Moss garden

I discovered this wild garden some ten years ago at the edge of one of the talus slopes just over the crest of Sapsucker Ridge. I had been bushwhacking along the northwest side, smashed my way through the last laurel tangle expecting to hit open rocks, and found this instead. I was immediately reminded of the Moss Temple (Kokedera), a World Heritage Site in Kyoto, Japan that I was fortunate enough to visit back in 1986. Despite constant traffic noise — in this case, from the four-lane highway at the base of the ridge — a moss garden is a summons to silent contemplation. Something about that densely packed green crowd maintaining such utter silence can’t help but have a profound effect on the imagination.

fern moss

As I discovered on that first visit, there’s only one easy way out or in. On subsequent visits, I’ve always approached it thinking I must’ve been mistaken, maybe it’s not that great after all, because the view from above isn’t too promising. You have to pick your way to the bottom of the slope, and even then, I suppose, it might not be everyone’s idea of a scenic spot, especially since the view of the valley and the Allegheny Front beyond is better from an area of open rocks 75 feet away. But the variety of moss and lichen species in such a small space seems extraordinary. One of these years I’ll have to try and photograph them all so I can key them out.

rock tripe

There’s a feeling of deep time, almost timelessness, in the slow-growing moss and lichens. They grow on their own calendars, flourishing at times of the year when nothing else is green. At the end of the last glacial epoch 8000 years ago, this ridgetop, like every other in central Pennsylvania, would’ve been a cracked and broken scree slope — a biological desert. We’re well south of the furthest extension of the ice sheet, but miniature local glaciers still did plenty of damage. Eight millennia later, patches of open talus still remained when these ridges were clearcut for charcoal in the early 19th century, and the subsequent fires and erosion enlarged them again. In the two centuries since, the forest has resumed its glacially slow conquest of the rocks.

moss and laurel

I can never go there without doing some damage, no matter how gingerly I step, so I try to limit my visits to just once a year. The moss grows directly on the rocks, which shift unpredictably under my weight, tearing their thick green pelt. If I step on the unmossed rocks, the foliose lichens crumble under my boots. How can something so tough be so fragile? Once, I discovered a neat line of deer hoof prints through the moss — a rarity, since the deer usually avoid the leg-breaking talus.

Three years ago, a large branch fell across the upper portion of the garden, and now it shelters a foot-wide band of fallen leaves and leaf-rot. This, of course, is how the forest spreads. Should I put my finger on the clock-hand and keep this area in a state of arrested development — as the monks at Kokedera have been doing for the last 700 years with their obsessive raking and removal of all organic debris? Should I start picking out the branches and pulling the occasional blueberry, striped maple, and black birch sprouts? Should I, in short, become a gardener, and rob this spot of its wildness? Or should I let nature follow its course, content in the knowledge that plenty of other potential “found gardens” exist, slowly shifting in and out of peak aesthetic condition, all over the mountain?

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