Saturday, January 7, 2012


There is a time in the afternoon in deep winter when, if the sun is out, the moss on the surface of the balustrade of Queen Anne boulevard goes into high definition and turns iridescent. It is green beyond belief. It looks like a thick carpet, but with a lumpy, irregular surface and little whiskery shoots bristling among the prominences.

Moss is ubiquitous in the northwest. It covers everything. Roofs, walls, trees, gables, gallstones, gargoyles, garages. Moss loves moisture. And there is plenty of moisture in the northwest. The northwest is to moisture what mecca is to Islam. What ovals are to eggs. What monuments are to wars. What shadows are to light. If moss were a form of credit, it would be the International Exchange of the global credit default swap swamp.

But moss is insistently, consistently moss. That’s what makes moss, moss. To compare moss to something else is to lose the mossness of moss.

I am charmed by moss. It is original and massive. It spreads like a superstition throughout all the balustrades and coffeehouse bricks of the dripping northwest.

It feels like an animal. If you brush your hand over its surface very softly, it feels remarkably like fur.

If you get lost in the woods, look for moss on one side of the tree. That will be the north side of the tree. North, where the sunlight is blocked. Moss likes shade. It feeds on dark things, like the necropolis of the Etruscans.

The moss growing on the balustrade of 7th Avenue West seems anomalous in its obvious appreciation of sunlight. Is it a species apart from the usual moss that carpets the shady nooks and recesses of the Pacific Northwest?

Yesterday, I had to stop by the balustrade to tie my shoelace. I was doing my usual afternoon run and was moist beneath my running clothes. I felt the cold immediately. I raised my leg and positioned my foot in the hole of the balustrade. A sharp winter breeze blew through the hole. I looked to the west where the sun was already beginning to set. The light was sharp. The moss stood out in high relief, attracting my attention to the spot where I had rested my gloves, black wool against a patch of green iridescence. It felt like an elegy. A sweet rag of holy fuzz marking the end of a day in early January.


Steven Fama said...

And then there is Kate Moss.

Okay, sorry. Thanks for this one, John, and I wish I had some moss at hand to touch, as it's been awhile since I did that, and your essay makes me yearn.

According to on-line descriptions of a key text for those who want to know more, there are at least 544 species and 54 varieties of moss in the Pacific Northwest. The book -- by moss-ophile Elva Lawton -- apparently gives keys for identifying them all.

There also is a self-published book out there titled Moss Cosmos that apparently has nothing be full-page color close-ups photos of moss. Per the on-line description for that one, "you may be astonished by the sheer variety . . . [and] closeup, they can indeed resemble a cosmos."

John Olson said...

Thank you, Steve, for the moss notes. 544 species... I believe it. But you should see the fungus. Not to mention the mildew. The upside of all this wetness and gray, is the best water in the U.S. That's why the coffee is so good. It's also why the coffee is so popular. Everyone is trying to get warm.

martin marriott said...

oh to be in Seattle, now that John is here...

martin marriott said...

the light ragamuffins of moss are heavier than piss in a soldier's boot, more effervescent than time, more square-legged than a military alliance, more loving than a fox in human skin. I love to rub moss against my nipples when I'm not there, I avoid wet pussy like a cell-block attracts them, moss and I are the opposite of greed, we are green unrequited longing, we both exist like butlers, ready to serve you a dinner of spiritualised and liquified turtle, at your every convenience. we know we are the rooftop most people are far above. We like deep-bass dub, and funk music. We are both pretty funky, according to our friends.

William Keckler said...

I, too, love a good moss.

Even Howard.

You made think of Whalen's

Ginkakuji Michi

Morning haunted by black dragonfly
landlady pestering the garden moss

John Olson said...

Thank you for sharing that William. As it happens, I've been reading Whalen a lot lately.