The Music of Moss

Moss in a Circle

Lately, every time I turn around, I see moss. Moss cannot be ignored – it needs to be looked at, thought about, considered. There is so much of it, for one thing – that in itself is commanding. It is also so primeval, the diametric opposite of hard-edged civilization, a constant link to our mysterious past. Extracting nutrients from air and water, it is both primitive and sophisticated at the same time. There is a spiritual quality in moss with its humility (it gets walked on!) and breatharian feats that always inspires me.

But there are many ways to look at moss.

Some years ago, I took a class on moss at the Matthei Botanical Garden near Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the back of my mind, I think I believed I was going to visit an oracle – to get a translation of deep wisdom straight from the earth itself. Maybe the translation would be scientific in nature, but it would still have startling undeniable kernels of truth which would startle and shock me out of my normal complacency. When I got there, it appeared that no one else had these expectations. Lists of mosses on the blackboard with names difficult to pronounce or remember hung lifeless  in the arid room. I had to unearth bits of Latin learned in bygone days, the tail ends of a classical education in a public school, in order to decifer them.  I finally enjoyed the field trip where we discovered those dusty names in real life:  dicranum on rocks, racometrium – a fast spreading carpet moss, bryum – the velvet carpet moss which can survive between sidewalk cracks, and brachythecium, another tongue twister fast spreading sheet former.

Leaving the halls of scientific learning, another way to look at moss is through the lens of design – both interior and exterior. Bonsai growers find moss to be the prefect soil topper with its storybook appearance and its ability to evoke landscapes with hills and valleys. According to George Schenk in his excellent book, Moss Gardening: Including Lichens, Liverworts and Other Miniatures, Bryum, Leptobryum, Pohlia, Hupnum, Antitrichia, and Homalothecium are known to work well for bonsai. They can be transplanted from such common places as sidewalk cracks in the case of Bryum, as sown bits of dried moss, or as a spread of slurried moss pulverized in a blender; he tells how in his book.

Spring MossMoss has an ancient place in the gardens of Japan. One thousand years ago, Zen Buddhist Monks saw a spiritual kinship in these zen-like plants and began to cultivate them. Mr. Shenk’s book has a photo of the remarkable moss garden, Saihoji, a naturalistic design where mosses ramble over bridges, logs, stone and earth, creating rythmic tapestries with a timeless quality. I would love to see this garden, but since Japan isn’t on my to do list, I’ll have to content myself with creating my own moss garden – fun in its own way. Mr. Schenk gives good grounding for such an endeavor. Daffodils in Delft

I took this spring photo of the up and coming daffodils and miniature forsythia, “Little Peep”. The moss seemed to emphasize the fresh yet ancient qualities of spring. These moss buns are fake – our Siamese cat mix Smart little Luvy loves to bat them around the floor, but they look quite like Bryum – that always green sidewalk moss.

If anyone out there follows the interior design work of Vicente Wolf, I just happened upon an interview in the latest House Beautiful (May issue) in which he states his design philosophy in a nutshell:  “First I make sure there is always a flow. Like water flowing down a river. There might be a little rock here and a little bit of rapids there, but the river never stops flowing.” Moss and mossy rocks would fit right in, “the minimal with the primitive.”

But mostly, moss reminds me of music – again because of its flow. Moss seems to flow around like little rivers and small lakes. A beautiful photo of a sea of Leucobryum in the book Moss Gardening, shows it as the moss version of white foaming waves. You can almost hear the sound coming from its undulating motion. If there were music emanating from moss, it would have to sound like the music of Philip Glass This music is not sentimental ( like the exquisite moodiness of Debussy), but a music which obliterates both thought and emotion and leaves us with a purity of sound and experience. A primeval sound, mysterious, direct, and both elusive and powerful – like moss. Glass has said that he doesn’t compose music, he simply listens to it, and sometimes can just barely hear it. In an interview on the DVD, Glass, a Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts, he describes the origins of his music as a an underground river, always flowing.  I’m hoping one day to be able to just barely hear the river of moss. Then my science class will be complete….

            On the shingled gate

            Where in rain moss grows jade-bright

            Earth and heaven merge.


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