Image: The moss garden of the Memorial Botanical Gardens at Duke University. Courtesy Caroline Jackson.
Image: The moss garden of the Memorial Botanical Gardens at Duke University. Courtesy Caroline Jackson.

Every year from as far back as I can remember until I left home to go to college, I would wake up on three or four Sundays each winter to find my dad at war with moss. There were chemicals he could have bought to kill the moss with just a few sprays, but he was wary of them. In our theater of the war, moss stuck on the brickwork and cement of our front porch, and he did not want us kids or my mom to breathe in those chemicals or play in them. Like a true warrior, he would go out there with nothing more than a wire brush and a cushion to sit on and vigorously scrub the moss for the better part of a day. Every year he would try to mix up a safer version of moss killer, usually involving some bleach or vinegar, but none ever worked.

Since he was forced to spend so many hours each year protecting our house from these evolutionary descendants of algae, he hated moss, and he tried to make his son hate moss. As a youngster, I had assumed moss was harmless. In fact, I had always admired it for being so green and soft and fuzzy. But as I grew into a young man, my dad tried to teach me otherwise; moss can be an insidious adversary.

After settling in the awkward niches it likes to call home, or so my dad said, moss begins to grow–and destroy. He told me that its roots invade the surrounding material, be it cement or wood or whatever, and eat away at its defenseless hosts. I later learned that moss does not even have roots; it has rhizoids, hairlike tubes that anchor the moss but that don’t suck up nutrients. Since I was always able to wiggle out of being drafted into battle by feigning homework or basketball practice, I never experienced the suffering engendered by scouring for hours with a wire brush. I never grew to hate moss.

The Japanese, at least some of them, don’t hate moss. They love it and think it’s beautiful. They cultivate it and devote gardens to it. In fact, they revere it so much that its image is even evoked as a symbol of faithfulness and loyalty in their four-line national anthem:

May thy peaceful reign last long!
May it last for thousands of years,
Until this tiny stone will grow into a massive rock
And the moss will cover it all deep and thick.

But, though I might have read about moss gardens somewhere and subconsciously noted their existence, I was not actually confronted with the reality of a Japanese moss garden until I started going to Duke University.

Since the day I first visited Duke as a prospective freshman, I have loved the Sarah P. Duke Memorial Botanical Gardens, which lie only a few hundred feet from the main campus. Of course, that’s not all that surprising considering that in our first encounter she was elegantly draped in wisteria and shamelessly showing off her pansies and cherry blossoms. During one of my frequent strolls through the gardens in my freshman year, I happened upon a quaint “Japanese-looking” hut on the bank of a small pond in the garden’s Asiatic section. I noticed the small rock island in the middle of the greenish brown pond, bearing several sickly-looking bonsai and patches of moss. But only in the fall of my sophomore year did I notice the tiny placard near the island that read: “Moss Garden-PLEASE STAY OFF.” I was amazed. A moss garden? Who would want a moss garden? That would be like having a bacteria garden.

For the next few months, whenever I would pass through the Asiatic section I chuckled over the the moss garden. But, as time rolled on and I became accustomed to its novelty, I stopped cracking jokes and started thinking about it a little more seriously. I wondered if I might be able to find beauty in moss. After a couple of weeks, I realized I needed to work in the moss garden, to understand the other side of moss, and to try to breach the distrust of moss that my dad had planted in me. Toward the end of the semester, I walked into the office of the gardens and declared to Chuck, the portly, garrulous man in charge of scheduling volunteers, that I wished to work with the mosses.

Ever since I had resolved to work in the moss garden, I had been baffled by the same question everyone asks when I tell them I was a moss gardener: “Just what exactly does a moss gardener do?” As I learned quickly that day, the answer is a resounding “Not much.”

It’s not that moss gardening is easy—far from it; my back always ached the day after I worked. But moss gardening is incredibly simple. In fact, in the four months that I worked in the garden we did only three things: We watered, we weeded, and we planted new moss. To plant new moss, we would go to the woods and rip up big swatches of it, and then we would bring those pieces back to the gardens, place them-not so gently-where we wanted them, and squash them into place with our feet.

As such, moss gardening was initially very boring, which is why I think the Japanese do it. It’s boring in a Zen kind of way. Although I did not see this at first, there is something deeply profound in the inanity of moss gardening. The key to appreciating moss lies in understanding that moss is not just some ubiquitous green stuff that grows on rocks and trees. The problem, I think, stems from moss being a collective noun. It’s easy to talk about moss as if there is only one kind.

And because the word moss does not require an article in front of it, when we see some green stuff growing on a rock, we can just say, “Hey, look, moss,” without ever lrnowing or being forced to wonder what kind of moss it is, or how many different species of moss are present. Compare that to what we do when we see a tree. The presence of the article in front of the word tree immediately directs us to aclrnowledge that we are looking at an individual tree and that there are many types of trees, which often leads us to wonder; what kind of tree? Yet moss—unlike other collective nouns such as air or water-is not all the same.

Bryo-Andersonium is thick, rough, and knobby and looks like the needles of a pine tree.Atricum, my personal favorite, is soft, bright green, leafy like a fern, and reminds me of Astroturf. And contrary to popular belief, moss does not only grow on the north side of a tree, although it does thrive best in moist, dark areas. The earth rotates around an axis that is not perfectly straight up and down but tilted toward the sun, which means that generally the north side tends to receive less sunlight.

As I began to appreciate moss itself, I began to enjoy the time I spent working at the gardens. I would totally immerse myself in the task at hand, forgetting about the test I had the next day or the problems I was having with a girl, and I would get relief from the stress and anxiety of everyday life. By the end of my period of volunteering, I would not be happy unless I had gotten every damn weed in the garden. I also became concerned for the moss garden, protective of it. I would worry about the sections that weren’t doing well and come in on weekends to water the moss we had just planted. I saw the moss garden as a microcosm onto which I could impose order, and I strived to do so. It was almost as if I had transferred my totally unrealistic desire for order and perfection to the more realistic goal of creating order and perfection on this little four-by-ten-foot island, in the hope that I would be able to integrate the peace and serenity of the island into my life as a whole.

The moss paradox still confounds me. My dad tries hard every year to kill it, but the next winter, sure as the sun will rise, the moss returns. At Duke, we tried to impose moss on patches of bare earth, but it would not take. Maybe that’s the truly Zen thing about moss: One must accept that it might forever come back unwanted on the porch, but never take root where it is wanted in the garden.

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