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Today I saw a moss thief. Now I know I’m not the only one.

Some small trees planted at a busy intersection on Woodward Avenue have giant mounds of mulch called “death collars” piled up around their trunks. I see the trees every time I have to stop at the red light on my way to the store. The mounds are probably too high to allow the tree roots much air, and the landscape company sprays chemicals on the mounds to kill all the weeds. In the absence of other plants, and in the shade of the little trees, the mounds have developed a sumptuous covering of moss over the past year. I’ve admired the moss many times.

Today a fellow on a bike had stopped under the trees, and was carefully cutting out a patch of moss. His arm movements, his hunched posture, everything about him suggested moss theft. The only other possible action was a random act of bulb planting, which I’ve also considered. But it’s January, way past the time to plant bulbs, so I think he was rescuing moss.

Stealing or saving moss amounts to the same thing. Moss is considered a pest and a threat by many gardeners. One friend whose gardening advice I would otherwise respect warned me to “get all that moss out of your garden before it kills everything in its path.” She thought I was being lazy or careless by letting moss grow. She didn’t understand that I wanted moss, that I deliberately took it from the lawn, carefully pulled the grass out of it, and planted it on the north side of my house. She didn’t understand that I stole it from my neighbor’s lawn, too. So I will confess right now: I am a moss thief.

I love moss. It’s not like some kind of serial killer or fundamentalist army tearing down civilization. It’s just moss. It’s not a threat. It’s a solution. Do you have space between rocks or patio stones? Let the moss grow and you won’t have so many weeds or so much erosion of the soil. Wet shady area under a tree? Stop planting grass every ten minutes and make a moss carpet. Moss in the lawn? Let it take over and you won’t have to mow. Moss on a wall? Love it and enjoy it, or leave your fancy house to a plebian like me who will embrace the beauty of its age. Really, if you’re rich and live in an old brick house and feel frustrated by all the moss you may want to consider donating your home to someone who will appreciate it.

I love moss. Moss says there is just a little neglect, just a little age, just a little nod to the relentless gods of time. Moss says we are not new and shiny, but we can be classic. Moss says primordial rules still apply. Moss softens the ground it envelops. Moss makes you bend down and get your nose dirty to see the landscape. Moss can be a carpet, a cushion, and a time capsule. Moss doesn’t change very fast. Moss takes the bare dirt between plants and transforms it into a magic carpet to the past.

Preserving the past in the present is one worthwhile goal of gardening. While politics and social norms and aesthetics need to constantly evolve and change, the garden is one place where stability, repetition and old age can be embraced. What a relief to sit back and watch the landscape not change. In a world of frivolous ephemeral information lacking substance or consistency, a world where opinions and customs change and disappear before they can be evaluated or comprehended by most people with day jobs, moss just stays the same.

Moss can take a few years to cover an area, so I understand, empathize, and advocate for all moss thieves. That mound beneath the overly landscaped trees will get sprayed with toxic chemicals this spring to kill the moss and any weed that dares poke its precocious little head above ground. The man on the bicycle was saving moss, and doing it openly, right on the busy corner of Woodward Avenue for all the world to see. Hail the moss thief. He’s my hero.

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