Last month our Nature Book Club got together to discuss Gathering Moss by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Our book club coordinator, Donna Quinn sent over a wonderful summary of the get together and comments made by book club participants:
“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… 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.”
As a soft spring rain fell and the peepers called, five book club members met at the Blackwell’s on April 8 to discuss Gathering Moss – a provocative collection of essays centered on mosses. This collection offers not only fascinating scientific facts about mosses but also rich spiritual guidance on how to live in harmony with nature and respect the interconnectedness of all living things. Readers were awed by the astonishing capacity of mosses to flourish in places where little else can grow, to survive drought, to capitalize on opportunities created by the unpredictability of nature’s forces, and even to change its reproductive method depending on conditions to ensure greatest reproductive success. We were drawn into a world filled with science and spiritual reverence for these amazing tiny plants from which we can learn so much.
Kimmerer guides us on an intimate journey with mosses – we feel the power of the rocks and logs the mosses cling to and can sense the water flowing through crevices and connecting all. She welcomes us to an “entire realm which lies at our feet.” Through her eyes, we are invited to ‘see’ mosses, which she instructs is more like listening, “You can look at mosses the way you listen deeply to water running over rocks. The soothing stream has many voices… Slowing down and coming close, we see patterns emerge and expand out of tangled tapestry threads.”
What is a moss? We learn it is a bryophyte, a primitive land plant which lacks flowers, fruits, seeds and roots. Because of what it doesn’t have, mosses are limited in size and live in the boundary layer, the quiet and still place where surface and atmosphere meet. In this microenvironment, there is little air friction which is important for a plant with no roots. Also, carbon dioxide from the decaying forest floor (required in photosynthesis) can be up to 10 times higher than in the atmosphere above. Each one of the 22,000 moss species existing in virtually every ecosystem, even city side walks, is simply and elegantly designed for success in its tiny niche.
Kimmerer draws us close and we smile and sigh over the wonders of mosses, including her adventures studying mosses while bobbing up and down in a canoe, and her findings pertaining to the practical uses of mosses by mankind. Intrigued by the lack of information available about moss use by humans,
Kimmerer’s search leads her to wonder if mosses were too small to be thought worthy of documentation. In “The Web of Reciprocity” she finally discovers that it was women who took advantage of mosses’ absorption qualities including wrapping baby’s bottoms in mosses. Mosses were also used as insulation in cabins and to dry wet boots. In the forest, mosses nourish and sustain many plant and animal species by providing shelter, moisture, nesting material, and nurseries for seeds and saplings. They are the thread that binds together the elements of the forest.
As in every true love story, once mosses have stolen our hearts, our hearts are broken by the latter essays highlighting human acts of greed and lack of respect for nature. We read about the utter devastation left behind a clear cut forest, the insanity of a rich estate owner who destroys an ancient moss stand in an attempt to create an artificial moss garden for personal pleasure, and the author’s horror at discovering 100 year old mosses in florist displays – mosses which grew together with their sapling host for 100 years and cannot ever regenerate on mature trees. Kimmerer admits to her own attachment to the material world: her beloved books whose pages were once moss covered trees, the oak of her desk, the wood paneling in her study, the smell of a wood fire on a cold night. While there is no resolution between these worlds, she shows us the way of the mosses – a lush, balanced and interconnected universe in which only what is needed is taken, and infinitely more is given back.
Comments from our readers – Gathering Moss
* Steve and Pati: Gathering Moss. Gathering experience. I often take for granted the smaller, less complex parts of our surrounding whole. The book was a great reminder that there is so much going on literally beneath our feet. The essays brought forth a world of plant life that I rarely thought about and definitely never appreciated. This book reinforced the age old axiom confirmed by any reader, that books always open a window to new experiences and expansion of our minds. From mosses that lay dormant and dry for 40 years only to “reanimate” within minutes, to their remarkable ability to establish an existence where others have failed, these essays provided enjoyable and sobering insight into the ecology of a plant that is far more than just a “carpet in the forest”.
* Joe commented on “Kickapoo” in which Kimmmerer describes her studies of the effects of disturbance and its important role in diversity as she bobs up and down in her canoe while collecting data from the cliffs of the Kickapoo River, and reminded us of how disturbance, such as the recent great snow storm of 2009, is an important natural element which ultimately provides some species with opportunity. He also commented on “The Owner” which concludes with the vision of a crazy quilt of mosses created by Roundup which was used to kill all vegetation. Since mosses have such primitive systems, they are immune to many pesticides.
* Ann: An eye opening book about mosses and their role in the ecological process. Robin Kimmerer is a wonderful writer who makes her stories on mosses come alive through associations with our everyday lives. Just knowing I was reading the book for book club has made me so much more aware of the mosses that surround us on a certain level.
* Ellie Daley: Everyone should try this at home! Take a dried up moss and pour water over it. Grab a magnifying glass and observe for about 20 minutes – watch for yourself as the moss revives. (Described in the essay, “An Affinity for Water’)