In our part of the world, summer draws us outside with a certain urgency. The longer and darker the winter, the greater is our hunger to get into the lake, to hike in the woods, or just sit on our porch watching the birds and the wind in the trees. What we feel in our bones, that spending time in nature is good for body mind and spirit, is increasingly backed up by scientific research.
To turn this natural instinct into a spiritual practice, all we have to do is pay attention. This practice is not complex, just look, and listen, and be. Let your attention be drawn in whatever direction offers delight or curiosity. The more I do this practice, the more nature reveals its beauty, its complexity, its intelligence. Each summer as I take my spiritual practice outside, I grow in confidence that no matter where in the living world I turn my attention, if I am patient, I will find something fascinating and surprising.
Lately my attention has been drawn to that subtle bit of green fuzz that seems to glow when it rains, that coats the branches of the older trees in my neighborhood. The more I looked, the more fascinating it became. Someone asked to see photos from my sabbatical, and I realized 70% of my photos from this past spring are of different species of moss from wherever I traveled. Wherever I go, I am curious to see what moss lives there, and how it is doing. When we love something, when we are moved by it, it is only natural that we want it to flourish.
Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are a part. The more we listen and watch, the clearer those connections become, and the concrete and specific ways we can help heal that web. Recently I heard the first job of being an ally as “listening and amplifying.” It occurs to me that this is something the natural world desperately needs from us right now. The more we listen to the web of life, the better our chance of acting in harmony with what our local and global eco-systems need to survive and flourish. It doesn’t have to be moss- I am coming to believe that anywhere in the web of life we take the time to notice the complexities and gifts of another, we will be amazed, and will receive gifts of new wisdom.
Note- this worship service is almost entirely built on the writings of Robin Wall Kimmerer's Gathering Moss. She's my hero. Read her books. Take her workshops.
Small is beautiful
Moss is easy to overlook because it is so small. You have to get pretty close to even notice that, moss is not just one thing. Moss is a phylum name[i] for thousands of different species. That’s right, that green fuzz you see on your trees, sidewalk and roof could be one of 15,000 difference species. My appreciation of moss grew immensely when I read “Gathering Moss” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Distinguished Teaching Professor and Director at the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. A lot of today’s service is in her words, because not only has she spent much of her life studying moss, but she uses words so beautifully. Mosses are so small because they don’t have the vascular tissue, like trees, to help them stand up. Even the tallest moss can’t grow more than a few centimeters. But it is precisely because moss is so small that it can grow where no other species can grow. as Kimmerer describes “between the cracks of the sidewalk, on the branches of an oak, on the back of a beetle, or on the ledge of a cliff, mosses can fill in the empty spaces left between the big plants.” [p. 15]
Another gift of being small is that moss can live in a unique micro environment called the boundary layer where the air is quiet, and warmth and water vapor create a humid zone to which mosses are specially adapted. Kimmerer compares this boundary layer to a “floating greenhouse hovering just above the rock surface.” Because moss is so small, it doesn’t need a big rainstorm to survive, it can live on dew, even in a desert like environment (p. 20).
As I read that, I immediately thought of us. Our little church is the perfect size for this little community. It must be or it wouldn’t have lasted over 200 years. Small churches are nimble, intimate and authentic in a way big churches can’t be. If mega churches or businesses are the giant trees that rely on their specialized infrastructure to grow tall, little churches like us fit snugly into all kinds of diverse environments all over the world. Moss teaches us that small is beautiful.
We are better together
I always thought the patches of moss I saw were one plant, like a bush, or a tree. But really, each centimeter of moss is a tiny forest. Tetraphis moss, for example lives as 50-300 plants in a single centimeter. Says Kimmerer:
“Moss plants almost never occur singly, but in colonies packed as dense as an August cornfield. The nearness of others with shoots and leaves intertwined creates a porous network of leaf and space which holds water like a sponge. The more tightly packed the shoots, the greater the water holding capacity. A dense turf of a drought-tolerant moss may exceed three hundred stems per square inch. Separated from the rest of a clump, an individual moss shoot dries immediately.” [p. 38]
Holding water against the pull of the sun, and welcoming it back again is a communal; activity. No moss can do it alone. It requires the interweaving of shoots and branches, standing together to create a place for water.” [p. 43]
Stability in an Unstable world
Did you know that some moss is gender-fluid?
