Of Moss and Mind

When I planned my year of mundane history, I never thought I’d read about moss. Moss isn’t as ubiquitous as water, sand, or chickens. And frankly, I wouldn’t have expected to find a worthwhile book about moss. This one, Gathering Moss, was an unexpected gift. It didn’t look like something I’d ever pick out for myself. It looked like a drab field guide from an obscure state park, or required reading for some sort of Vibing With Plants class. But I cracked it open and wow, did I come to love that book.

The author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, has an infectious love for moss and a disarming way with words. She makes a dozen types of moss into vivid, memorable characters who yearn, socialize, strategize, clash, collaborate, eat, live and die and regenerate. Her essays are excellent pieces of creative nonfiction—packed with scientific insight yet also warm and personal. I didn’t memorize names of species to count off when I walk through a forest. Instead, I learned a new fondness and awe for them. Every bed of moss is a tiny forest full of alien creatures. She makes moss come alive (as if it weren’t already).

But here’s the thing; how many of us really understand it’s alive? Moss looks and feels like carpet. Maybe a little wetter. With no face or voice, it can’t interact with us on equal terms, and few of us care to stop and approach it as another living presence.

Let’s be honest, we can watch other humans and still wonder what in tarnation happens inside their heads. Not a one of us will ever know exactly. We have to assume and interpret from external signals, analogizing with our private experience. This is the problem of other minds. It’s an act of generosity, and reasoning, practicality, imagination, and trust.

So when the external signals are not quickly apparent, we (typical Westerners) struggle to extend the same respect. The further from human, the less esteem we place on its life. Plants are all difficult to empathize with, especially moss where the group and the individual are impossible to separate.

Are forests worth preserving only if or because we need them to survive? The Overstory makes use of a clever thought experiment for analogy: some tiny aliens come to Earth and discover us, humans, all over the planet in cities and villages. These alien colonists live and die in the space of one or two seconds. Many of their generations pass during one of our minutes. Yet for them, one lifetime feels like a full span of time; just the same as our six or eight decades feel to us. On that timescale, we humans seem fixed, rooted, unchanging features of the landscape. They can tap our bodies for water or harvest our organs too fast for any one of us to comprehend the situation and respond. Nor could we really negotiate for themselves.

Compared to grand trees and ancient forests, we are the little aliens. Trees in general have occupied the planet longer than humans, and some living trees predate the pyramids at Giza. They, especially the very old ones, barely seem alive to us. They don’t commute, love, make or break laws, play, invent machines to cross the world in mere hours. And our perception, the seeming, often overpowers our thinking and feeling powers that could bridge the gap.

If you’ve read many of my short stories, you’ll notice my fascination for nonhuman perspectives. I love to consider the experience of being a whole different kind of organism. It will always be a flawed venture to discuss nonhuman experience with human language, but I believe it’s worth the effort. It can stretch the imagination. It can teach us to appreciate more than ourselves, and to appreciate ourselves more.

In considering the setting for Invertex, I researched xeno- and astrobiology, the search for life beyond Earth and all related speculations about how life on other planets might compare with ours. We can only extrapolate from what we know, all of which relies on water. There is also some conjecture about a shadow biosphere, a hypothetical world of life forms we just don’t recognize. Things that could even be familiar parts of our world here on Earth. This could include silicon-based life (rocks! sand!), an old sci-fi trope like you find in that Star Trek episode. Alien life could instead metabolize methane, ammonia, even language or gravity—to really stretch the limits. Depends in part on what definition of life we’re using.

Something that thinks on a scale of eons can have no meaningful contact with us. Even if we rallied over ten thousand generations to have a conversation with it, we would only get to say “Hi, Lovely Weather Today”—and it would be like “I Don’t Know Weather, Please Introduce” just in time for us to go extinct.

Decentering humanity is one of the best ways to learn about humans and our place in the universe. If you want to think outside the human, join Robin Wall Kimmerer on a journey to the realm of moss.

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