Bipolar Moss Sympoeitiques
Finding the words is another step in learning to see.
- Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss
Very small and green, most of the time; ubiquitous and yet rarely noticed, modest and yet as old as life when it finally got out of the ancestral waters; weird and intriguing provided one cares to actually look at them, a minor form of life. One used to say “primitive” or even “inferior”, barely hiding his disdain. How come, no flowers? No roots, nothing that makes it look like a plant… can we define them only by what they lack? But how do they hold on? What do they eat? How do they reproduce, and why do they survive? When we ask, one answers oh that, it is only moss. Gardeners want to get rid of it, no one eats it or makes tisane out of it, nobody has ever heard of a miracle cure they provide. Less than nothing, insignificant, at best some sort of poor man’s combustible, matter for a cat pillow or sponges for those who live too far from the sea. It has been said that in the old times they were used to quench menstrual blood.
A little over two years ago, we started noticing them, these mosses. We do not even remember why or how. We might have been looking for a living antithesis to the famished polar bear… their sobriety instantly seduced us. Immediately though, their false simplicity dissolved in the torrents of words, more exotic one than another, needed to describe them. Tomentose or tumid, often cespitose, pulvinate, pellucid or pinnate, putting up in the early spring winds their carinate, mitrate or strumous calyptrae they soon seduced us with the poetics necessary to enter their world. A new language, that felt like making alive what it intended to represent.
Mosses are the residual scum, the permanent froth; they are the long-lasting memory of the grounding of their algal ancestors on the dried shores of a receding primordial ocean. Bryophytes, their scientific name, means what grows, what multiply and proliferate; from the Greek brúon, “moss”, and the verb brúo, to grow in abundance, to ferment as in embryo, and phutón, “plant, vegetal” from phyein. to grow, probably form the proto Indo-European root-stem *bheue, “to be, to exist, to grow”. Their etymology is redundant, witness to their resoluteness, their determination to be of this world, to belong here, wherever this is: on rocks and walls, bogs and wood, acid of alkaline soils, wherever.
They exist at some scales we can barely comprehend, in space and time. They are usually somewhat invisible even when they lay right under our nose, or we perceive them as a carpet, a mattress, a cushion; they exist in numbers only. Who has ever considered an individual moss? They are slow, so slow that we often take them for dead. They live in deep time, geological time, the time of eras and eons. They are the first terrestrial descent of the perpetrators of the great oxidation, mighty and terraforming. Since then, they inhabit the cracks and breaches, and are known to grow where nothing else can. They are often the first to revive on burnt land, they expand even in Winter and don’t fear any frost. They suffer no predators nor diseases or so little. Their substrate is for support only, they do not really need a soil—they are even known for creating it. They proliferate in any dimensions and make light of gravity—well they do not weight anything and live out of water and fresh air, as the song goes.
I had never really paid any attention to them, says the mushroom hunter. At best did they offer a background for my precious chanterelles, or my exquisite morels. But what a background—the only one that fits these moments of ecstasy, when a ray of sunlight, finding its way through the canopy, hits the bright yellow or the shiny grey of their caps over the soft green setting. Or, as the poet better said it, but unfortunately in an untranslatable way, in un petit val qui mousse de rayons. I was looking for something tender and uncertain, but something quietly uncertain; something that would have been hesitating without making a fuss of it, something oddly imponderable and unavoidable and yet with a weak presence. To put in other words, I was looking for a resting place, an antidote to the insignificant buzzing of the world, to the froth of our busy days. That is what the forest has meant to me since I was a kid. To walk in the forest. I would often walk in the forest looking for mushrooms, only to find myself daydreaming over some mosses. Once, I remember, I actually looked at them, really, slowly—I had all my time; they were many, and small.
Oh well, then I forgot them. I had other things in mind, I was working on something else, as we say. Oh well, once that work was over, and I did not want to ever work again on something, but rather with something, they came back to me. I was preparing for a new course on communication and the environment, and I was reading all this literature in depth for the first time, all these words on ecology, climate change and global warming, the so-called Anthropocene. I think it clicked in my mind when I finally realized that the circumpolar regions of the globe are those which warm up the most. I asked myself what form of life could attest of it in the most convincing and yet less spectacular way. This is how I got to the bipolar mosses.
Bipolar bryophytes are mosses showing a disjunct distribution on Earth: they grow in high-latitudinal areas of both the Northern (NH) and Southern Hemispheres (SH), with or without small intermediate populations at higher elevations in the tropics. They are quite common; bryologists estimate that 45% of all mosses growing in the Antarctic are bipolar. Yet, although they have intrigued them for a while, they can hardly explain why some of these mosses are characterized by these sometime extreme disjunct distributions.