On a recent trip to Iceland, I hoped to see the Northern Lights. I didn’t. Even the moon and stars were crowded out by storms in a continuous loop of advance and retreat. And for the first couple of days exploring this spectacular country, I thought the landscape was going to be just as elusive.
Clouds transmogrified into white-capped hills, obliterating horizons. Constant winds scraped the snow off the landscape into black streaks–a volcanic rock spill here, a jagged basalt rift there–only to erase the view moments later with fresh snow and slash a new pattern into the hillsides and valley floors. And steam, swirling up from natural hot springs, added a supernatural eeriness.
Like a passenger on a fog-bound boat, my natural urgency to feed a mental map of coordinates–a treeline, a road, the crest of a mountain, is that a building or a cliff?–dissipated and I got used to the sensation of floating in a blurred and ever-changing landscape. And, naturally, things up close suddenly seemed fascinating. That’s when I discovered the moss.
Iceland doesn’t have a lot of vascular (higher) plants because the entire country was mowed over by a glacier during the last Ice Age and it’s been a slow go for plants ever since. [Authentic Icelandic joke: Q) What do you do when you get lost in the forest? A) Just stand up.] Today, there are less than 500 species (flowers, trees, shrubs) that grow wild. In comparison, there are an estimated 600 moss species, 700 lichen species and 2,000 species of fungi. In fact, more than half of all plant cover in Iceland is made up of moss. Moss heaths cover lava fields and mountainsides in a rippled blanket of green velvet every spring.
I intend to go back to Iceland some day. Next time, I’ll go in spring and take my guy with me. I’m looking forward to seeing that ethereal countryside solidify into lush mossy green-ness sharply delineated by brilliant blue sky and black rock. And I plan on adding moss into my own small garden. Not in the deep shade of a tree but out in the open (indirect or dappled shade can work), cushioning a path or upholstering a make-shift rockery of tumbled stones and old crockery. Because now I can see moss not as an accidental detail in a garden but as the reason for it.
Elizabeth Gilbert, best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love, explains moss in brief, brutal and beautiful terms in her most recent novel, The Signature Of All Things. She writes that moss is shockingly strong, eats boulders over hundreds of years, and reduces cliffs into gravel and then topsoil. She tells how moss soaks up calciferous water straight from stone and, over time, moss and mineral combine, eventually making travertine marble. Walk right up close to the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica, she tells you, and see stone streaked in the greens, blues and greys of ancient moss colonies. Enough said.