Kimmerer tells us that “Tetraphis is unique in having specialized means of both sexual and asexual reproduction… Most mosses have the ability to clone themselves from broken off leaves or other torn fragments. These bits of debris can grow into new adults that are genetically identical to the parents, an advantage in a constant environment. The clones remain near the parents and have little ability to venture into new territory. Cloning by dismemberment may be effective but it is a decidedly crude and random way to send genes into the future. Tetraphis, however, is the aristocrat of asexual reproduction, possessed of a beautifully sculpted design for cloning itself. When I kneel to look closely at the patches of Tetraphis on the old stumps, I see that the surface of the colonies is sprinkled with what look like tiny green cups. These are gemmae cups, formed a the ends of the upright shoots, … Each gemma is poised to establish itself as new plant, cloned from its parents. It rests in the nest, waiting, Waiting for an event that will propel it away from its parent, where there’s room to grow and start its own parents.” [p. 73-74]
When rain falls into the gemmae cup, the gemmae are propelled away up to 15 centimeters, “more likely to land in the same neighborhood as their parents. As clonal propagules, the gemmae carry a combination of genes that has already proven successful on this stump.” p. 74
“There are other patches of Tetraphis on the very same stump which are the cinnamon color of old redwood. They take their rusty tint from the dense swath of sporophytes which rise from the green shoots… When the capsule is ripe, millions of spores will be released into the breeze. The product of sex, the spores will carry the shuffled genes far form their parents. While these spores have the advantage of variety and distance, their success rate is exceedingly small” -- one plant for every 800,000 spores. Whereas the gemmae success rate is 1 in 10. When population is low, Tetraphis produces the little bowls of gemmae to keep doing what is working. When things get too crowded, it makes spores that help them spread to hew homes. “Tetraphis is a sequential hermaphrodite, changing its gender from female to male as the colony gets crowded.” [p. 78]
And sometimes – disaster happens. Big chunks of the rotting logs that Tetraphis inhabit just fall off like landslides on a mountain. A fresh new space opens up, and in the next rains, the “little green eggs splash into the gaps” In Kimmerer’s words, “in the aftermath of disturbance the seeds were sown for the next wave of Tetraphis.” [p. 80] “Tetraphis… achieves stability in an unstable habitat by freely switching between reproductive strategies.” [p. 80] “In this changeable habitat, natural selection flavors flexibility.” [p. 81]
Moss teaches us that to find stability in an unstable world, we are capable of great flexibility.
Be ready for abundance
Moss loves water, but has special ways of surviving when water is scarce. In Kimmerer’s words “Profound changes in the shape of the mosses occur as water is pulled back to the atmosphere. Some mosses begin to fold their leaves or roll them inward. This reduces the exposed surface area of the leaf and helps the plant cling to the last bits of surface water. Nearly all mosses change their shape and color when they dry out… Some leaves wrinkle, some spiral and twist their leaves around the stem, a sheltering cloak against the dry wind. ..Crisp, dry and contorted, the mosses are transformed form soft fronds to brittle blackish tufts… like a ship being readied for dry dock the essential functions are carefully shut down and packed away. The cell membrane undergoes a change that allows it to shrink and collapse without sustaining irreparable damage. Most importantly the enzymes of cell repair are synthesized and stored for future access. Held in the shrunken membrane, these lifeboat enzymes can restore the cell to full vigor with the rains return… Only twenty minutes after wetting, the moss can go from dehydration to full vigor.” [p. 42]
“When the first drops begin to fall, … the water finds its way through the capillary spaces and soaks deeply into every cell. Within seconds the eager cells grow turgid and contorted stems spread towards the sky, leaves outstretched to meet the rain…branch by delicate branch unfolding to recreate the symmetry of overlapping fronds. As each stem uncurls its tender center is exposed and all along the midline are tiny capsules, bursting with spores. Ready for rain, they release their daughters upon the updrafts of rising musts.” [p. 43]
We all go through dry times: times of loss, times of heartbreak. The leaves and stems of our hearts and spirits curl in protectively. Moss reminds us to be ready for rain, to be ready to unfold and allow the waters of life in as quickly as we can. To hold every drop of life we can in those moments of abundance.
