Perception is Cultural – An Ode to Moss

Moss proves that a plant’s cultural value can be surprisingly arbitrary and detached from ecological merit.

[This essay was published in issue 11 of ‘WHERE THE LEAVES FALL’-magazine. It is available in print and on the magazine’s website.]

The entire ground is green. An uninterrupted layer stretches across every bump and extends into every indentation like a soft, neatly-fitted carpet. This is moss, millions of tiny plants growing in close proximity to each other. I am in the garden of Saiho-ji, also known as the moss temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kyoto.

Slowly, I follow the path around a pond situated in the middle of the garden. Moss stretches from a distant wall to the very edge of each stepping stone. High above, a canopy of fine-leaved maple trees breaks the warm afternoon light.

This garden is awe-inspiring. It feels like a vast empty room, a cathedral for the appreciation of moss. Between the treetops, the garden walls and the moss-covered ground there is emptiness. It seems the understory has been removed to direct my attention to the shifting patterns of sunshine on the velvety green around my feet. This moss layer is not uniform, not at all. More than 120 different species grow in this garden. The longer I look, the more variation in colour and texture I notice.

Mosses are unlike other plants. They do not flower. Their primitive structure prevents them from growing tall. Mosses do not even have roots as such, only root-like structures to anchor them in the ground. Instead, they absorb nutrients through the air. This makes mosses extremely sensitive to environmental factors and they are considered early indicators of climate change.

I notice a faint, rhythmic noise. A gardener is standing on moss-covered ground holding a besom, the traditional broom made from brushwood. Bent low, he rapidly moves the broom’s head parallel to the ground in a semicircle, not unlike a scythe. His movements are so precise that he never touches the tiny plants, but creates an air current just strong enough to blow the dead plant matter gently across the soft green carpet.

Mosses are fragile, their fine structures easily damaged. Many Japanese gardeners tend moss with such care, revealing a deep respect for this unassuming plant. As I watch the gardener, I cannot help but think of the aggressive techniques many in the west employ to remove this plant from their lawns. Moss is attacked with scarifiers and moss remover, anything to avoid the embarrassment of a moss-infested lawn. In garden centres, there is no other plant which has an entire aisle devoted to killing it.

Yet, moss is of considerable ecological value. It has been well publicised that, in the permanently waterlogged conditions of peatlands, specialised mosses are responsible for storing twice as much carbon as all the planet’s forests combined. Elsewhere, their capacity to mitigate fluctuations in moisture and temperature for the benefit of surrounding organisms is just as remarkable.

Mosses can absorb water like a sponge. As a protective layer, moss prevents erosion and warms the soil below in cold conditions. In hot conditions, evaporation from moss cools the air above. Mosses need water because this is the medium in which male and female cells swim during fertilisation. However, once established mosses have the ability to survive periods of drought by hibernating in a desiccated state before being revived by the return of moisture.

470 million years ago, mosses were among the first land-based plants. Their ability to grow on bare rock surfaces contributed to the formation of soil, a prerequisite for more complex flowering plants to emerge. Now, these plants easily outshine moss with their attention-seeking colours and dramatic changes throughout the seasons. By contrast, moss is modest. Its structures are tiny. Its growth is so slow it is almost imperceptible.

Mosses are plants which tend to be overlooked or even despised. Here at the moss temple, they are celebrated. Careful not to step across the edge of the path, I bend down and use the macro lens of my camera like a magnifying glass. Some mosses are spiky, others furry-soft or even fern-like. The variety of shapes is breathtaking. This garden was made almost 700 years ago when the site became a Zen temple. The simplicity of its design, combined with the intricate complexity of its details, relax and sharpen my senses at the same time. I am not sure what Buddhist meditation entails, but perhaps this is close to it.

As I walk on, I notice the gardener is now squatting low on the ground. Coming closer, I see that he is pulling single blades of grass from the carpet of moss.