…Mosses have, in the ecological sense, very low competitive ability, because they’re small, because they don’t grab resources very efficiently, and so this means that they have to live in the interstices. They have to live in places where the dominant competitive plants can’t live.
But the way that they do this really brings into question the whole premise that competition is what really structures biological evolution and biological success. Because mosses are not good competitors at all, and yet they are the oldest plants on the planet. They have persisted here for 350 million years. They ought to be doing something right here.
And one of those somethings, I think, has to do with their ability to cooperate with one another, to share the limited resources that they have, to really give more than they take. Mosses build soil, they purify water, they are like the coral reefs of the forest, they make homes for this myriad of all these very cool little invertebrates who live in there. They are just engines of biodiversity. They do all of these things, and yet, they’re only a centimeter tall.
Robin Wall Kimmer is the State University of New York Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She is founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. Her books include Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses and Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.