Of Moss and Men | Paul Hetzler

Of Moss and Men

by Paul Hetzler

“Of course it’s environmentalists that caused all this moss.”

It is one of my first phone inquiries as the new Horticulture and Natural Resources Educator for the county’s Cooperative Extension Service, a nationwide outreach network established in 1862 as part of the federal Land Grant College system. I am wet behind the ears, and nervous about following in the footsteps of the previous educator, who retired after 30 years on the job.

The caller has lichens—“moss,” as he calls it—growing on the dead branches of his spruce tree. He sounds like an older gentleman, but lucid, and quite serious. I pause. One part of my brain tries to formulate a respectful means to say it is unlikely in the extreme that environmentalists caused lichens to grow on his tree, but another says hang on, this could be a great story.

“Oh?” I say, hoping the bemusement I feel doesn’t inform my voice.

“Well yes,” the man emphasizes, as if this is common knowledge. “We never used to have beavers here.”

This non-sequitur confirms it is going to be a worthy tale. I hush the logical responses that spring to mind:  This is northern New York State, just across the St. Lawrence River from Canada, and the fur trade was a significant part of our history. Of course we had—still have—beavers. Never mind that—I want to know how beavers figure into the environmentalists-equal-moss equation.

“Oh.” I hope this vague affirmation is enough to encourage him. It seems to be.

“Then in the ‘70’s, environmentalists flew beavers over from Europe in special chartered jets.” An image pops into my head of beavers reclining in plush first-class airline seats. I cover the receiver in case I start laughing. I really don’t know what to say. With all the hijackings back then, perhaps this just didn’t make the news. He apparently suspects I’m not convinced of the veracity of 1970s trans-Atlantic beaver flights, because he reiterates the point.

“That’s right, special chartered jets.” he sounds indignant that I haven’t validated his point about those beaver-jets. “And since then we’ve had more beavers every year.

“Right,” I agree, which is a lie; their population is actually stable.

“And the beavers made all these ponds and swamps, and that makes the air humid, which is why we have all this moss growing now. We never used to have that.”

Ahh, yes. His logic is impeccable. Facts, not so much. But I understand how, in his world at least, environmentalists caused moss. I try to steer us back to business.

“Right. Well. Um, can I send you a fact sheet on lichens, sir?” Given his opinion of environmentalists, I don’t bother to mention climate change and our new weather patterns. A number of years recently have seen three weeks or more of consecutive rainfall. When plants don’t dry out for that long, it is paradise for fungal pathogens. This has led to an explosion of foliar diseases like Rhizosphaera needlecast which is probably what is killing his Colorado blue spruce.

“Yeah, you could do that,” he allows, sounding answering his question is beside the point.   He abruptly picks up a new thread. “You know, it’s getting so I can hardly afford to mow my lawn. D’you know why gas prices are so high?”

Oh, God. Let me guess. Beavers?


Paul Hetzler is an educator and homesteader who lives off-grid in northern NY State. His work has appeared in Highlights for Children, and The Lancet, and he writes a weekly natural-resources column for regional newspapers.

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