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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Biologist Sings Praises of Moss in Musselman Lecture

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Biologist Robin Kimmerer began her Old Dominion University address about the unique subject of moss with a traditional greeting in the Potowatomi language.

The saying, which stresses how Native Americans tend to see plant life as beings, instead of objects, helped Kimmerer frame a lively discussion about the humble plant species. She delivered the Lytton J. Musselman Natural History Lecture on March 23.

The scientist, writer and distinguished teaching professor of environmental biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry likened moss to the "coral reefs of the forest." She explained how it plays a vital role in the forest ecosystem.

The biologist and author said society can learn from aboriginals' philosophy of plants.

"Who else can take light and air and water, then make food and shelter and give it away?" Kimmerer said. "Plants are also our very oldest teachers."

Kimmerer's lecture, "Gathering Moss: Lessons from the Small and Green," was delivered to an audience of 150 in Webb University Center, including several members of the ODU Department of Biological Sciences. Her appearance was part of "ODU Presents," which features multidisciplinary speakers who support the university's research initiatives and community outreach efforts.

"One of the great gifts of my life has been spending my life on my knees in the woods, among the moss," Kimmerer said.

She said it is sometimes advantageous for moss to be small. "The genius of mosses is they are working with the natural processes, rather than against them."

Putting a slide of a mossy fallen tree on the screen, Kimmerer showed how each surface of the biological matter has particular properties that affect how it interacts with air. Closer to the surface, the moss is denser.

"It's also warmer, wetter and enriched in carbon dioxide," she said. "That is the very definition of a greenhouse."

Kimmerer ended her address by advocating to protect the 15,000 known species of moss as an important part of the natural ecosystem, either on land or in the water.

"As a 'moss missionary,' what we need is a new ethos," she said. "Look closely as you walk down the path, at the small and unappreciated beings around us. They have a lot to teach us about how we might be."

Kimmerer, a plant ecologist, serves as the founding director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, whose mission is to create programs that draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for shared goals of sustainability.

Her research interests include the role of traditional knowledge in ecological restoration and the ecology of mosses. In collaboration with tribal partners, Kimmerer and her students have an active research program in the ecology and restoration of plants of cultural significance to native people.

She is the co-founder and past president of the Traditional Ecological Knowledge section of the Ecological Society of America. Kimmerer serves as a senior fellow for the Center for Nature and Humans. Of European and Anishinaabe ancestry, Kimmerer is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

The Lytton J. Musselman Natural History Lecture is a continuing series led by Lytton Musselman, the Mary Payne Hogan professor of botany at ODU. The series was launched with the help of a substantial gift from ODU alumni Michael and Sue Pitchford. A former student of Musselman's, Michael Pitchford is president and chief executive officer of Community Preservation and Development Corp. in Washington D.C.

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