The Lessons We Might Learn from Mosses

In a year of quarantine and remote learning, my children and I have found solace in the mossy world of our backyard forest.

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A few days before the start of remote kindergarten, my two sons and I donned masks, packed hand sanitizer and snacks, and followed some friends into a state forest not far from our home close to the Adirondacks. My five-year-old son Toby watched as our friends, five-year-old Andre and three-year-old Virginia, confidently stepped off the trail, over fallen trees, through thick piles of decaying leaves towards a house-sized rock formation. They had done this before. Their mother Emily looked at me to gauge if this was okay in the way that parents do — seeing if my level of risk or permissiveness matched her own. Not knowing what to expect, I nodded and urged Toby and his two-year-old brother Nate to head off trail.

photo of moss
Straying off the path at New York’s Glenmeal State Forest, the author and her children began to really see and feel the mosses around them. Photo by Adam Przeniewski on Unsplash.

All summer long, my husband and I had taken our kids to the woods behind the school and along the Grasse River. With schools closed due to the pandemic, we saw these outings as opportunities to get our children into the forest, to relieve the isolation of our quarantine with nature-based education. We pointed out lamb’s ear and poison ivy, coltsfoot and Indian paintbrush.

But it took straying off the path at Glenmeal State Forest for us to really see and feel mosses. Here, on a fallen branch like a thin arm stretched across our way. There, on a flat slab of stone my toddler crawled onto with the same motion he uses to get on a bed. We gripped tree limbs and boulders for balance, and felt them, the bryophytes, soft and springy, only sometimes damp. Without true roots, the mosses were as helpful when climbing as velvet loosely upholstered to rock. We learned to reach past them to get a purchase on stone.

Somehow, I pushed and pulled my toddler up the outcropping. Having reached the apex, level with the tree canopy, my boys headed in opposite directions, and for a moment while I caught my breath rather than admit my fear, I admired the dense carpet of mosses.

“You know a professor at St. Lawrence University” — where our spouses both teach — “takes his students out here to study the mosses,” Emily said.

I looked down at the mosses themselves, no strangers to adversity in this area of heavy exposure to sun, wind, rain, and snow. They took the shape of pillows or mats, multicolored carpets where various species commingled and grew; I had found something worthy of study, maybe even worthy of affection. By that time, all four of the kids had come together on a ledge, and Emily and I encouraged them to sit on the moss. My youngest gave it gentle pats, and watched it spring back. My oldest pulled, and held up clumps for me to see.

That night, while both children slept beneath quilts made by their grandmother, bodies tired from climbing, I read about mosses. I contemplated buying a hand lens and a microscope, and setting up a science corner in the living room between the puzzles’ missing pieces and books we’ve read too many times. I tried to forget the map of the world Toby had made after he heard a news report on the radio: the number of coronavirus cases in black marker next to the outlines of countries and continents. The worldwide reach of calamity disarmed me after a morning of low-growing moss, tall rock formations, and sunlight.

Through mosses I might lean back to the origin of life on land itself, for they evolved from green algae to be among the first plants to limn Earth’s crust around 470 million years ago. I might learn about climate change during the Paleozoic Era, as the early appearance of large amounts of mosses could have caused an increase of oxygen that made Earth habitable for more advanced life forms, but also resulted in a release of minerals into the sea that gave rise to an algae bloom that led to an ice age. I might learn about microscopes and refracted light, and perhaps learn to look past the reflection of my own blinking eyelashes to see the mostly single cell depth of a moss leaf, an elegant tracery of rectangles the color of pea soup. I might learn about healthcare and medicine during World War I, when supplies of bandages ran short, and nurses, doctors, and volunteers scavenged mosses, a natural antiseptic, to place upon wounds. I might learn that mosses, as bryophytes, lack seed or fruit and therefore produce spores that they release to water and wind. I might learn the tricks an organism simpler than humans uses to ward off death. After a hundred years in a cabinet at a museum, one desiccated sample revived a few moments after being spritzed with water.

I expect my children might learn their own lessons. But for now, this year, we’re content with the smell and the feel of our mossy backyard escape.

Since that day, my husband and I have taken Toby and Nate back to Glenmeal several times. For my children, these woods hold the aura of friendship, even when we go just as a family. My children do as Andre and Virginia did, make a beeline off the trail for the best rock formations, pick their way over dead trees, ever-growing piles of leaves, and boulders askew as if fallen from a great height. They find their own way to the top of each, and sit confidently on pressed silk moss, accepting their allotment of sky.

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