Reviewed by FMN Kristina Watts
If you ask my family, they’ll tell you that I’m now obsessed with moss. “Tell us just ONE fact about moss at dinner today.” My husband challenged the other day. Last week, I took a walk with my son out in the woods where he spends his spare time, and he offered to show me all the mossy spots he was aware of. (We were able to observe at least three different species on one tree root, to our untrained eyes.)
It started with Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses). Though I consider myself a pretty avid naturalist, I’d never really paid attention to moss before. But Kimmerer opened up my eyes to a whole new world in the miniature.
Kimmerer isn’t just a PhD bryologist and university professor, she is a gifted writer and storyteller. She brought these plants alive in my imagination through her vivid descriptions of mosses’ fascinating reproductive cycle, their importance in creating and maintaining whole habitats (who knew their ability to contain moisture was so critical?) and the lessons they teach ecologists about concepts from succession to the very meaning of what “life” is. And all this was woven together with tales of mosses’ use to humankind throughout history, as well as Kimmerer’s own personal adventures in studying these surprisingly diverse organisms.
In each chapter, Kimmerer illustrates her chosen theme by treating an individual moss species like an old friend, with a distinct personality to portray it. In this way, she has made me very curious about the moss species that inhabit my backyard and the surrounding woods. I can’t wait to find a patch to examine under a magnifying glass and crack open my new moss identification guide. Given her comparison of the living moss turf’s structure, function, and composition of inhabitants to that of a lush rainforest, it’s exciting to think about how much there is to explore in a small area. While the book is very much grounded in science, the almost-spiritual appreciation that Kimmerer demonstrates for the interconnectedness between mosses and insects, trees, and all layers of the forest has inspired me to never take mosses for granted again. Maybe soon there will be a dedicated moss garden in my yard!
Whether you’re looking for a new hobby in bryology or just a well written book that reflects on what we can learn from one tiny yet practically ubiquitous part of nature, I highly recommend Gathering Moss.
(2003, Oregon State University Press, 168 pages)