What Moss Has to Teach Us About Gratitude

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a plant ecologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.  She also is an eloquent writer who makes the natural world shimmer with her descriptions.  Her book Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses will make you see moss in a new light.  And once you see moss differently, you will start to appreciate more fully the rest of nature and its role in our lives.

I was particularly struck by the chapter The Forest Gives Thanks to the Mosses.  Kimmerer relates the various ways that mosses benefit the rest of the forest.  She imagines the trees and soils and animals giving thanks to the mosses for what they do.  Ever since I read this chapter my walks in the woods have been different.  I notice moss and begin to appreciate its diversity.  It is on rocks and fallen logs.  It climbs tree trunks and spreads across the forest floor, holding rain fall and changing micro-climates throughout the woods.

Mosses that Kimmerer imagines being thanked by other parts of the forest are a metaphor for our lives.  We see a way to be like the forest trees.  We begin to recognize those things around us that contribute to our lives in seemingly insignificant but actually meaningful ways.  From this experience we can see how the prevailing politics of dissatisfaction that infects our culture is not only unhealthy but also misplaced.  Despite the many challenges of modern society, most of us in this country live lives of unprecedented material wealth.  We are like trees that are sustained by mosses, even though we do not always express gratitude the way Kimmerer imagines the trees giving thanks.

Some of this human wellbeing we enjoy is at a cost to the very natural world that contributes to our wellbeing.  As an example, Kimmerer tells in this book of the costs to the forests of Oregon from the harvest of mosses for use in ephemeral flower arrangements.  We take without thinking so that our flower arrangements are more “natural,” without appreciating what is lost in the forests stripped of these mosses.

Just as forests are diminished by the harvest of moss for human pleasures, society suffers when we focus on only what we don’t have (why aren’t I as rich as Donald Trump) and forget to be grateful for all that we do have (we are among the wealthiest humans in history).  Mosses and their forests can help us learn to make this shift from grousing to gratitude.

Kimmerer captures this feeling when she says, “The patterns of reciprocity by which mosses bind together a forest community offer us a vision of what could be.  They take only the little that they need and give back in abundance.  Their presence supports the lives of rivers and clouds, trees, birds, algae, and salamanders, while ours puts them at risk.  Human-designed systems are a far cry from this ongoing creation of ecosystem health, taking without giving back. …I hold tight to a vision that someday soon we will find the courage of self-restraint, the humility to live like the mosses.  On that day, when we rise to give thanks to the forest, we may hear the echo in return, the forests giving thanks to the people.”

In my next walk in the woods, I will join with the trees and find a patch of moss to thank.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.