitude is consciously given for all the gifts of Mother Earth. She enumerates the many forest components that benefit from the existence of mosses, including the soil, ferns, trees, birds, and numerous invertebrates, to name only a few.
Mosses exert their beneficial effects on soil by storing water which would otherwise run off; on ferns and other plants by anchoring them when they are tiny seeds and need a substrate to thrive on; on birds by making a soft and insulating addition for many a nest; on myriad tiny critters by providing habitat, a miniature forest of sorts. In return, the mosses benefit from other entities, especially from trees on which they often grow.
The same chapter outlines how mosses function as intermediaries between trees and mycorrhizae, that subterranean network of fungal filaments that binds together the forest soil and enables communication between trees. Bryophytes also play an important role in transfer of nutrients which is illustrated by the example of phosphorus. When the clouds open and rain falls to the ground, droplets containing dissolved phosphorus are received and stored by mosses. The mycorrhizae’s filaments, interwoven with the rootlets of mosses, absorb the phosphorus and transport it into the roots of trees, from which the essential element enters the trees’ circulation. The trees, in turn, benefit all of us in countless ways, possibly more than anything else on Earth.
In the author’s worldview, reciprocity is an important concept. She keeps coming back to the theme that as humans, we completely owe our existence to Nature, and to show our appreciation, we should take only what we need, preserve the integrity of the ecosystem we live in, and always give something back, be it only gratitude, which would go a long way towards honoring Earth and consequently protecting her resources.
Reciprocity in Nature is well-established and demonstrates how different players can benefit from and sustain one another. I think people, who realized that they were part of Nature and its rhythms, instead of considering themselves separate or even above it, used to understand that notion and act accordingly, and still do so in some societies, but it’s no longer the norm. Modern civilizations have taken whatever was available without any forethought, or crs and showing how detrimental our tendency to take, take, take—and to take as much as possible without considering long-term sustainability—has been for all our fellow beings, mosses included. Wistfully she ponders what could have been, or what might still might be possible:
The patterns of reciprocity by which mosses bind together a forest community offer us a vision of what could be. They take only the little that they need and give back in abundance. Their presence supports the lives of rivers and clouds, trees, birds, algae, and salamanders, while ours puts them at risk. Human-designed systems are a far cry from this ongoing creation of ecosystem health, taking without giving back.
Gathering Moss was first published in 2003, nearly twenty years ago, when thoughtful, forward-thinking individuals had already been raising the alarm about a changing climate and the need to change our way of living for decades. I can’t help but wonder if the author is still able to embrace her somewhat optimistic outlook that today sounds even more wistful and possibly like a wishful dream:
I hold tight to the vision that someday soon we will find the courage of self-restraint, the humility to live like mosses. On that day, when we rise to give thanks to the forest, we may hear the echo in return, the forest giving thanks to the people.