In 1795, the explorer Mungo Park set off from what we now know as The Gambia to try to discover the course of the River Niger. He describes his many adventures vividly in Travels into the Interior of Africa including, at one point, being robbed of absolutely everything he possessed, including his clothes. He sat, naked, in the bush, and contemplated his situation. “Whichever way I turned,” he wrote, “nothing appeared but danger and difficulty. I saw myself in the midst of a vast wilderness in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone; surrounded by savage animals, and men still more savage.” Then, he wrote an extraordinary passage: “At this moment, painful as my recollections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification, irresistibly caught my eye. I mention this to show from what trifling circumstances the mind will sometimes derive consolation; for though the whole plant was not larger than the top of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves, and capsula, without admiration. Can that Being (thought I) who planted, watered, and brought to perfection, in this obscure part of the world, a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and sufferings of creatures formed after His own image? – surely not!”
I was thinking of this passage this afternoon, as I walked passed a wall and noticed several hemispherical cushions of a moss, Grimmia pulvinata. This is one of the more distinctive of the mosses of wall-tops. Just as for Bryum capillare (“Wonders in my own backyard …”), the leaves gradually taper to long, fine hair-points, creating the fine, downy “cloud” around the cushion . If you look closely, you’ll also see the capsules, which contain the spores, buried inside the cushion, although it will rise above the cushion later on. Mosses such as these are easy to overlook but, when you adjust your focus and pay attention to them, you can start to appreciate their beauty, and understand Park’s rhapsody.
Cushions of Grimmia pulvinata on a wall-top in Durham, March 2014. Both cushions are about two centimetres across.
Incidentally, Mungo Park was wrong in one respect, as mosses do not have roots. It is an easy mistake to make when sitting naked in the bush. Most modern bryologists work fully clothed, which has the additional advantage of providing pockets for storing specimens, notebooks, hand lenses and cameras. This, actually, raises an interesting question: the moss that Park observed, a species of Fissidens, is now in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum in London (registration number: BM000871833). How on earth did he get it back?