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“The Low Plants”




I have a real affinity for the low plants as they are sometimes referred to – the mosses, the lichens, the ferns. Having boldly declared this love, I have also been wondering what that might be rooted in. When I encounter them, I sense an immediate connection – a oneness – I am at home with them. A lush green carpet of moss feels welcoming – the color, the texture speaks to me. For many years I kept a small piece of a pine branch covered with lichen on my mantle at home in Connecticut. It was a talisman of sorts – the promise of my someday Cape Cod home – gathered up from a property we had secured for future use. But I was fascinated by the variety in just that small space. Flat wavy pieces and feathery upright clumps, tiny white flowers. I assumed them to be dead – all dry and unchanging, but now I am not so sure! There was a corner beside the porch in our Harwich yard – shaded with occasional dappled sunlight – mossy with ferns popping up. Lily of the Valley in the springtime, Solomon Seals as the season wore on. I delighted in this spot! I can’t say it put me over the edge in terms of purchase, but it certainly helped. All of these occur in my present yard and there is a sense of peace as I meander along the stone pathways.


Last fall I picked up a copy of “Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award for Natural History Writing, on a quest to unearth the roots of my deep love. In it she presents an interesting amalgam of Indigenous knowledge from her own life path and the science of bryology, which she has studied in depth, and has taught at the college level. It turns out that a lot of the things we call mosses aren’t mosses at all, but lichens or flowering plants or algae. True mosses are one of the most primitive of land plants, lacking flowers or fruits or seeds or even roots, they have no vascular system to transport water internally. They are made up of stems and leaves and evolution has produced some 22,000 species, variations on a theme she says, designed for success in tiny niches of myriad ecosystems.

Lichens, I have learned, are also some of the world’s oldest life forms – part algae and part fungi – having appeared on the scene as waters covering the whole of the earth receded and conditions were ripe for their joining and evolutionary march onto land. So, let me just point to this fact: that all happened some 500 million years or so ago. Liverworts are generally considered to have been first! Ferns are the young ones on the scene, maybe about 360 million years ago. All three of these life forms are ancient, primitive, simple, and elegant. And I am going to venture that these qualities hold something of their draw for me! But the initial qualities that come to mind as I research this topic are patience, resilience, interdependence, and an understanding of reciprocity that bubbles up in their midst.

Half a billion years is a long time to hang around! It’s a long time to wait! We have become accustomed to instant responses in our living. We want things done and we want them done now! We want answers! We want to complete Task A and move on to Task B, crossing things off the ‘to-do’ list, moving them from next to finished. There is a sense of accomplishment when this happens, so it is self-perpetuating. Completion is satisfying so more of it must be more so. I can fall into this trap fairly easily. I am somewhat task oriented. A coworker once commented that I always look busy, and I am not sure if it was a compliment or something that aggravated their sense of malaise. In a system where there is little reward for keeping after it all, I was a bit of an anomaly I suppose. Maybe this is true for some of you, too. Waiting can make us anxious, leaving us with that uneasy feeling in the gut. If we spend any amount of time pondering it, we might devolve into self-criticism or worse, judging others who are not on our timeline.


Mosses, it turns out, have this ability to die back, to dry out, but not to really be dead at all. All signs of life are extinguished as they enter a state of anabiosis. They are just waiting for the right conditions to come along, this period of desiccation is just a temporary interruption. They are waiting for the next dewdrop in order to spring to life and to have their spores transported only centimeters away where new life might form. There is no tapping of the foot or repeated glances at their watch. There is no wondering, ‘why?’. It simply is. And so, they wait. Days or seasons or years even. Their patience is astounding. What are you waiting for? What are we waiting for here as a community of faith? And can we pay attention to the conditions that arise in our little corner of the world, making ready a place for us make our nest move? Can we trust that those conditions will appear and spend our effort in noticing what is going on around us? Or must we take matters into our own hands and attempt to manufacture what we might then move into? Big questions, as always, I am afraid!

