This word has the flash of a phosphorus charge and the soft, deep, resonant rumble of a mine blast in a cavern far below, shaking the foundations as it flares the windows. But its sense is something so much softer. Step aside from the world of Magnum guns and gum; let it go in a soft fog, leave riddles for the Sphinx and the slow figuring of the ages, and fall back on the sphere, the surface of the ground, on a bed of soft moss, where all hard things dissolve and all soft things persist, and watch as the numbers on the sphygmomanometer go down.
Sphagnum moss. Such a deep and soft thing to say. And wet. It can hold up to two dozen times its weight in water, this moss. Even on a rock, it is like the softest, lushest fur you can imagine, green pelt of the planet. In some places it is deep, deep, many metres deep, growing new on decay, a history of millennia. Bury a person most places on earth and what remains will be nothing but the bones, the hard bits, the structure, none of the skin and tissue that made what we knew of them, what they felt, their weaknesses and loves and vanities. Bury them in sphagnum moss, deep, decaying sphagnum moss, a peat bog, and the opposite happens: the acidity of the moss dissolves the bones but the skin and tissue are preserved. When we find people from past eras in bogs we put them under glass in museums, squished, distorted, leathery, but still all there as though they had just slipped out to the bog and gotten lost – and only the bones cannot be picked.
Sphagnum sequesters water and carbon. Dry out its decayed bits and you have peat that can be burned. Lose too much of the moss cover and you damage the planet, give it mange, take away its soft, absorbent places. The moors of the English heart are losing their memory – but projects are underway to regenerate them. Much of Europe and North America, and parts of the southern hemisphere, was once covered by this intricate beauty, microscopic forests that still exist here and there in the soft places between the asphalt and concrete borders of us bony kind with our explosions.
Greece has sphagnum, of course. The home of our older honoured Western classics had a word σϕάγνος sphagnos which was converted in modern times (a mere quarter of a millennium ago) to the Latinate sphagnum. What did we call it before? Moss, certainly; specifically, peat moss. When it has petered out and gone the way of all decay, it is simply peated out as peat. It, and what it preserves, is repeated.
That does sound like the name of a drummer for some ’60s group, doesn’t it? Pete Moss. Or perhaps a football (soccer) player.
Sphagnum has some lovely properties. It makes a good surgical dressing: it can absorb much more than cotton can, and it has antiseptic properties. Microbes simply don’t thrive in it – another reason the bog bodies are there to be found. It can preserve food too, for very long times. It insulates well. It helps other plants to grow – the peat from its decay especially does. And babies can rest in it and it will absorb their messes. First Nations people of North America, the Sami of northern Scandinavia, and who knows who else in times past, have used moss for this. When I was a baby, we lived with the Nakoda (Stoney) people in Alberta, and my parents sensibly followed their lead: they put me in a moss-lined leather bag. Comfortable. Absorbent. Antiseptic. Lie in the moss and stop worrying.
A word like sphagnum is, to my ears, an invitation to artistry. There are fewer artworks than I would have expected involving this word, at least that I can find. But there are two contrasting bits of music.
One is “The Sphagnum Bog” by Eustachian, a group clearly enticed by savorous words; the genre is listed as experimental grindcore, though it sounds long on the experimental (in a late-20th-century electronic approach) and not so long on the grindcore.
The other is a soft, ethereal, reflective song, “Sphagnum Esplande” by The Shins. This is a song I was destined to find, I who lay as a baby in sphagnum and lie as an adult in my bed on The Esplanade. As you listen to the song (you will listen to it, I hope), you may want to refer to the lyrics, which include these things to think of as you lie in the moss:
We’ll make a new ship
Christen it for the trip
With a toddler at the helm this time
You’re not expected to know why
in such a short time
Don’t suffocate, asphyxiate, choke on a Sphinx in your esophageal sphincter. The answers will come. When the hard parts have dissolved, the soft parts will endure. Go figure? Go sphagnum.