Philip Arnold: Essay : Nov 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was raised in the foothills of North Carolina and have spent the majority of my adult life in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Watauga County, NC. This piece locates its narrative along Brushy Fork Ridge, where I built my house twenty years ago.

The Tao of Moss

A story can peek through the trees and stare at you until you feel its eyes on you. This story hides in the woods behind my house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. This is what I remember—a Zen master is to be visited by friends and wishes to have his garden prepared for the gathering. He instructs his young pupil to prepare the garden, who then sweeps away the leaves. When the pupil presents the garden, the teacher replies: “It is not ready.” The pupil then washes the stones that border the garden. Upon viewing the garden, the teacher replies: “It is not ready.” The pupil then removes the smallest twigs and weeds from the grass. When the teacher comes to inspect the work, he walks to a tree and shakes it until leaves fall and scatter over the garden. “Now it is ready,” the teacher states. 

Cultivating a slope of moss beneath the ridge-line trees that border my house, I am the pupil. 

The space is meticulously groomed—the height of the moss is evened; in work that aspires to a form of art, I sculpt the area into smooth contours under the glide of my weed eater. Fallen branches are flung far into the anonymity of the woods. From the bed of moss I pick out small twigs and acorns and samsara. Autumn’s ritual tsunami of leaves are blown off to an area I call the beyond

Of course, the master’s garden in the story is prepared in its natural—and untended—state. As an extension of nature, the garden is meant to express the lesson of life and death through the messy cycle of growth and decay. To remove the leaves and wash the stones is to intervene in this harmony, to see a blemish where none exists.

Shortly after I built my mountain house, I sought an area for reflection in the forest, where my property aligns with Brushy Fork Ridge. I cleared out clusters of multiflora and brambles, and removed the aftermath of the wood’s wintered-through winnowing. I placed a bench at the high point, and waited for a vision: what seeds or saplings to plant, what tiers and borders to define the space? Summers passed. I blew leaves and removed branches. Snows melted. And slowly, a growth responded to my slope of neglect—scattered patches of moss spread and convened. In time, the muted floor of the woods surrounded a brightly embossed carpet of emerald moss. I saw at last the vision that had never visited me.  

Weeds, saplings, nuts, leaves, twigs, branches, and once a storm-fallen tree return to my mossy oasis its natural surface and variation. In considering his garden, Thoreau claimed his daily work was “making the earth say beans instead of grass.” My work is to have the earth say moss instead of leaves. Encroachments trigger a cultivating reflex. The Zen master shakes the tree. I am Sisyphus with a leaf blower.  

Why do I carry this insistence for green stasis into the woods behind my house? Why this need to wedge into the wild this width of cultivation? Is my garden of moss a subordination of nature—an imperative of the imperial gaze? Or is it simply a performance piece of the organic, weed eater in hand? 

Perhaps the reason lies in the human need of an oasis, a place where the body can turn off its instincts and the mind, no longer alert and calculating, can quiet itself. And for this—a space delineated, if razor thin, between what we perceive as wild and what we sense to be tame. 

Still, as I bend over and reach for a fallen leaf I imagine the Zen master’s dissatisfaction in his lesson unheeded. Such is the inertia of yard maintenance, I reason—an irresistible momentum embedded into the muscle memory of my outdoor labors. 

Sitting on my bench, I tell myself that at its origin the moss is a manifestation of the wild in nature. It is the wood’s reclamation project, its balm for damaged soil. I tell myself, I have not tamed nature—the moss has tamed me. 

And perhaps I even believe it, when I tell myself, that the moss is a living shrine to the Taoist concept of wu wei, which is understood as being through non-being or action through non-action. Remove the laden interferences of expectations and the over-reaching entanglements of desire, and appreciate the unimpeded and the allowed-for. For years, I enacted no plan: the moss grew and flourished, and became the plan. 

For my tree-canopied oasis to fully embody the spirit of wu wei, the branches must shake and the moss must succumb to a shroud of forest-fall. In time, I may accept this new inaction. For now, the moss abides, beheld. The will of the woods is a delayed perfection. The Zen master shakes the tree. And I bow down to the each leaf, fallen.