Book Review – Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

Book by Robin Wall Kimmerer  2003 Oregon State University Press

Book Review by EV Mel Langdon

This enthralling collection of essays is at once wide-ranging and focused. Dr. Kimmerer entrancingly weaves stories about the role of mosses in plant communities with the study of bryophytes. Then she relates these relationships through analogy with our shared daily human experiences, whether humorous or poignant. For instance, she describes how different species of sphagnum moss build up hummocks around bog lakes, gradually producing micro-environments for the succession of terrestrial plants. Within transition zones between bog and solid ground are “quaking” bogs: such fun to dance and bounce on. 

Never knew that moss reproduction was so fascinating.

Several themes arise in this book that environmental volunteers will appreciate. One is attention to detail, observing and reflecting on what we see. Notice the spacing, density, color, and character of different kinds of moss on the very same tree or log. She describes how she observed, experimented, and discovered how one species of moss selects how it will reproduce, asexually or sexually, based on the density of its own colony! A second theme is the effect of disturbances and how these are essential for species diversity. Disturbance can range from a storm that causes widespread tree-fall to a small sloughing of bark off of a downed log, leading to a new environment for moss to colonize. Another theme is appreciating the spectrum of time required for mosses – and forests – to establish. The time horizon can be short: the brief roll of a raindrop transporting moss parts to a new place to grow. Or long: the decades required to coat a douglas fir with a cloth of moss. Different moss species on trees establish at different times depending on the trees’ age meaning there is even succession in mosses! Finally, the theme of reciprocity echos through the final chapters. Dr. Kimmerer describes in loving detail mutual benefits conferred by moss, birds, trees, and insects. This opens our eyes to the connectedness of the smallest and largest of things.

This book exudes warmth, awe, and respect for our marvelous world in a personal and down-to-earth style. You might want to call her up and relate a similar experience you had yourself. The stories will remind you to bring along (and take time to use!) your hand lens next time you’re out. And to pause and reflect how your observations relate to your own life experiences.  “How amazing to live in such a world where order arises from the seeming coincidence of the smallest things.”

The EV book group especially liked the gold moss found in caves as it is so specialized but the photos didn’t live up to the descriptions.