When will we listen to the moss?

by Emily Stone Naturalist/Educator Cable Natural History Museum

Slushy snow gave way to bare, squishy gravel as I crested the hill. The Yaktrax grippers on my running shoes instantly became annoying instead of essential with the surface change.

Peering wistfully through the damp, brown woods, I could just make out the wide clearing of the Birkie ski trail. But my skis are still in the basement, waiting for real snow.

Brown, brown, brown. The forest appeared drab and dead. But as I looked up from the effort of the hill climb, vibrant greens glowed into view.

A scattering of small boulders, probably dumped here by the glaciers, and later excavated when the road was built, hosted emerald carpets of life. Then, squish. One moment of distraction and my foot found a puddle.

It seems like distractions have plagued the climate talks in Paris, too. The negotiations seem hopeful, though, or at least better than nothing.

Of course, even though this is the warmest fall on record across the globe, we can’t directly blame our warm weather on climate change. Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get. They don’t very often match up perfectly in our day-to-day lives.

That’s why we have to be ready for anything. Moss is. It’s thriving today in the cold mist.

Just like the balsam fir, the persistent, evergreen leaves of mosses are able to take advantage of favorable growing conditions in any season. Even when drought withdraws the water they need for growth, mosses are preparing for life in the future.

Essential functions shut down and prepare for dormancy. Cell membranes shrink like a vacuum-sealed freezer bag. And, with amazing “forethought,” the mosses synthesize and store away the enzymes of cell repair that will manage the damage of desiccation.

Like the Red Cross or FEMA, mosses like to have a stash of medical supplies ready to go.

All of this groundwork pays off. In just 20 minutes, bonedry moss can return to full vigor. This resilience of mosses is mostly due to their amazing ability to live thriftily and within their means.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist who recently won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for her book Braiding Sweetgrass, wrote an earlier book called Gathering Moss. In this ballad of love to the mosses, she writes, “They are the most simple of plants, and in their simplicity, elegant.”

Elegant indeed. Resourceful, one-cell-thick leaves allow water to soak in directly to where it’s required, without the need for constructing expensive distribution systems.

Moss doesn’t even have roots. They don’t need to suck resources out of the ground. Their tiny rhizoids only serve to anchor them to the substrate.

Never mind interior water, moss needs a film of rain, or melting snow, to cover the outside of the leaf, too, and act as a conduit for carbon dioxide to enter the leaf from the air.

“Like a jealous lover,” writes Robin, “the moss has ways to heighten the attachments of water to itself and invites it to linger, just a little longer.”

Living in tightly packed clumps improves moss’s waterholding efficiency. So does arranging their branches and leaves so that each space is the perfect size to trap a water droplet using capillary action. Leaf surfaces are textured or pleated or sculpted into hills and valleys to grab water.

“This elegant design is a paragon of minimalism, enlisting the fundamental forces of nature, rather than trying to overcome them,” Robin observes.

Part of the moss’s minimalism is in their size. By staying small, mosses take advantage of the microclimate inside the boundary layer; which, “like a floating greenhouse hovering just above the rock surface,” traps water vapor, heat, and carbon dioxide.

On a sunny, winter day, when the air is appropriately below freezing, the boundary layer often provides moss with liquid water.

Waste gasses emitted from bacteria and fungi on rotting logs can increase the carbon dioxide in the boundary layer to 10 times the amount in the ambient atmosphere. Thus, moss ensures that it has access to a steady supply of raw materials for photosynthesis.

Mosses are confined to this boundary layer. They thrive within it and cannot survive beyond it.

In similar fashion, humans are restricted to a thin zone of habitable conditions that surrounds our Earth. We aren’t as good as the mosses at living within our means, though.

Robin, with her Potawatomi heritage, talks about stories from the oldest days, “when all beings shared a common language.”

Not anymore. That language is forgotten. Instead, she says, “We must learn each other’s stories by looking, by watching each other’s way of living. [Mosses] have messages of consequence that need to be heard.”

The big question is, both in Paris and in my mind, when will we listen?


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