Ever heard the saying ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’?
A lively family debate broke out at dinner over what it means. My mum and uncle felt it referred to rootedness and responsibility—if you keep moving, you can’t form meaningful relationships with people and place. However, I thought the phrase warned against stagnation and rot, the historical English parent to ‘Keep calm and carry on’.
But I was wrong, and, as it turns out, it wasn’t an English saying either. It’s an old Latin proverb cautioning people against shirking the duties and cares that come with putting down roots. And while it’s now known that moss doesn’t have actual roots, it does take a remarkably long time to make its home on a rock, and certainly never on a rolling stone.
I found myself pondering rolling stones and mosses thanks to a book by Potawatomi scientist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses weaves together science, ecology and indigenous ways of knowing in a rich, detailed account of the mysteries and magic of mosses—which, in many ways, doubles as an account of time itself. Kimmerer writes: ‘Raw rock is inhospitable to mosses… And yet…given enough time, mosses will blanket a rock [in] green carpets.’ What counts as ‘enough time’, though? Humans and mosses have very different answers.
Growing up in Kodaikanal, moss was everywhere. Parrot green carpets, spongy and sodden, covered the rocky outcrops of the montane grasslands. Sitting on one during a hike meant you were certain to walk away with soaked trousers. As young children, the pine and eucalyptus forests where we fashioned clubhouses and make-believe homes had darker green mats crawling up their tree trunks. We would gather this moss and use it to ‘cook’ fantastical meals. I remember once collecting alluring chunks for a middle-school diorama. They stayed green far beyond the project deadline.
The wonders of moss enveloped much of my childhood, perhaps because this was a period when I could pay attention to it. As kids, time stretched expansively in all directions: long days, longer summers, a sense that things would go on forever.
Moss contains this sense too. It exists at an inconceivably slow pace, and yet it has blanketed vast portions of the planet for the past 350 million years (just pause for a moment at that number). In a world that sees time as money, productivity as ethical imperative and the ticking clock as inescapable, can the attentiveness of childhood, and what Kimmerer terms ‘learning to think like a moss’, change the way we see time?
Mosses are the unsung heroes of the forest. When a seed falls from a tree and lands on dry soil, its chances of taking root are small. However, if it lands in a wet bed of moss (which holds water longer than soil and provides leafy protection too), the seed can get ‘a head start on life’.
As a tree sapling takes root and begins to grow, the tiny scars in its leaves and twigs begin to gather moss, ‘tuft by tiny tuft’. When you walk through a forest, ‘the mats of mosses which weigh down the branches are probably as old as the trees themselves’.
Moss helps control the flow of water in a forest. By slowing the passage of rain down tree trunks, moss colonies hold water in their leaves, allowing the roots of other plants to be nourished for longer. Mosses also absorb water from mist, their ‘hair-like leaf points…invit[ing] the condensation of fog droplets’. When mist rolls into the Palani Hills, mosses allow the forests to stay rich and damp, even in drier seasons. Shola trees are known to act as water-retaining sponges, but equally important are the mosses embedded in their trunks and leaves, hanging like painted scrolls from their knotted branches.
Aside from trees, mosses live in close relationship with countless creatures, large and small. Many scientists believe that insect evolution was made possible by mosses, and even today, many insects need moss mats to nurture their eggs. These ‘patterns of reciprocity’ are everywhere, from the mosses lining birds’ nests to those creating a bed in which fungi (which then connect larger rooted plants) can flourish.
Kimmerer marvels, ‘It seems as if the entire forest is stitched together with threads of moss.’
What does it mean to truly experience moss? To sit in the quiet hush of a forest or an old cemetery and pay attention to the verdant carpets on trees and stones? It might mean slowing down, breathing deep and creating time to recognise the graceful complexity of small life forms.
As a bryologist (a scientist of mosses) Kimmerer’s work involves “adopt[ing] a different pace. Her experiments are designed to take years, not months, and involve walking slowly through forests, accompanied by a hand lens and an openness to what mosses may reveal.
This is not just a sound scientific approach.
Kimmerer belongs to the Potawatomi Nation, and frequently turns to indigenous ways of knowing. Here, ‘learning takes place by patient observation [and to] ask a direct question is often considered rude. Knowledge cannot be taken; it must instead be given’. In the age of Google, where direct questions and vociferous answers are a common mode of existence, Kimmerer resists the call of immediacy to reveal deeper truths.
From Gathering Moss, I don’t learn just of moss’s biology and ecological relevance, but of its enduring relationship to humans, too. Moss is a great insulator and was employed by indigenous societies to chink the cracks of wooden homes. A pillow made of Hypnum moss was said to give the sleeper special dreams. And dried mosses, absorbent and soft, were widely used as diapers and sanitary napkins, cushioning intimate and essential acts of care.
Stories shape our world, and by rooting her scientific study in indigenous knowledge, Kimmerer shapes for us a world that is often overlooked—a miniature planet, beautiful and green, with an integral role in the web of life of which we are a part.
