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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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When they arrive each spring they’re called the first mercies of the earth. Commentator Sy Montgomery explains the mysteries of moss.


ROSS: The 18th century British art critic, John Ruskin, called them the "first mercy of the earth." He was talking about mosses. And commentator Sy Montgomery urges you to explore their velvet tapestries for the first signs of spring, and to see in them how humility mingles with strength.

MONTGOMERY: They bask in frigid snowmelt, like a sunbather soaks up rays on a beach. Before the ferns uncoil, before the tree buds burst, before the jack in the pulpit thrusts through the ice, tiny mosses glow green.

Mosses fulfill the prophecy that the meek shall inherit the earth. At the first stroke of spring, the world is theirs. Yet, those of us who don't know better pass by these lovely plants. Maybe that's because mosses are small. Most grow only one-sixteenth of an inch to a few inches tall. And they tend to hide in humble places, between the cracks in sidewalks, in the crevices of tree bark, on the underside of rocks.

Their common name suggests their staggering variety of forms. The humpbacked elves, for instance, are mushroom-like, greenish-black mosses. Knight's plume has light yellow-green feather-like leaves that clothe decaying logs. Names are fanciful. But mosses are disarmingly simple. They're a bunch of tiny, leafy stems, growing so closely together, they form velvety cushions. That's it. They have no roots. They have no flowers. They don't make seeds, but reproduce by spores.

But because their needs are simple, mosses can grow in alpine and arctic wastes, on bare cliffs, on Main Street, in jungles, in backyards, in bogs. Some grow on bones, on feces, on corpses. One species, naturally luminous, glows in the dark of caves. As one writer observed, "They serve as pioneers, carrying life where it could not otherwise be."

This ability to colonize areas too difficult for other plants suggests mosses may have been among the earliest creatures to venture from water to land. They don't fossilize well. So, no one really knows how or when mosses evolved. But one feels something primal about them, a connection to the creation.

Surely, the landscapers of Japan's Buddhist temples knew the value of mosses for soothing the human spirit. There's a temple in Kyoto famous for its five acre garden, filled with too many varieties of mosses to mention here. What better aid to meditation than this simple, ancient, lush blessing. Inviting us to look closely, think deeply, and remember that earth's meekest creatures promise us spring.

[MUSIC: Rolling Stones "Waiting On a Friend"]

ROSS: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of the new book "Encantado: Pink Dolphin of the Amazon." You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.



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