When my mother, a naturalist, tried to grow a moss lawn, she prepared the concrete patio with her own urine. It just seems like I can never get enough, she said. My mother was like that: a wild bryophyte who had no roots but who wanted to grow outward, to spread like live sheet moss in green swaths across stones or broken sidewalks.
Cover them in shit and keep them in the dark meant mushroom. Now, cover them in piss meant moss.
So, it was no wonder, really, that when I left home after college I had chosen civitas, which meant city. Which meant free of moss, mildew, and my grandmother’s flowering philodendrons even though I knew before knowing how that philo means love, dendron means tree.
Lately, I had felt like something—tree or flower—was growing inside of me, but it was easy to ignore something that felt small, that felt simple, that felt like a cell attached to an unbranched stem. Moss or mother.
It was easy to ignore until it wasn’t. My mother, at least, wasn’t surprised that the only thing I had ever grown was an accident. Even still, the naturalist was hopeful.
“It’s strange, but now I see it everywhere.” My mom was going on about moss over the phone. Also—about an apparition that wasn’t an apparition. Just a man in a white undershirt kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary that morning on her way to Aubuchon. Seeing him kneel before Mary in broad daylight had made my mother cry. This from a woman who worshipped soft-walled and seedless plants. Imagine, she seemed to say without ever saying it, Towns! And churches! And Virgin Mary’s all turned into mosseries where we could go to kneel in broad daylight. I had, after all, never seen my mother in a pew.
But that night, out of the coastal forests of Los Padres, a mother made entirely of moss wandered across the freeway, into my bedroom, and laid down beside me in my bed. When she wrapped her virescent arms around my ribs, which I knew were given to me not by Adam but by the very first woman, I remembered that mosses had dressed the wounds of soldiers, had absorbed the blood of women. Mosses were used to put out fires. And what was a statue or city that smells of sulfur if not a fire? It just seems like I can never get enough, she said. By which I knew she meant: enough air, enough light, enough water. Philo.
So I let the moss, which now meant mother, take hold of me like sheet moss, like something so small it can spread everywhere, even to those places I had failed or forgotten to see—a moss temple made from the waste of my mother’s body.
Did you know that the Dawsonia moss is the tallest moss in the world? At 20 inches. Smaller than some full-term babies. Bigger than a human heart.
Ellee Dean lives in Exeter, NH, where she teaches English and hikes the local trails with her two children. Previously, she worked for The Boston Phoenix.