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The Wonders of Moss (really!)


Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, Oregon State University Press, 168 pages.

The rain fell here in February, and fell and fell, overflowing sewage treatment plants, flooding basements and dampening even the heartiest of human spirits. But some things are happy for the deluge. Look around and see the verdant energy of the native and urban mosses.

In her new book detailing the wonders of moss, Robin Kimmerer takes readers from the Adirondacks to the Amazon, from Oregon to Wisconsin, as she introduces readers to this vital organism, which populates the boundary layer between the earth’s surface and atmosphere.

There is much to be learned about moss. It has no roots and receives all its nutrients from water. It gathers in cracks and fissures, sometimes living alone, sometimes in concert with other mosses. It provides shelter to seeds, and is scattered by chipmunks and human footsteps. There are 22,000 species of moss. And consider their reproductive choices: mosses might reproduce sexually, asexually, as well as by cloning themselves. And they can survive for months, even years, on a lab shelf, desiccated, in an anabiotic state only to return to life as we know it, with a few drops of water. And who knew that sphagnum moss can absorb 20 to 40 times its weight in water, and was used for diapers before Pampers?!

Far more than a collection of facts about moss, Kimmerer’s thoughtful and wide-ranging essays touch on her native heritage, her neighbors, and her family and students, weaving together the scientific, the spiritual, and the social. Her work received a well-deserved John Burroughs Medal Award for Natural History Writing. Its gift is its graceful widening of our knowledge and our perception of the world around us.

And for those of you who, like me, want to know about the moss on your rooftop:

Roofing professionals have led homeowners to believe that mosses lead to degradation of the shingles and eventually to leaks…. Allegedly, the moss rhizoids penetrate tiny cracks in the shingles and accelerate their deterioration. However, there is no scientific evidence to support or refute this claim. It seems unlikely that microscopic rhizoids could pose a serious threat to a well-built roof. One technical representative from a shingle company acknowledges that he’s never seen any damage by mosses. A mossy roof can actually protect shingles from the cracking and curling caused by intense exposure to the sun.

Support Neighborhood Businesses: Gathering Moss is carried by Third Place Books in Seward Park, Call ahead to be sure there is a copy on the shelf: 206-474-2200.

~Anne Depue

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