(This 824th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 14, 2007.)
Few of us pay much attention to mosses. They are lowly masses of tiny plants, barely recognizable as members of the biotic community. They also thrive in damp areas of low light, thus their location is indeed often on the north side of trees.
A bed of moss photographed by Bonnie Bowen
I, however, have a special affection for mosses. I have been attracted to them ever since they served me well on a hiking trip forty years ago.
My brother and I had set out to climb the Range Trail in the Adirondack Mountains, not a wise undertaking. At the time I was not in shape to climb any mountain: I weighed - believe it or not - 55 pounds more than I do today, and I had been too busy to prepare myself for hiking.
The Range Trail is a path that leads up and down a half dozen peaks, all over 4000 feet high. We began our trip from Saint Huberts, a few miles south of Keene Valley. Our plan was to complete the six climbs over a period of two days, camping out the first night, staying the second night at John's Brook Lodge and returning the third day down the creek to my brother's car.
I love my brother, but mostly from afar. Whenever we are together, my nerves are severely tested, because he often takes hours to do the simplest task. And so it was on the day we set out on this hike. I had hoped to get going in the early morning, but fiddled around and we only reached our starting point at about two in the afternoon. I was so angry at our late start and his continuing delay that I grabbed my backpack and set out on my own.
In doing so I made a terrible mistake that I did not discover until I had hiked too far to turn back. I had forgotten my canteen. And I couldn't turn back anyway; that would have exposed my stupidity to my brother.
I never did admit my problem and Vern, who soon caught up, had water we used for supper and breakfast the following morning. But then on the second day he soon got far ahead of me and I was left alone on one of the hottest, driest days I can recall.
This is where I began my love affair with moss. I became terribly thirsty and, of course, there were no streams crossing the ridge line. However, in a few rock fissures protected from the bright sun, some lavishly damp mosses grew. To me they were life savers. I emptied the contents of my little first aid kit into my pack and squeezed a few dribbles of water into the remaining tin. There wasn't much but it certainly tasted wonderful.
The rest of that day I spent more time looking for mosses than I did admiring the beautiful mountain scenery. Late in the afternoon after we made it over the Lower and Upper Wolfjaws, Armstrong and Gothics summits, I insisted we quit and headed down to the lodge. I slept there through the whole next day.
Now I am saddened to learn that mosses are in trouble. Their ability to soak up and retain ten times their weight in moisture makes them very attractive for a variety of purposes, especially in the horticultural trade. They are used to ship bulbs and plants and they also serve florists for a variety of decorative purposes. A study by Particia Muir of Oregon State University indicates that over 40,000 tons of moss are harvested annually in this country for floral use alone. The effect in some areas has been described as the botanical equivalent of strip mining.
Although too little is known about the role mosses play in our forest ecosystems, it is known that hundreds of species of tiny animals like springtails and water bears inhabit them. Botanists also believe that their role in nutrient capture and humidity regulation is important to forest health.
Like so many of our resources, mosses recover very slowly. It can take a century for them to regenerate.
I hope our mosses will be saved if only to serve other foolish hikers like me.-- Gerry Rising