Wednesday, August 15, 2012

For the Love of Moss

My romance with moss began last year. Just weeks after the horrifying earthquake overwhelmed parts of Japan, my daughter and I visited serene TenryĆ«-ji, a Zen temple in Kyoto’s Arashiyama district where, along with throngs of Japanese visitors, we viewed Sakura in bloom. At TenryĆ«-ji’s open-air gift shop I came across a book about Zen gardens. Later, back home in the Lowcountry, I allowed my eyes to linger on each photograph in the book, Samadhi on Zen Gardens, and that is how I became aware of Tofuku-ji’s checkerboard of moss and stone.

Tofuku-ji's famous moss garden
Gazing at the photograph, I thought perhaps I’d found a solution for my front lawn with its bald places. I sought to borrow the idea from Buddhist monks and transform the shady expanse beneath my live oak with something similar. I started by pulling a patch of chartreuse-colored moss off the front steps where it grew freely as a volunteer. I moved the tiny patch to a bald area and watered it when I remembered. During times when it received sufficient water, the patch grew, but it never adhered to the soil. Often it didn’t get enough water – from me or from the sky.

This isn't where I want the moss to grow!
Next I purchased a carton of moss milkshake from a company I found on-line. The sellers are not to be blamed for my lack of success with their product because neither the clouds nor I the provided enough sustained moisture to bring to life the intentionally dehydrated mosses the seller sent.  And let’s face it, the climate here is vastly different from where those specific moss varieties thrive.

In the county library I located Schenk’s excellent book Moss Gardening and after reading his words realized that perhaps I should just encourage what grows here naturally. I began noticing places where moss grew, hidden or in plain sight.  When I carried carafes of rainwater from the barrel, where I’d captured it, to gardenias and hydrangeas I’d recently planted, I made sure to allow water to drip on the volunteer moss. And the moss is even now expanding – not as rapidly as I would like, but increasing its territory nonetheless.

Moss Gardening has a chapter entitled “In the Gardens of Japan.” It begins “Mosses invited themselves to the gardens of Japan and thereby invented moss gardening.”

Late last year I returned to Japan for another visit with my family. When my daughter asked which place I most wanted to visit, I said, “Tofuku-ji, to see the moss checkerboard.” We traveled there by train and, before locating the checkerboard, were dazzled by the brilliant red leaves of Tokufu-ji’s valley of maple trees.

A moss garden at Tofuku-ji's Abbot's Hall
The Abbot’s Hall, or Hojo, at Tokufu-ji is home to four gardens, including the particular one I longed to see. The Hojo brochure, provided with paid admission, is printed in kanji for the most part, but includes a paragraph in English.  According to the brochure, the Hojo gardens were designed by landscape sculptor Shigemori Mirei in 1939. In one garden, moss covered mounds represent five sacred mountains. The coveted diminishing checkerboard lies in the Northern Garden and there the moss stood taller than I had imagined. Feeling content, I didn’t want to leave.

Before last year, I was mostly oblivious to moss, but since then, I’ve noticed it not only in temple gardens and along wild streams in Japan, but on hillsides in Scotland, and growing unfettered between sidewalk and street near the corner of East Bay and Chapel in Charleston.

The volunteer moss continues to spread
I realize I probably won’t ever have my own moss and stone checkerboard, at least, not in my current locale, but I haven’t given up the idea of cultivating more moss.  For now, I’m encouraging moss growth one drop of rainwater at a time.

Reading List

  • Moss Gardening – George Schenk (Timber Press, Portland, 1997)
  • Gathering Moss – Robin Wall Klimmerer (Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2003)
  • Samadhi on Zen Gardens: Dynamism and Tranquility – Mizuno Katsuhiko and Tom Wright (Suiko Books, Kyoto, 2010)

Tofuku-ji’s Website

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