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A scent of mosses

By Harvena Richter / January 11, 1982



My mind was adrift the other day - as when one ships the oars in a boat and idles with the current - when a rounded tuft of moss hove into view and with it that odd scent of the sea which mosses seem to have, although they may be hundreds of miles from an ocean. The scent surprised me, sharp as it was, and I am reminded that if I let my mind be perfectly still, scenes can appear with their accompanying fragrances, assuring that scent no less than sight or sound is recorded in memory, to be replayed at will.

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That sea-fragrance of mosses goes back a long time to a Pennsylvania farm when, with the aid of a microscope, small white envelopes, and two books on mosses, I managed, at nine years, to be the youngest member of the Sullivant Moss Society, exchanging specimens with other members as far away as Switzerland. Mosses became my lowly but particular kingdom, indeed the only one left to me since my mother specialized in wildflowers and birds, my father in trees, shrubs, ferns, and grasses. The botanizing may have been on an amateur level, but we knew the Latin names - and probably mispronounced many of them - of any specimen we could recognize. Those Latin names seemed to me far more than a label; in some mysterious way they embodied each delicately membraned moss. Catharinaea, Hypnum, Thuidium, Sphagnum, Ptilium, Mnium were passwords to a magic place. Like Alice's looking glass, my hand lens would shrink me into that small inverted world in which mosses were trees, or ferns, or plumes, or even tiny dragons with green interlocking scales. For everything about mosses was marvelous to a child, especially their way of miniaturizing the natural or fabricated world. Even their setae, aloft on thin wire stems, were diminutive niblicks, crescents, cups, goblets, globes, cricket bats, an encyclopedia of shapes that fascinated as each new moss was discovered.

Sphagnum moss had a special appeal, for it grew in swamps, like the Enterline swamp over the mountain where we sometimes went botanizing for orchises and lady slippers. Seen mainly today in great dry bundles for peat, it resembled then nothing more than vertical colonies of tiny saturated sponges, forming its own soft furry turf into which boots sank deeply. The word, as I learned later, has a Greek origin, as does the word sponge. And I wonder how much a word's history - which includes its landscape - has to do with our attitude toward what it represents. Certainly the curve and rise of a word, its vocal shape or silhouette, helps to form our reactions. The finely branched thuidium delicatulum retains for me a delicacy fashioned not only from its appearance but from the thin, graceful armouring of the word itself, the voicelss th with the light echo of voiced d's, the u's and resonant m's fitting into each other like the most fragile bone into its socket. It is at this point where language, whether spoken or simply thought, melts into form which is apprehended whole. A moss cannot be divided leaf from leaf but exists as a completeness created out of memory, sea-smell, word-shape, touch-form, of the remote lands where the word was born, the far shores where the plant itself first saw light.

I remember taking out dried specimens from those little white envelopes and putting them in water, to have them turn green and living again, their ocean fragrance permanently stored in invisible sea-salts. I still have a drawer of them, labeled in an incredibly childish hand, and I sometimes wonder whether I dare put them to that test after so many years and know that I will not. It is enough to begin with the memory of a sea-scent and end in prehistory on an Aegean island.