Life on earth began in the water and remained there for at least 3 billion years, until the first plants ventured onto land. These plants were mosses.
Today, there are over 22,000 known species of moss worldwide. Some are aquatic, others live on tree bark, while still others restrict themselves to certain species of trees. Even when it comes to rock-dwellers, some prefer granite, others limestone and so on. ‘Each one is a variation on a theme, a unique creation…in tiny niches in virtually every ecosystem.’
As the most primitive of land plants, mosses have no fruits, flowers, seeds or roots. They lack vascular systems to hold them upright and transport water internally. Due to their size, mosses inevitably lose the competition for resources to larger plants. Their success, therefore, depends on living in places others cannot inhabit: ‘the cracks of a sidewalk, on the back of a beetle, or on the ledge of a cliff’. Here, they thrive.
This thriving, however, is largely an ongoing process of waiting.
Despite being the first land colonisers, mosses rely on water for every aspect of their being. Their leaves, through which they absorb water, can hold up to thirty times their weight. But their water content fluctuates with the environment. And water is not always plentiful.
When mosses dry out, they go from lush green to brown and black crusts. Without water, photosynthesis stops and growth is halted. The correct conditions for moss to grow are so rare that, unlike larger plants, mosses have evolved to survive complete dehydration. Kimmerer writes: ‘For them, desiccation is simply a temporary interruption in life… Even after forty years…in a musty specimen cabinet, mosses have been fully revived after a dunk in a Petri dish.’ Seemingly ‘dead’ for four decades, the mosses were, in fact, simply waiting.
This is Moss Time. Mosses wait and wait and then wait some more. In this fashion, seemingly against all odds, they have persisted for aeons. It makes me wonder why humans, who have existed for a mere fractionof planetary existence that mosses have, see waiting as an annoyance, something to be rid of. After all, don’t good things come to those who wait?
Unlike mosses, humans are not ‘immune to death by drying’, so time feels like a finite resource we need to maximise. But where did it come from? Physicists like Newton argue that it was always already there, but the question of how time came to be entwined in our daily lives is better accounted for by industrialisation. Beginning in the 19th century, factories restructured lives into ‘work days’, and trains to places with differing sunrises demanded a uniform clock.
In her book River of Shadows, Rebecca Solnit writes: ‘[T]ime ceased to be a phenomenon that linked humans to the cosmos and became one administered by technicians… It changed the way people imagined their world.’
It is these ideas of time as uniform and controllable that we have inherited today. But what of the cosmos, of earlier ways of being? For Kimmerer, mosses hold many answers. To learn their secrets, though, we must slow down, power down, look down. In contrast to the standardisation encouraged by industrial societies, Kimmerer writes of studying mosses: ‘What seems to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality.’
The seemingly undifferentiated carpets of green we encounter on walls, rocks and trees are in fact diverse miniature forests comprising several moss species and all the life forms they support. A grand old shola tree is easy to appreciate, but the deep green on its bark requires a different kind of attention.
The Western Ghats, in which Kodaikanal sits, is one of the top bryological hotspots in the world. Nearly 500 species of moss have been identified in Tamil Nadu alone, of which 54 species are located in the Palani Hills. In 2012, a new species of moss found only in the shola forests was discovered. Taken individually and together, it’s easy to see how vast and magnificent the mosses of the Western Ghats are.
These diverse bioregions are also under grave threat. Urbanisation, infrastructural projects, pollution and the continuing march of non-native species are leading to a depletion of ecosystems across the ghats, in which mosses play an integral role.
Moss seems to be everywhere (including the places where we deem it an annoyance), until one day, overwhelmed by environmental degradation, it is not. The disappearance of mosses signals a deep decline in the health of a bioregion, and growing it back is not easy work. A rolling stone gathers no moss, and neither does a terrain in upheaval. Here’s where the question of Moss Time comes in.
Kimmerer writes: ‘Trees alone don’t make a forest and many organisms have a tough time ever recolonizing the cut-over land.’ Moss thus contains a difficult but essential truth: undoing a forest tapestry is easy—a sleight of hand with a signature and a bulldozer arrives—but true ‘recovery can take decades’.
The United Nations has declared the 2020s to be a ‘Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’—a recognition that what has been lost can still be restored. But mosses teach us that this can only happen through patience (and likely not within a decade either). Industrial time, with its uniformly ticking clocks, is what has led to our current moment of ecosystem collapse, and it is only by turning our backs on its systems of measurement, by focussing our attention elsewhere, that we can counter its devastating effects. If we embrace the way of mosses, we must act to restore ecosystems with both a sense of urgency and as though we have all the time in the world.
As Kimmerer writes: ‘The patterns of reciprocity by which mosses bind together a forest community offer us a vision of what could be. They take only the little that they need and give back in abundance.’ What would it take for you and me to do the same?