Kimmerer suggests that our landscape is like a partially completed puzzle. There are specific pieces that alone will fit into the openings. In the world of forests this is known as gap dynamics. It turns out that a clump of moss the size of which fits into the palm of your hand is a microcosm of the larger forest in which it lives. Under the microscope you can see it – each little stem like a fir or a pine – each drop of water like a summer rainfall. Sometimes in the world of mosses it takes a disturbance to create an opening free of competition that it can spread into and renew itself, these spaces essential to its survival. If we follow this process by way of analogy, what might it say for us? Let’s pretend that we are this Tetraphis pellucida for a minute, our lives intertwined with the forces of disturbance in our community. Suddenly a gap appears, and we see in ourselves the ability to fill it. And in so doing we are renewed, we expand into the environment that awaits us. I am reminded that just this spring we agreed to charter the local Boy Scout Troop. This happened when their original charter was no longer available to them. We were made aware and our leadership did some research and had some serious discussions about whether or not this was a good thing for us. And once we were convinced that it was space we could fill, we signed on. Gap dynamics on the personal, local level! We will hear more about this in September when we welcome the troop, but you see where I am headed with this, no doubt. We weren’t necessarily seeking a troop to charter. But we were in a mode of waiting and watching for ways to improve our connections and sustainability. What else does our local landscape hold for us; hold open for us? Can we be about the business of putting attention and focus on what is and what is missing that cries out for our unique blend of being to invest itself in? This is the work before us as we move into a right-sized and sustainable life for our beloved Meeting House.


There is a level of interdependence here. Those mosses have certain qualities and specific needs for survival. They require something of their surroundings and in turn they fill a space that would otherwise be left empty. Kimmerer shares that her Indigenous worldview teaches that each plant is seen as a being with a will of its own, that they come when and where they are needed. They find their way to a place where they can fulfill their roles. A friend shared with her a story about the year that blue vervain suddenly appeared along the hedgerow. Scientifically you could argue that this was due to wet conditions and changes in the soil. But her friend went on to say that that summer her daughter was diagnosed with liver disease and that it happens that vervain is an excellent tonic for the liver. There it was waiting for them. Plants come where they are needed, she writes. What are our special gifts? I know we did an exercise once before where we made a list together! Each of us brings something and so as we gain new folks in our UU community our gifts are expanded. But knowing what those unique gifts are is a window into knowing where we might plug ourselves in. We might be just the right tonic for a certain set of circumstances!


The other piece I wanted to talk about today is reciprocity. And this, too, comes from Kimmerer and other Indigenous writers I have explored. Each plant form has a gift and a responsibility. As human beings we are no different; all of life can be seen as “beings.” Our special gifts imbue us with special responsibilities to our world, to the world of plant life and other life on our Earth home. Part of our responsibility is to honor life and land with our care. There are patterns of reciprocity that have been studied beneath the forest floor, the fungi which live symbiotically with the tree roots, extending and gathering nutrients for the trees. And it turns out that the levels of these are much higher beneath the mosses that live in the shade underneath the canopy. Phosphorus is cycled from spruce needles through the mossy layer and back into the soil. There is a reciprocal relationship between these partners in life. And the patterns of reciprocity that bind all these elements together offer us a vision of life in our realm. Can we take what we need and give back the abundance that remains? Kimmerer wishes for our world the ability to live with self-restraint and humility, symbiotically with our planet and our world.

One more story. This one is about Schistostega pennata; Goblin’s Gold, a unique type of moss, both simple and rich. She came upon it in a cave she was exploring. In place of leaves and shoots, it is instead made up of a fragile mat of translucent green filaments crisscrossing the surface of moist soil. It glows in the dark, but glitters in half-lit spaces like a darkened cave where only a brief moment of the sun’s rays shine in each day when it erupts into a shower of sparkles. It asks very little of the world and shimmers in response. It lives because of a series of synchronicities that bring it to a particular moment in a particular place.

So, too, with us, coming together as a handful of like-valued people, creating a web of life, some may say as implausible as Goblin’s Gold. Just the right timing and approach and location, surely making us as precious here on the hill. As we endeavor to shed light on our values, our gifts, our propensity toward care for one another and our world, we wait in the quietude and protection of community for a light to brighten our path, to renew and regenerate, building as conditions are right, all we need to flourish already here with us. Sun and moon cycle about us, light and dark and light again, life spiraling onward, the life of this Meeting House making its way, resilient, patient and aware. With gratitude for all that has conspired to bring us to the present and hope for what is yet to come, may we in return for such gifts, engage in the only, sane response and glitter – shimmer - sparkle in reply.

So may it be and Amen.

Rev. Tracy Johnson

UUMH Chatham, July 16, 2023

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​Unitarian Universalist

Meeting House of Chatham
Sunday Services  10:30 AM

819 Main Street
All MAIL To: PO Box 18​​
Chatham, MA 02633
(508) 945-2075

Serving our Cape Cod Community in Chatham since 1986

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