Two summers ago, during a hike through a forested nature reserve, my partner and I happened onto a curious rock, an angular, wheelbarrow-size chunk of sedimentary limestone.
Growing on the rock’s craggy five-square-foot exterior, in close-knit community, was a multitude of small plants. We counted an astonishing 18 different species: Hepatica, Red Elderberry, White Trillium, Blue Cohosh, rare Hart’s Tongue Fern, Trout Lily and Herb Robert, to name a few.
And blanketing the rock’s surface, and into which the plants were rooted – moss: emerald-green in colour, soft to the touch like the finest quality merino wool, inset with tiny pearls of moisture glistening in the morning’s dappled sunlight.
Mosses possess some impressive credentials. Classified in the plant kingdom as Bryophyta (bryophytes), they comprise 15,000-25,000 species and occur on every continent and in every ecosystem habitable by plants that process sunlight into energy.
Commonly seen on logs, trees, statues and roofs, mosses are tough and resilient. They grow in a vast diversity of environments, from snow-covered mountain ledges to baking hot deserts.
Mosses are survivors. Bryophytes date back some 470 million years and were the first terrestrial plants to emerge from the primordial soup and blanket the Earth’s rocky surface.
They’ve endured every cataclysmic change of climate including several mass extinctions. Should the current climate crisis lead to a sixth mass extinction, mosses will doubtless survive it, too.
We humans owe our existence to mosses. As they carpeted the planet, they enriched the atmosphere with oxygen. That triggered a cycle whereby levels of oxygen needed for complex life could be maintained indefinitely.
“It’s exciting to think that without the evolution of the humble moss, none of us would be here today,” says scientist Tim Lenton from England’s University of Exeter.
Mosses, like nature generally, offer important life lessons. The verdant, trailside rock my partner and I encountered is a case in point.
The multi-generational decay of tiny moss leaves deposited a layer of humus on the rock’s surface. Combined with moss’s abilities to hold water and scavenge minerals from bare rock, a seedbed was formed creating habitat for a biodiverse burst of plant life.
What has occurred on that trailside rock is not unlike what is happening on Earth.
“When I see the way mosses create lush communities over the surface of an eleven barren rock, I think, it’s not so unlike our place, in the thin boundary layer between the Earth’s surface and the emptiness of space. Everything they need is there.”
So writes Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of the celebrated book, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer, a member of the Potawatomi nation, is a bryologist, someone who studies mosses.
Unlike homo sapiens, Kimmerer says, mosses have learned to live within the natural limits of the boundary layer. They don’t have their eye on dominion. They don’t seek to assimilate other life forms they encounter. “They simply live, gathering life to them with an egoless beauty.”
A moss community possesses many of the attributes we might envision for a sustainable human community of the future, Kimmerer says. It purifies water, builds soil, stores carbon and heals land after disturbance. There’s no dependence on foreign oil and no accumulation of nuclear waste with mosses.
Small is truly beautiful – that’s the environmental philosophy of mosses, Kimmerer adds. “They remind us of the virtue of humility.” It’s a worldview that we humans, given our obsessions with power, privilege and prominence find hard to accept.
Moss “lifeways,” as Kimmerer calls them, are in stark contrast to the ways we’ve organized our society, which prioritizes relentless growth as the metric of well-being: always needing to get bigger, produce more, have more.
“We humans pride ourselves on living by the rule of law,” Kimmerer says. But they are laws we have crafted ourselves. “We ignore ecological laws as if the fiction of human exceptionalism meant that thermodynamics (the study of the relations between heat, work, temperature and energy) did not apply to us.”
But as we are learning – the hard way – infinite growth is a delusion. It’s ecologically impossible and exceedingly destructive, because it demands the transformation of the lives of other beings, including humans, into raw materials to feed the fiction.
In the end, Kimmerer says, “natural laws will prevail whether we hear them or not. Arrogance has brought us to the brink. The laws of nature will bring us to our knees. And then perhaps we will see the mosses.”
Gary W. Kenny is retired from a career in international human rights and development and is a writer residing in rural Gray County.