Photo by Crystal Cooper
It’s 4.5 billion years ago—the unstable atmosphere is comprised of noxious gases, and life is yet to begin. Barren rock exists, but most of the Earth is oceanic. This vast ocean, a cauldron of primordial soup, is where the elements of life originated. Algae began experimenting. Through time, random chance, and fungal help, it creeped onto the rock and succeeded. Our first land ancestors were born, assembling premier leaf and root-like structures to harness energy, making static life possible. This ancestor is moss, the first land plant.
Maximizing opportunities between air and earth for the greater good of all, moss began an atmospheric and terrestrial revolution. Along with algae, it created an oxygenated atmosphere, making this space more habitable. Through the weathering of rock with their root-like structures, moss cultivated soil. Growing together in tightly bound communities to conserve resources and communicate, moss also provided a physical nursery from which other plant and animal life would spring. This led to the forests and plant-covered earth we now inhabit. A living affirmation of the fractal nature of existence, each cushion of moss sustains a micro-rainforest, complete with predators, prey, and a thriving food web.
Today, still a master of microscopic minimalism, moss has survived history with around 22,000 current species worldwide. Remaining small and simple has been the key to its fundamental efficiency. To reduce requirements, moss only grows as big as necessary, keeping assimilation of raw materials easy. Lacking the more evolved structures of higher plants, moss takes in nutrients and water directly through its tissues, which are only one cell-layer thick. This highlights just how sensitive they are, identifying them as indicators of healthy habitats.
Moss inhabits places considered unfavorable by most plants, utilizing their small size and adaptive ability to become strikingly specialized or remain generalized. One often pictures a lush rainforest of moss flourishing on all available surfaces. At the same time, it can persist on our barren rock outcrops, the branches of towering frozen pines, in the cracks of a sidewalk, on roofs, and even traveling on the shell of a turtle. Displaying its amphibious demeanor, moss’s main concern on land is water availability. To sustain life in the variety of environments it does, moss exhibits the skill of desiccating, or drying up. Halting photosynthesis, it patiently awaits the return of water and favorable conditions.
The ancient and intimate relationship between moss, water, and the atmosphere still evolves. This is prominently observed in the health and functioning of bogs and peatlands. Here, Sphagnum mosses begin growing at the edge of a nearly stagnant body of water. Many distinct properties enable the Sphagnum to create an ecosystem of its own. The water-holding capacity of its leaves and production of humic acid result in water-logged, oxygen depleted, acidic, and nutrient-poor conditions that inhibit most plants from surviving. Over thousands of years, creeping inward on the water, the moss creates a floating mat—growing, accumulating, compressing, and storing plant matter. This also inhibits bacterial function and decomposition. The world’s peatlands and bogs sequester twice as much carbon as trees on the planet.
Considering the earth’s greenhouse gas and climate crisis, the function and health of bogs and peatlands are imperative for our future. Humans use peatlands and bogs for fuel and convert them to agricultural land. This, along with other environmental threats, inhibits or destroys the function of these critical habitats. When healthy, these places act as crucial carbon sink, storing carbon in the form of plant matter. However, when function ceases they become an immense carbon source, releasing greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. One hectare (about 2.5 acres) of peatland can hold approximately 1,500 metric tons of carbon—and millions of hectares have been damaged. Raising awareness of our social and environmental responsibility as stewards of the earth, perhaps we can look to moss for lessons in surviving.
A myriad of symbolic treasures can be gleaned from the life and ways of moss. Returning to a small, simple, sensitive, and adaptable life, we might begin to heal our relationship with ourselves and nature. Moving forward in the face of our changing climate, living this way would be beneficial for all.
Humbly holding on to the rocks, fallen trees, and humic earth of our north woods, moss lives in the shade of the showy, flowering plants of spring and summer. As those plants grow fast and tall, moss pales in their wake, remaining small, whispering the virtues of simplicity. As autumn falls across the land, leaves and tall plants browning as they perish, the small and mighty plants once again begin to shine. Moving into winter, the enduring moss can photosynthesize at near-freezing temperatures. Blazing emerald, stark against the white snow, moss offers a colorful solace and the promise of life.
Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer – A book I reference in this article and in my life. A beautiful balance of science and Native American wisdom, the author paints a living awareness and importance of moss.
Great general information on bogs/peatlands and other resources.
https://www.bogology.org – A fun, informational platform of bogs and an enthusiast’s goings-on.
Biello, David. (2009, December 08). Peat and Repeat: Can Major Carbon Sinks Be Restored by Rewetting the World’s Drained Bogs? Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/peat-and-repeat-rewetting-carbon-sinks/- A good article, though dated, for getting a general picture of the significance of bogs and peatlands around the world.
Crystal Cooper has called Marquette, MI home for a decade. She received a degree in Biology Ecology, emphasizing Botany at Northern Michigan University. Passionate about traditional ecological knowledge and sustainable, minimalistic lifestyle, Crystal’s focus is community resilience in the future of our changing climate. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2019 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.