Join the Club (Moss)!

One of the best things about being out in nature is the absolutely limitless supply of opportunities to learn. On par with that plus are the many reasons for hope and delight to be found in places as seemingly humble as the forest floor.

My latest study—and also hopeful venture—is club moss. This link leads to the inaturalist page for Connecticut club moss sightings. I am particularly enamored of running pine moss, which really does look to me like a little figure that’s about to dash off a la the Gingerbread Man of childhood story books (it’s pictured in above link)! But most often, in the Cockaponset State Forest behind our house, I see princess pine:

2015-11-05 07.54.11

According to inaturalist its spores used to be used as flash powder (in early photography or magic tricks ). I know if I tell Gavin he’ll want to try that out pronto, and preferably with bushels of spores. Come to think of it, some adults I know would be right on that, too. (Can’t vouch for how to do this, or for safety. Also, some states list the plant as endangered, likely a result of earlier enthused harvesting.)

This Massachusetts land trust’s site has a nice write-up about the princess pine. What I like best about this diminutive species, which is not a pine at all, is its evergreen-ness. It comforts me when I think ahead to the depths of winter. It is also such a pretty and precise-looking plant.

Before I read The Beginning Naturalist by Gale Lawrence, I’d assumed that the princess pine and other similar club mosses were baby evergreen trees. But they are already fully grown, and they are not in the conifer family. Confusingly, the club mosses are not mosses, either. They are closer to ferns. The “club” refers to the club or spike that shoots right up from the plant—it is coated with a fine layer of spores. The growth from spore to mature plant takes a full 17 years, but some plants can also grow by sprouting along the same stem.

Gale Lawrence’s chapter on these plants amused me, because she refers to the “attacks of the Christmas decorators.” Determined crafters let loose in the woods can pull up whole long underground stems of club mosses for weaving into wreaths, wiping out that impressive life cycle with one good yank. Even without the greenery of Christmas in mind, it is a bit tempting to imagine taking one of these miniature (non) trees home. But the happy-seeming plant has worked too hard to become a pet. Best to visit it in its “home in the loam,” beside its mushroom, acorn, and looming tree neighbors.

BONUS photo for those who read to the end! 😉 : the decorative lichens (or could they be mushrooms??) adorning a stump in our yard! This is just a bit blurry, but I can’t be the only one who thinks these are simply gorgeous.

2015-11-10 07.25.39


Dirt—I mean Soil—Rocks!

I picked up an older nature book today. I was twelve when it was published, and that summer in 1979 I wandered hills and meadows not far from where Gale Lawrence published The Beginning Naturalist in Shelburne, Vermont.

At first I was a little antsy about how very basic the book was, with chapters like “Winter Trees” and “Robins.” It’s not that I don’t appreciate both heartily, but this book falls more into the “informational” than the “lyrical” category. I am impressed by the dazzle of both words and nature and this reads more like a series of little talks a trail guide might present; not too many word arabesques and pirouettes!

But when I flipped through the pages, it didn’t take long to realize that I needed just such a basic guide. I was particularly struck by how little I knew about dirt! Okay, make that soil (turns out they mean different things: dirt is basically soil that’s left its original ecological home).

Probably well before that 1979 copyright, I must have learned about the origins of soil in school. But I honestly haven’t thought much about it since—how soil is basically weathered and eroded rock, mixed in with what plants and animals contribute. Lots of things work on the rock, which is so misunderstood as an immutable object—it’s changed by wind and rain, plants, and the acid secreted by lichens (which are actually algae and fungi working together). When lichens die, they disintegrate and mix with tiny rock fragments, and the resulting little patch of dust nestled in a tiny crack can be the perfect home for a new plant. On and on it goes until there’s more plant than rock.

Trying to watch the process would be eons longer than watching paint dry, but I appreciate that it’s happening in slo mo, with that verdigris color, that patina so many lichens sport a fitting hue for such a worthy vintage endeavor.

John Muir had a way of getting at the interconnectedness that sometimes a good nature book, and often a long walk, can convey. In My First Summer in the Sierra, he wrote:

Everything is flowing — going somewhere, animals and so-called lifeless rocks as well as water. Thus the snow flows fast or slow in grand beauty-making glaciers and avalanches; the air in majestic floods carrying minerals, plant leaves, seeds, spores, with streams of music and fragrance; water streams carrying rocks… While the stars go streaming through space pulsed on and on forever like blood…in Nature’s warm heart.

PS: I’m adding a new link here on the site to Mile…Mile & A Half, a movie about a hike along the John Muir trail. It’s a real cinematic treat for anyone who loves to walk, loves nature, and especially for those who hope to hit a long trail with a serious backpack someday.