Our protagonist moss appears on a slope denuded of invasive ivy, some of it poisonous, torn out by the roots. The north slope, of course. The north is where the moss comes from, and the north is where the moss settles. Why? Because moss is green and the north is white and they must bid each other adieu, mismatched lovers? Or because the north is generous and gift-giving? Here, says the north, I send you…moss.
Possibly, but if that were so, wouldn’t the north perform such a feat by means of its whistling, tumultuous wind? And if that were so, wouldn’t the north wind, in contrast to all other winds, be tinctured green because it bears within it not just snow and sleet but minuscule spores of moss by the millions and billions?
We take our characteristic stance in evaluating which way the wind is blowing and where north lies. This means we cock our heads. This means we feel with our faces, then resort to our wetted fingers, then look up at the leaves to see how they flutter, then stare into the azure absence of the sky and use the cloud banks as background to detect that subtle hue of the most subtle of all heroes, moss.
Not there. No intimation of wind-borne moss aloft and at ease with its green tail snapping through the heavens. Therefore we look down at our feet and wonder: Did it somehow crawl from the north? Is it not the north’s gift but its escapee?
These vaguely troubling thoughts yield more vaguely troubling thoughts. Did we–you and I– step on moss while walking in the woods, unintentionally crushing it, so that some squashed specks clung to the soles of our massive boots (relatively speaking), hopped the wall with us, and brought that first microscopic colony of spores into our lives? Quite possibly we’ve been hitchhiked. Quite possibly we and the moss are fatefully intertwined.
Moss is very slow. It evaluates and acquires land not by invasion but more by the mystery of not-there and then there, simply there, one faint brushstroke, then another and another. In painting this is called impasto, a thickening texturing of the oils that gives them depth, a glistening geography. Although you should never run your hand over a painting to feel its ridges and valleys and rivers and plains, you absolutely must run your hand over moss to feel its comparable wonders.
Moss is velvety, spongy, delicate and yet resilient. We want our fingers, our cheeks, even our chests to touch it. Moss wants this, too. She’s feminine, moss. Our protagonist is feminine, a vulnerable heroine who crumbles into a kind of nothing if we do not treat her gently. Those glistening mounded archipelagoes must be caressed, not roughly robbed of their life-giving patina of moisture.
For of course our moss, all moss, is moist. Moisture stirs it to explore the stillest, most beautiful places: the overhanging bank of a stream, where moss embroiders itself; in between the bricks of the walkway and flagstones of the patio, up tree trunks and rain spouts.
Almost anywhere, in fact. Moss several inches thick covers rooftops in Japan. Old roofs, ancient roofs, forever roofs. Yes, it’s so. As long as there is a north, there will always be moss, and how can there never be a north? If there were no north, there would be no other directions either. We would be lost, tossing and turning in a bundle of chaos very much like…moss.
In this theater of our lives, where we are sporadically attentive, welcoming intermissions, adjusting ourselves in our seats, daydreaming, we haven’t been aware how dramatically the barren stage has been transformed over the years by the plush, familiar, restful, sweet presence of moss building up its role, acquiring what we call character, exposing itself openly through sheer, abandoned repose. Then we feel a draft, a mere puff, a breath of air warm and sensuous, almost an erotic tickle. No one, thought we, ever considered us out here in the darkness of merely being ourselves. We have had little role and no character until this light whisper grazed our faces and throats and ruffled our hair. Nor wanted any. If life was to be a drama of moss, then let us, as near as possible, be moss ourselves.
But we are listening and alert now. Not moss-like. Within the moss and yet beyond the moss.
Above the north slope stand the oaks, the pear tree, the walnut and dogwood watching the moss as we watch the moss, beginning to realize that the moss has become so lush that exploring it the way one would explore a lover’s body has become forbidden. That’s what we heard and felt, a sigh. Our sigh. Somehow the moss has told us that after all these years it has acquired an untouchable beauty and we may not go there. It’s too beautiful. It’s too intriguingly sensuous and shadowy and multi-hued and vulnerable.
We are now in a precarious equipoise, our lives here, the moss’s life there. It is sickening to know that, wrenching. No wonder that after so much silent inattentive, imperfect worship we sighed, beauty having transcended us, beauty having left us behind.
Briefly one morning a mushroom appears and then goes away. Another three or four appear and go away. A storm snaps off thin branches and they pierce the moss like arrows and remain stuck there. Life and death, mushrooms and spindly branches, the eyes and the heart, the past and the present, the mystery of the topology of the flowing, thickening, imperceptibly living, glistening moss and that soft draft, that whispering message, that omen brushing our skin.
We dare not go out and remove the arrow-branches. The mushrooms? We would never step on them as when we were kids. This drama, in its second act, has managed some kind of pivot. The moss has become a kind of mirror that reflects nothing but itself and yet contains us within it. There lie our hearts. We are in the moss’s coils. All these years we have loved and adored it and more than that: believed in it and its secrets, which were our secrets, shared with no one including ourselves…until now.
Thankfully, we are seated because the antagonist is among us, and we know who he is: each of us in our fated way, each of us less dazzling than the moss, aging less beautifully than the moss.
In counterpoint more than one of us thinks that the moss, then, is the villain, not us. What a thought, what a betrayal, but understandable. Behold, the grave blanket from the north spreading our way, mortality tearing at our joints, making our lips crack and fingers ache while the moss heals its own wounds, ever more dazzling, ever more lush and profound.
Moss, we think, stay where you are.
Moss, we think, now that you are among us, between our toes, climbing our ankles, just as we once dreamed, be slower than ever before.
For at last we grasp this drama’s meaning and burden. What we felt for the story of the moss isn’t what the moss felt. The moss is not heartless or cruel, far from it, but it is forever and we are not.