From the Field: A Precious, Abundant, Tiny Wonder of This Massive Forest
From Taylor Buck, Expedition Guide aboard Wilderness Adventurer
It’s just after dinner time, and tomorrow we set out in groups of ten on the root-moddled, characteristically muddy “trail” that follows Cascade Creek up and up and up. The creek flows from a high, hidden lake (accessible only by the fiercest of hikers) down a rushing river, and eventually it pours over jagged rocks as a waterfall into Thomas Bay, a bay souped with foggy greens and blues from the nearby glaciers pumping silt. “Trail” is in quotes for the same reason we give a disclaimer to guests as we explain this expedition: It is not exactly a trail in the sense we might expect, having traveled, perhaps, along wide, gravel, level, obstacle-less trails of state or national parks. This trail, while no doubt maintained on occasion to a certain point, has in my experience left no one unmuddied by the time they return to the shore.
As folks finish up their desserts the night before our adventures at Cascade Creek, I grab the mic. “Hello, everyone! Tonight, I’m going to get you excited about something you may literally have never wondered about: Moss. That’s right, moss. A precious, abundant, tiny wonder of this massive forest and one of the loves of my life.” I spend the next 45 minutes in the lounge explaining that moss is an ancient ancestor of alga, having climbed from the water to become the first terrestrial plant, all before dinosaurs even thought about existing. I explain that moss thrives without even a vascular system, and thus has come to structure every element of its being around the need to attract and hold onto water. This means it thrives in community, depends on other strands of moss, and does everything in its power to support other forms of life as well. Moss is unassuming by nature, living in the so-called “boundary layer” where no other plants dare try to eek a living (except lichen, that is—another of my loves, though it can hardly qualify as a plant).
Moss, I explain to a lounge full of increasingly eager looking guests, is one of the primary and earliest reasons why Southeast Alaska exists in this spectacular form at all. Moss and lichen are the first to move into freshly exposed rock and deglaciated areas, and they’re the plants that start to create a substrate in which seeds can begin to sprout. Moss is the fabric and the thread of the forest. It stitches this luscious ecosystem together one gametophyte, one sporophyte, one rhizoid at a time.
As soon as we enter the trees next to Cascade Creek the next morning, the guests following behind me are already ooh-ing and aww-ing at the bright greens carpeting the forest on all sides. “I never really noticed,” one guest says, “just how alive this place really is.” It’s what happens when we begin to pay attention to the smallest pieces of the bigger system. It’s easy to become enamored by bears and whales, even old growth Hemlock trees, and forget to take a breath and look patiently, closely, at the little beings that make those massive creatures possible at all.
From moss I have learned just how profoundly the tiny things, the tiny moments, matter; I have learned that the little ways we treat each other and tend to ourselves are the building blocks for the communities and world we build and live in. We can learn a lot from moss about how to be in right relationship with each other and this world.
At our halfway point on the trail, to the soundtrack of the dripping leaves and the rushing river, we take a moment of silence in the beds of moss. There’s a lot of life holding our bodies in that moment, supporting us as we rest. We take a collective breath before standing up, careful not to tear up any of the little green plants around us. By the time we get back to the beach, covered in mud and pieces of forest, we all agree we feel a little more at ease.