María Elena García: Moss and CHID

Thank you all for the invitation to think about CHID, to think about John, and to think with you.

Reading the prompt for our session, the only sane reply is “well, of course.” But such a reply would not be the most generative one, so I though that it might be better to share some views from my own experience teaching in CHID. Since I joined CHID seven years ago, my work has sought to bring together my interests in Indigenous cultural politics with my concerns for non-human life. Perhaps the most recent expression of those convergences is a course I teach in CHID called, perhaps ambitiously, The Politics of Life. This is how the syllabus describes the course:

Our readings and discussions this winter will focus on the broad theme of “life.” More specifically, we will expand discussions of “life” to include non-human others; we will expand our thinking about love, loss, and grief; we will consider the politics of vulnerability; who lives at the margins; who lives in conditions of “slow death” as Lauren Berlant might put it. Other questions we will consider: what happens when we consider the possibility that “rocks listen” and “earth-beings” (such as rivers and glaciers) speak? Are spiders and snails self-aware? Can robots suffer? Are plants intelligent? It is my hope that our rigorous examination of these and other issues will serve as windows through which we can view the workings of alterity and marginalization as well as survey pathways to alternative and better futures.

I am tempted to take from that course and use examples that show the power and vibrancy of the kind of thinking that we cultivate in CHID, and that of course, is also being cultivated by our students and our colleagues in more and more places these days. In fact, there are times when I think that far from being a precious little gem, lost in the mines (and minds) of the UW, CHID is actually spreading like a weed across the campus and the world. But that is not the right metaphor. CHID is not a weed; it is more like moss.

I have come to that conclusion after discovering the remarkable work of botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, who is also a member of the Bear Clan of the Potawatomi people. She is the author of many terrific works, including Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, a remarkable book—that I will certainly add to my Politics of Life seminar the next time I teach it.

I found the book inspiring and so I feel compelled to share a few things I learned about moss, things that strike me as very relevant to our discussion today.

One of the gifts that mosses provide Kimmerer, and us, is that they “and other small beings issue an invitation to dwell for a time right at the limits of ordinary perception… Look in a certain way and a whole new world can be revealed.” Paying attention, she notes, is becoming something of a lost art among us humans.

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

Yet attentiveness is by no means easy. And there are many intellectual traditions that can help, especially Indigenous traditions. Kimmerer writes about a Cheyenne tradition that is not too far removed with how many of our students come across their thesis projects.

A Cheyenne elder once told Kimmer that “the best way to find something is not to go looking for it.” Not the easiest thing to do for a scientist. Nevertheless, she paid attention as he told her “to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful.”

It was with this attention to those things just beyond view that she came across a remarkable species of moss that is commonly known as “Gobblin’s Gold.” Here is a photo I found on the Internet.

Goblin's Gold by Matt Goff

Goblins’ Gold (Photograph: Matt Goff)

It’s scientific name is a little tricky to pronounce: Schistostega pennata. Unlike other mosses that grow to meet the sun, this particular species lives in the small caves carved by glaciers into the lakeshore, and receives just the light reflections emanating from the lake’s surface, which provide one-tenth of one percent of the solar energy that direct sunlight does. And yet in this unlikely habitat, Schistostega has emerged as a brilliant and luminous mossy jewel. Kimmer describes this with characteristically poetic prose:

The combination of circumstances which allows it to exist at all are so implausible that the Schistostega is rendered much more precious than gold. Goblins’ or otherwise. Not only does its presence depend on the coincidence of the cave’s angle to the sun, but if the hills on the western shore were any higher the sun would set before reaching the cave… Its life and ours exist only because of a myriad of synchronicities that bring us to this particular place at this particular moment. In return for such a gift, the only sane response is to glitter in reply.

This cannot help but make me think of the myriad of synchronicities produced. And thinking of all the students that we have sent out into the world make me convinced that CHID continues to produce more than a little light in a world that often seems very dark. If CHID is indeed a remarkable moss, I am not sure what John is. Part of the cave, or the glacier that helped shape our surroundings, but I have no doubt that he and we are all the better for having come together in this particular place at this particular moment.