Gathering Moss

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.

“Mosses and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception. All it requires of us is attentiveness. Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.” From the chapter “Learning to See” in Gathering Moss.

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.

31 thoughts on “Gathering Moss

  1. Excellent review! I was especially taken with the notion of reciprocity. And, of course, gratitude. And, yes, the courage of self-restraint. It does take courage. Or, as the writer Carl Safina put it, we must learn to control our appetites. If you haven’t read any of Safina’s books, you might want to add him to your list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Laurie. I feel the same way as you about the concept of reciprocity and gratitude and thinking about it now, I hadn’t really come across those ideas until I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s books. I might be wrong, but I think the Judeo-Christian approach of “subduing the earth” is largely responsible for the problems we are facing, but it’s is obviously not working and we need a new way to look at the world and our role in it.

      I also appreciate the reading recommendation. I’m not familiar with Safina at all, but will try to find some of his books. Do you have a favorite, or one you suggest I read first?


  2. Green carpets of moss invite the nature photographer, even as the small size of individual mosses presents photographic difficulties. On the linguistic front, here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say (

    The meanings “mass of small, cryptogamous, herbaceous plants growing together” and “bog, peat-bog” are the same word: Old English meos “moss plant” and mos “bog;” both are from Proto-Germanic *musan (source also of Old High German mios, Danish mos, German Moos), also in part from Old Norse mosi “moss, bog,” and Medieval Latin mossa “moss,” from the same Germanic source.

    These are from PIE [Proto-Indo-European] *meus- “damp,” with derivatives referring to swamps and swamp vegetation (source also of Latin muscus “moss,” Lithuanian mūsai “mold, mildew,” Old Church Slavonic muchu “moss”). The Germanic languages have the word in both senses, which is natural because moss is the characteristic plant of boggy places. It is impossible to say which sense is original. The proverb that a rolling stone gathers no moss is suggested from 14c.:

    Selden Moseþ þe Marbelston þat men ofte treden. [“Piers Plowman,” 1362]
    (Seldom mosseth the marblestone that men often tread.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Steve, and for the linguistic link. Dampness is definitely crucial for mosses. The descriptions of the wonderful transformation mosses undergo both in the absence and presence of water are fascinating to read in “Gathering Moss.”

      I was fortunate to come across some mats of mosses to photograph recently as I was pondering this blog post. In contrast to Oregon’s rainforests, Colorado’s woods are endowed with far fewer bryophytes.

      Technically speaking, are any of the macrolenses able to capture close-ups of mosses?


      • Yes. Probably the closest I’ve managed to get with a 100mm macro lens is shown at []. Some macro lenses have greater magnification than that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Tanja, for such a readable review of what is clearly a very insightful book. Kimmerer reminds us that conservation should be about whole ecosystems and not just a few – albeit iconic – species. I too yearn for a world where the reciprocity she preaches will become the norm, but although I hope for the best, like you – I think – I fear that it may not be achievable in the mad, materialistic world in which we live.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thoughtful review, Tanja. I’ve read Braiding Sweetgrass, but not Gathering Moss, which I’ve been wanting to get to. I saw RWK speak a couple of months ago and I can say she is just as optimistic as you mentioned she was in the book. An excellent and engaging speaker, the auditorium was full, yet she recognized she was ‘preaching to the choir’ and urged everyone to work within their communities to encourage sustainability and inclusiveness. She took questions afterwards, was patient and thoughtful in her answers, and would have gone on and on despite the late hour if not for the sponsors ending the talk. A very kind and intelligent woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Eliza. How exciting for you to have met the author and attended an event with her. Her books have spoken on me on so many different levels and have changed the way I view reality. I hope to meet her in person one of these days. I’m glad to hear that she is able to maintain a positive outlook, something I find increasingly challenging as more and more bad things happen on and to this earth.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hanging in there for now, but trips down to the soothing nature of our creek helps a lot to bring back some semblance of calm… 🙁 I might have to revisit “Gathering Moss” again to help escape some stressful times ahead. 😌 A good book is often a saving grace.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m also struggling with a lot of issues, Gunta, and being outside in nature is a big help. As is reading a good book that fills my mind with new thoughts and ideas, which is exactly what “Gathering Moss” has done.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Neil. Unfortunately, I share your skeptical attitude, even though I want to believe that it’s still possible to mitigate all the ill effects we have been working on for the last several centuries.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Das hört sich nach einem wunderbaren Buch an Tanja! Ich liebe Moose. Sie sind wahre Wunderwerke. Das sie eine Verbindung zu den Mykorrhiza haben, wußte ich nicht. Macht natürlich Sinn! Abgesehen davon wäre es in der Tat schön, wenn wir endlich einen anderen Umgang mit der Natur finden würden. Dankbarkeit ist ein guter Anfang. Ob es das Buch wohl auch auf Deutsch gibt? LG Almuth

    Liked by 1 person

    • Es freut mich, daß Dich das Buch anspricht, liebe Almuth. Du würdest wahrscheinlich noch mehr davon verstehen, weil Du bereits einiges über Moose weißt, im Gegensatz zu mir. Ich habe mal kurz in Internet nach deutschen Übersetzungen von beiden Werken der Autorin gesucht, habe aber nichts gefunden. Das kommt vielleicht noch, aber ich denke mir, daß “Braiding Sweetgrass” wahrscheinlich als erstes dran wäre, weil es in den letzten Jahren sehr viel gekauft wurde.
      Und daran, daß wir einen anderen Umgangs mit der Natur brauchen, werden wir ja täglich erinnert.
      Alles Gute,

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I was particularly intrigued by your mention of the mosses that dry and remain dry for long periods of time, until moisture returns. That reminded me of our so-called Resurrection Fern, that lives on the branches on live oak trees. It can lose as much as 75-80% of its water in dry periods, curling up into something that resembles a wagon wheel. As soon as it receives water again, it becomes lush and green, often in the space of a day. The word for the process — anabiosis — was new to me, and I’m glad to know it.

    The best mosses I’ve found are in east Texas, where they’re sometimes so thick they give the ground a wonderful, spongy feel. The ones shown in your last photo resemble those I found at a local Buddhist temple a spring or two ago. There’s no greenness to equal them in the world, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The dormancy, or anabiosis, of plants is a fascinating phenomenon, and a reminder of nature’s resilience and adaptability.

      I’m glad you get to enjoy various mosses in your home state. Ever since I read the book, I have been paying closer attention and have been surprised to find mosses even in our arid or semi-arid places.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember you writing about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ and it made a big impression on me. Her book about moss sounds just as engrossing and insightful. I am really taken with the idea of reciprocity and how profound it can be as guide to live by. We can wistfully wish that more of us would be influenced by such guidance.

    Liked by 1 person

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