Category Archives: lichen

They Call Us Mossbacks

For years I wondered: where on earth do I feel most at home? We would move and I’d try various places, waiting to see if I could grow roots. Finally I took up gardening. In the garden I can make myself at home anywhere, but nowhere as easily as here, in the Pacific Northwest. Where everything grows on its own accord.

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Back in San Diego I used to paint my flowerpots with buttermilk, then roll them in dirt before potting. With regular watering over a course of time, the pots would whiten and grow the mossy green patina found on garden antiquity. All around me the homes were too new. Too many developments with roofs of clean bright orange terra cotta tile. Whereas the pots on my terrace gave the appearance of old. While developers were busy putting up “Mediterranean style” for the masses, I was looking for Old Spain, something evacuated from say, Seville.

Here in the Pacific Northwest we can save the buttermilk for baking. Moss grows up our steps, over walls, on all sides of trees, and onto rooftops. I have to laugh.

We love our moss. A friend told me the story of a time she hired a man to pressure-wash the brick patio, as it can get slippery, and stepped out of the house to find that he had gone on and taken care of the back wall as well “which was a treasure trove of happy lichens in yellow, orange and gold, plus fabulous swaths of moss.” She was heartbroken.

Not too long ago a neighbor from those days in San Diego, now living in Houston, came through Seattle on book tour. I had come into the kitchen in the morning, turned on KUOW, our local NPR, in the middle of an interview and recognized her voice immediately. That night I attended her reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. Harriet Halkyard is her name. One doesn’t forget a name like that. She and her husband, John, wrote 99 Days to Panama based on their travels there. After the reading I bought their book and we sat down for lattes and to get caught up.

I will admit I was surprised to hear how much they love living in Houston (“It’s the people; we’ve never been so socially engaged!”), but nothing could have prepared me for her next comment.

“I don’t know how you live here,” she cried.

“I mean,” Harriet went on, “when you’ve seen seen one pine tree you’ve seen them all.”

I smiled and realized it could be plants and trees and climates that determine where one feels most at home. In San Diego we both had the warmth, the sun, the desert landscape, the occasional palm tree and arid climate, and she chose to go get more of it in Texas. Whereas I sought to come home, if not to New England, to the Pacific Northwest. A place more exaggerated than New England ever dreamed.

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