It starts with walking slowly and looking down. An eye for green. In the forest, there are countless types of green - light, illuminated greens with sunshine filling them, greens of conifer, dark with the surface of so many needles, shiny greens of madrona and salal leaves, reflecting white brightness. Each tree, shrub, or vine has its own set of tones, and this makes the mosses distinctive and easy to spot in the underbrush. A plusher, glowier green sings there, an intensity of photosynthesis that testifies to the extreme speciality of the tiny plants. This higher wattage of greenness has an appeal for almost anyone walking in the forest, that emerald affirmation of lush plant life that makes you smile and feel welcomed: the forest rolls out the green carpet.
For many, this is enough, the carpet of green, the moss-hung trees filling out an ideal of forest, which in fact they are doing in the ecological sense. But I’m trying to explain engagement with specific mosses, mosses whose (Latin) names I’ve made the effort to learn by heart. Not just moss, but that moss right there, the one that looks like a miniature palm tree, or the one with smooth, relatively huge leaves (up to 8mm) that fills up and sparkles with water. They grow together, Leucolepis acanthoneuron and Plagiomnium insigne, but are extremely different. And these, as fascinating as they are, still full of mystery, do not capture my interest as much as the tiny soil ephemerals, the miniscule, translucent plants that spring up in crumbling soil, rock fall, tree rot and well-traveled trailside. They appear as no more than a dusting of green against the raw earth, and yet they are full sized plants, living out their maturity in complete, intricate, entrancing forms.
My earliest friend of this type was Fissidens. Examining my own garden and driveway, I’d found a variety of mosses (close to 20 species I can identify now, but this was earlier.) On the hillside below the house, amidst stones lining the stairsteps, there was a patch of exposed soil no bigger than a child’s hand. Green grew there, and I crouched with a lens to look. The individual plants grew out and pointed down, flat and smooth. They were incomprehensibly small. I made a rough sketch, plucked a sample and measured; “each leaf 1mm on a sprig of 3mm,” I wrote in my moss book. How did I learn it was Fissidens? At first, I was using a combination of Internet searching and the few moss books I could find in the library, mostly about gardening, to try to learn which mosses I found. But I came to moss through Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Gathering Moss, and she describes Fissidens and its characteristic “pocket”, and this is what helped me recognize my first sample. It’s an unusual moss in that it is flat, or complanate, the leaves lying in the same plane, and even more rare for mosses is that the leaves are inserted on opposite sides of the stem, “two-ranked.”. But the pocket is the real giveaway: each leaf has two layers in the section of leaf near the stem, on the upper side as it grows, and the next leaf is enclosed partially by this two-layered bit. So the plant grows in this beautiful, semi enclosed way, new leaves protected by the pocket as they form, then opening out and flattening as they mature. The structure is clear under a microscope, stage lit so that the pale edges of leaves and the midrib create a precise line drawing, and the pocket’s double layer a deeper shade of green. Maybe this is why identification of Fissidens is so gratifying: it’s obvious and unmistakable, at least as a genus.
But the Fissidens held something else for me, a thrill I can’t specify. Somehow this tiny patch of dirt, so easily overlooked or destroyed, so transient as a habitat, produced this exquisite gem of a plant that is glorious and perfect when you look closely enough, which is specially suited to life in a way that no other plant is, and which baffles botanists who try to analyze how this bi-layered leaf grows, in terms of cell division. Worldwide, there are hundreds of species of Fissidens, and the fact of it growing in my own garden gives me a sense of pride and protectiveness - although I know its predilection for disturbed earth does not promise longevity. Fissidens crispus is the first collection of moss that I made and kept in a dated, labeled packet. It may not be a very good sample, but I’m keeping it as a record of my first love, because Fissidens has such an inexplicable hold on my heart.
And why this particular fascination for not only mosses, but the tiniest, most ephemeral ones? (Not to mention leafy liverworts, also miniscule and enticing - one day they will get their own ode.) I think the thrill, the gratification, comes from the need to invest in seeing them. You have to pay attention in order to discern the various larger mosses, but Leucolepis acanthoneuron, Plagiomnium insigne, and Atrichum selwynii are rather obvious once you’ve gotten to know them. They can be spotted without even crouching down. The tiny ones, Fissidens and Pohlia, or another favorite, Epipterygium tozerii, demand close attention. Lenses, tweezers, and microscopes are involved, so it necessarily goes beyond a casual interest. And the very fact that these tiny entities require such care to even see them, to even become aware of their qualities as individuals, makes them dear and precious and rewarding.
The other side of that gratification is that all it takes is to look. One doesn’t have to travel far, go to remote or dangerous locations, expend resources on some grand expedition - one only has to look here, underfoot, closer than ever before, in order to make remarkable discoveries. They are living out their delicate glory, whether we manage to admire them or not.