In winter 2020, I began to frequent a quiet, 2.1-mile loop in Redwood Regional, parking at the Big Bear Staging Area off Redwood Road. Only fifteen minutes from my home in East Oakland, the trailhead was never crowded on my weekday visits. If I wasn’t alone on trail, I would see one or two others at most. The route I take begins with a slow, gentle climb on Golden Spike Trail in the damp canyon. My footsteps landed softly on the wet fallen redwood and oak leaves.
As the trail climbs to meet West Ridge trail, the soft leaves give way to hard-packed earth, deeply grooved by rainwater. I was surprised to find that some of the grooves were micro-riparian habitats: tiny green communities. I crouched down low to look more closely. Growing on the sandy soil was moss. Before this moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that moss could grow on hard ground. Some of them even displayed delightful, spindly cups bobbing with dewdrops. I had passed many oak trees on the way up the trail, many of their shady-side trunks thickly pelted with moss. Not having a dog with me to pet, I ran my fingers along the moss. Up close, they looked like miniature fern-forests. Boulders harbored the same surprising forests. Lichens often make a home on stone first; as they cling, they release an acidic substance which slowly, microscopically, etches the stone, eroding it just enough for an errant moss spore to take hold. Lichen and moss together begin the process of turning stone into soil, making the stuff from which future forests might grow.
As I returned to the trail in spring, the forest shifted. The days became warmer, and the mosses that were so lush in the winter no longer glistened with moisture. Where they were once luxuriant pelts inviting petting, they now had become almost wiry. Their vibrant green dulled, brooding against the bark.
I am projecting, of course. The moss is not brooding; I am. I am lamenting the passing of the rainy season and the arrival of the dry season, the arrival of heat. The road to my regular trail had to be repaired after weeks of heavy rain caused the asphalt to sink away. Toyon Trail, the steepest portion of my loop, is still closed. Climate change means that such deluges will be followed by intense heat; this means that it is those species that can adapt to those extremes are the ones that will survive, the ones we should learn from, attend to. The moss is not brooding, but laying dormant. The moss does not expend energy trying to grow when resources are not available. The moss can wait months or years, if necessary.
Claopodium whippleanum is the moss that so satisfactorily replaced a dog’s coat in winter, then dried out; without moisture, mosses cannot produce the chlorophyll that allows them to grow new leaves. Mosses are not vascular, meaning the nutrients and moisture they require do not travel along any sort of circulatory system. Instead they are absorbed directly through the moss’s leaves, and through the rhizomatic hairs they use to attach themselves to rock and bark. As moisture recedes, so does their activity. Without water, they cannot grow or reproduce.
So they lay quiet. They stop trying to photosynthesize. They wait for the next rain to come. The tardigrades (aka “moss piglets” or “water bears”) nestled in these moss forests have adapted a similar rhythm, remaining dormant for 30 or 40 years, slowly drying until they have enough water again to live.
“Mosses, which have been with us ever since they arose 400 million years ago, have endured every climate change that has ever happened,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, said in an interview with the Guardian. Quite apart from what she regards as their unique beauty, their mere existence should, she thinks, lead us to ask certain questions. Why are they so resilient? What can they teach us? What secrets might they hold?
As I lean down to investigate the curious tiny trumpets, I now understand that I am looking at various bryophytes, moss among them as well as liverwort and hornwort. How do bryophytes and tardigrades manage their dormancy? Where does the spark of life in them go? How does it come back? How can we apply this to our human lives?
Of course, humans cannot undertake a literal dormancy. When we do not have what we need to live—food, water, shelter from environmental hazards—we die. What we can learn from moss is not to be applied to each of us individually, but may guide us collectively.
Mosses cling to trees’ bark without harming the tree. Their spongy layers provide the cushion not only for their own future generations to grow, but can become the substrate in which other plants can take root. They swell with rain and shrink with drought.
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Mosses are not particularly competitive; they do not crowd out other species. They find a foothold where there are the proper resources: moisture, a place to tuck their rhizoid roots. The range from which they can acquire nourishment is limited. Humans are on the opposite end of that spectrum, able to move resources long distances, at increasingly devastating costs to one another and to ecosystems.
The pandemic presented us with an opportunity to explore slowness, to explore pausing, to explore economic or social dormancy. A pause was never afforded to many workers during even the earliest days of the pandemic. How could we build a world, an economy, where risk, responsibility, and safety were distributed more equitably? What if we could collectively practice what moss knows?