Everyone has a role to play in healing the world
When the Benson Iron Mines left the Adirondacks, the mine “closed and left behind hundreds of acres of sandy waste, a Sahara in the midst of the wet green Adirondacks.” The beautiful rich hummus that plants need to grow is now buried under the sterile sand “mine tailings” left from the mining process. Benson dodged its responsibility, and left this land an “orphan mine.”
Kimmerer tells us of her visit to the orphan mine with her student Aimee: “I walk up the tailings slope, slipping backwards in the loose sand, like walking on a beach. .. The sand can’t hold water so any rains percolate quickly, leaving it dry again. Without vegetation, there’s no organic matter to soak up water or build the foundation of a nutrient cycle. Without the shade of trees, the surface temperature can reach extremes—I’ve measured it at 127 degrees Fahrenheit, more than enough to wither a tender seedling. The slope is littered with spent shotgun cartridges, and cans shot full of holes….
“On the other side of the pile, there is a place where the land is healing itself. .. Here are clumps of bright hawkweed and clover and scattered evening primroses rooted in the tailings, they would be weeds in other situations, but their presence here is welcome…. Most of this slope is a carpet of Polytrichum moss… I admire its tenacity in enduring this place where others would wither away in the span of a single day. In last year’s field season, Aimee found that the wildflowers were almost never rooted in bare tailings, they almost always occurred in the beds of Polytrichum.” [p. 46-47] So Aimee has made this her thesis- to find out exactly how and why moss seems to help.
Her experiment involved planting seeds in three places: directly in the mine tailings, in a shag carpet that mimicked some of the characteristics of moss, and in patches of moss. In the harsh unprotected land of the orphan mine, only in the moss could the seeds find a hospitable place to begin life. The super-power of moss is how it traps and holds the ingredients for life- water, nutrients, and the seedlings of wildflowers and Aspen trees- the possibility of a fresh start. Kimmerer writes “out of the carpet of living moss came a crowd of seedlings, the next step in binding up the wounds of the land, life attracting life.” [p. 50]
In an amazing parallel, moss also has healing properties for humans, and was used as bandages by native peoples for thousands of years. During World War I moss was used in Great Brittan to pack the wounds of soldiers because of its absorbent and antibacterial acidity.[ii]
And in case the healing properties of moss seem irrelevant to our most pressing worries, the peat bogs that grow that very moss that bandaged soldiers still serve as carbon sinks, helping store thousands of years of carbon and slowing global warming. “Peatlands are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store; the area covered by near natural peatland worldwide (>3 million km2) sequesters 0.37 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) a year – storing more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined.”[iii]
Unitarian Universalists affirm the Interconnected web of life of which we are a part, but sometimes that web is overshadowed by our values of independence and individuality. We look at the destruction of an orphan mine, or the threat of global climate change, and we think “what can I do? This is too big for me to fix!” Moss reminds us that we are never alone. The web of life is huge, and deep, and miraculous and we have barely begun to understand it. It is absolutely true that I cannot fix climate change by myself. We need the moss, and the trees, and the coral reefs, and we need one another. Like the moss, our contribution as individuals might be small, but we are not alone. We are part of a huge and complex web of life yearning for life. Moss teaches us that we all have a role to play in healing the world.
So this summer as you sit on your porch or walk out in the world, notice our little moss cousins in their amazing diversity- whether you are deep in a nature preserve, or on a city street, moss has probably found its way there, let it be your teacher.