Friday, December 6, 2019

Moss Survival

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I was hanging out with my wife who'd chosen a comfortable vantage point to break out her watercolors and immerse her imagination in the very dry woodland of Doug fir, live oak, and madrone that we were still experiencing despite it being very near the end of November. Every footfall was a crunchy reminder of the threat of drought, the sound of inspiration running dry.

With some effort, I managed to put aside my disappointment with the fact that my favorite time of year on Mt. Tam -- the rainy season -- had yet to begin. I stood before a furry oak and admired the stoic bryophytes cloaking its trunk. I sensed right off that my feeling of disappointment was a luxury not shared by the wild, and that if I wanted to hear the voice of the wild I would have to put myself in the shoes of the moss, the trees, and the ferns; the gray foxes, bobcats, and opossums; the red-shafted flickers, acorn woodpeckers, and varied thrushes. 

It's dry, buddy. Deal with it.

Which brings me back to our moss, Dendroalsia abietina, or Plumed Moss, which like all mosses lacks the water-storage cells adopted by flowering plants such as the oaks upon which they grow. Moss tends to be about as wet or dry as the air around it, and here on Mt. Tam it has to be able to deal with being dry for months before suddenly becoming wet again. When it gets very dry, highly intricate and complex chemistry and genetics come into play to protect the plant from being damaged by one of the main products of its own photosynthesis: oxygen.

I'm surprised that I never learned in school that oxygen almost wiped out life on Earth around 2.4 billion years ago, when life was still just the simplest kind of single-celled critter. Without the Great Oxygen Catastrophe, life might have continued in that way to this day. Maybe life had to get squeezed through a bottleneck (kicking and screaming, no doubt) to evolve. In a very early case of "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger," that cell-burning oxygen was eventually harnessed (for good instead of evil!), sending evolution into overdrive. Okay, maybe not overdrive. It would take another 2 billion years for life to work its magic of sending our aquatic forebears to colonize the land and finally to fabricate the first mosses (and in just another 50 million years -- the blink of an eye -- along would come the first flowering plants).

The first moss: 475 million years ago. The first humans: 2 million years ago. How do I even form a concept of time that my mind can grasp, where mosses were proliferating upon the Earth for some 470 million years before Homo erectus came along? There are more than 10,000 species of moss, but only one species of Homo.

When I first crunched through dry oak leaves to observe the curled, dry tendrils of the Plumed Moss shown above, a lot of the disappointment I'd been feeling about the possibility of a drought year was tied in with the fact that humans, with our self-induced climate crisis, are making things tougher for life forms such as moss. But if I think about everything mosses have been through over the last nearly half-billion years, like surviving several mass extinctions, my knot of stress about the harm we're doing loosens quite a bit.

But only as far as moss is concerned.

It's kind of fascinating (as Spock might observe on some strange planet) that life has evolved into a form that threatens its own and other forms of itself with extinction. Don't worry though. "Life will find a way," as they say. Unfortunately, getting through whatever course-changing bottleneck we're setting up will probably not be a joy ride.

In the meantime I'll take joy in closely observing a photograph of ordinary moss, of allowing my mind's eye to roam among its lines, shapes, colors, and cellulosic textures. To ponder without forming thoughts, to meditate, to grok.

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