Illustration of dicranum moss by Fiona Glen
Heal Underfoot: Moss as a Model for Ongoing
Eco-critical essay for Practicing Exposure, a collaborative edition of Simulacrum Magazoine with FIBER, Amsterdam.
Published January 2020. Visit simulacrum.nl for more information & to subscribe. Dicranum moss illustration by Fiona Glen, sphagnum cell image from Wikicommons.
I live on an island that is ragged with inlets and called Great Britain. Two thousand years ago this land was matted with dozens of nations, locally-articulated languages and earth-based faiths. The tribes that once inhabited Britannia/Albion wiped their bottoms, bodies and new-born babies clean with sphagnum moss. Thirsty, sterile and antiseptic, this tendrilled thing also made excellent wound dressings. Pulled from the wet land and rotting wood, it was dried, bundled and wadded to kiss the bleeding edges of injured Celts and Picts. Non-incidentally, I believe, the Roman historian Diodorus Siculus described the Brittonic peoples he encountered as ‘like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane’ – or perhaps, a mossy bank. Sphagnum is a Latin word, and I imagine the Romans mopped their invasion-related wounds with this utility.
In the glen behind my maternal family home in the Scottish Lowlands, the information sank into my spongy child mind – that this green, wet, fingersome thing was the forest-dwelling forebear of toilet paper, nappies, and bandages. It was a fact I absorbed, masticated mentally, and keenly regurgitated. In my one-child craze, aged eight, for wilderness survival, this was tangible proof that we could live in and with woodlands. Here – I could touch into this past, the sphagnum, in nearby rain-soaked places left sufficiently to their own devices.
The moss seems all the more majestic to me for its lineage of wiping. A most caring type of taking-away; a timeless, tireless act that is mundane and tender and small. Don’t worry – your parent, healer, lover, or friend teases the dirt from your wound. The sullied wad is tramped back into the earth, its cells and yours feeding other beings, and the sphagnum sprouts again, growing your care into a place.
Moss is almost impossible to cultivate forcefully. It chooses where to move. Moss springs back from our footsteps, if we let it. Moss is sensitive and resilient, a model for pressing times.
Remembering mosses, we imagine life that permeates our bodies, and thousands of tardigrade bodies held in each handful of blur-soft green. Holding such tangled and overlooked organisms at the heart of our stories can counter our leaning towards verticality – an assumption that all perspectives resemble ours – and fight our desire for up-standing heroes who can only gaze to the sky. Where the many bodies of the moss are wriggling, reaching, networked, we find a fertile place to rethink kindness and survival.
Image: sphagnum moss cell structure, sourced from Wiki