May 27, 2020

The Green that Keeps on Giving

A cushion of moss in the Hudson forest

Janine Pineo Photo | A cushion of moss in the Hudson forest

• By Janine Pineo •

Sublimely surreal.

So I thought as I sat on a bench near the barren vegetable garden under a sky glowing in gold and gray as the sun broke through the fog streaming across the yard.

Over my head hovered a few mosquitoes.

It was Jan. 6.

The temperature was flirting with 60 degrees, and I had a fleeting thought that I ought to be working my way through seed catalogs.

But it was just fleeting.

Moments before, I’d been tramping down a woods trail with my dog, Daisy. The fog was thick across the treetops and the woods hushed as only a foggy day can bring. A mere week before, the trail had a couple of inches of snow on it, but on this day, the bare bones of the forest were swathed in a blur of mist.

Then I noticed how green everything was.

Moss green.

Trees, rocks, ground and path were sporting mossy accents, from a few dots to a full blanket.

Moss is quite the plant. If you were to ask me what kind of moss I was admiring, I would have to plead ignorance 10,000 times over, for there are that many species of moss.

Unless “really green” and “cushiony” count.

Later, as I read about moss on the Wikipedia Web site, I vaguely remembered many of the terms from my high school botany class. Moss is a nonvascular plant, a bryophyte, with a single set of chromosomes (haploid, scientifically speaking) that begins its life as a spore.

Of the seven subclasses of moss, the best known is the Sphagnidae, or peat mosses, which form in bogs. These peat bogs are found mainly in the Northern Hemisphere – we have one in Orono – with the northernmost sites in a Norwegian archipelago, just a hop, skip and jump away from the North Pole.

Peat is added to soil and compost mixes because of its ability to hold up to 20 times its dry weight in water. You also can buy it by the cubic foot at most gardening centers. (There is, however, worldwide controversy about the removal of peat from bogs and the destruction of bog habitat required to harvest peat; if you want an alternative amendment, try coir blocks, which are made from ground coconut shells.)

But peat moss has been used for more than holding water in your garden bed.

For decades, blocks have been cut from bogs and used as fuel in many countries. Peat is used for smoking malt for Scotch whiskey. According to Wikipedia, sphagnum moss was used to dress the wounds of World War I soldiers because of its absorbent nature and for antibacterial properties. And in Finland, when famine struck, peat moss was used to make bread.

Peat bogs are infamous for one more thing: bodies. The conditions in the bogs preserve dead bodies for a long, long time – as in millennia. The oldest bog body, according to Wikipedia, has been dated to 10,000 years old. The most famous include Tolland Man, whose face is so well preserved you might think he died just recently, instead of in the fourth century B.C. A thousand other bodies have been found over the centuries in the bogs of Europe.

It is, perhaps, a good thing I hadn’t read all of this before I stood at the edge of the swamp that skirts the trail behind my house.

Yes, it is a swamp, not a “wetlands,” not a bog. I have only ever called it the swamp, so swamp is what it shall ever be.

The cold rising from the melting swamp ice rolled over me in waves. The fog was lifting as I admired the icy white frozen water, the skeletal trees dotted with lichen, the wisps of golden grass, the mounds of moss.

I felt rich with such a sight on such a day and not so idly wondered what lay down that far path on the opposite side of the frozen water.

Little did I know that I soon would find myself on an Internet rabbit trail for a Pennsylvania company that sells moss. Yes, at Moss Acres, you can buy 5 square feet of moss clumps for $69 to $89, depending on variety. Or you can get your very own 6-inch, moss-covered rock for $39.

Rich, indeed.

And sublimely surreal.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in January 2007.