On the cusp of winter 2021, by a bench that overlooks the city, I happened upon a moss-covered log that glistened green under the overcast sky. The moss’s leaves were as tiny and intricate as the finest embroidery, and as thin as cling film. I brushed my fingertips over the feathery bed in awe of its minuteness and complexity, before taking a dozen photographs. When was the last time I had touched moss? When was the first? I remember trees, rivers, and mountains, but not moss. But, that day, I felt as if moss summoned me to pay attention to its rigor and beauty amid its great arboreal cousins.
Or rather, moss represented something to me. I’d been thinking about touch, about how out of touch with nature I am. I live in a town that has many parks and meadows, but I don’t touch nature enough; rather, I see it – the ornamental birches, the canal, and the roses on the hedgerows. In the summertime, I’ll swim with friends, or sunbathe and roll in sand and grass, but once we are back in our sanitized homes, I continue to live out of touch. I seek nature in small, appropriate, hygienic doses.
Winter is the only true season of touching. In winter, no matter how efficiently you dress up, a raindrop will find you. Fogs will enshroud you and leave its wetness on your face. Dry, cold air will crack your lips. As you inhale, the mist will touch your nostrils and the inside of your throat. You will feel winter’s touch on the backs of your ears. Winter’s physicality permeates everywhere. But moss works the hardest in winter. Over every log, rock, and crevice, it grows and glows.
Over the course of that winter, I touched mosses everywhere in the city: on footpaths and walls, on the barks of willows, on metal-based drain covers, on tombstones, on the roofs of houseboats, on abandoned bicycles, and under the railway bridge. Moss likes to grow everywhere as long as there’s enough shade and moisture. A nonvascular plant, it lacks an elaborate root-and-shoot anatomy; it has no roots to speak of – untethered by the constraint of permanence.
Aristotle claimed that touch is the most universal sense – and I came to believe that touching nature may be the most effective means of reconnecting with it. Touch reorients us to the fundamental condition of being – to the inevitability of others, human and nonhuman. What’s unique about touch, when set against the other senses, is its mutuality. While we can look without being looked back at, we can’t touch without being touched in return.
When my one hand touches the other, which one is doing the touching, and which one is being touched? We have eyelids; we can pinch our noses and shut our ears, but there are no natural skin covers. We cannot turn off our sense of touch. To be a human in the world is to be tactile, to always be touching and touched with every single pore of our bodies.
The idea that touching nature could bridge interspecies borders makes sense intuitively. Is there any being in the plant kingdom that embodies touch more than moss and its family, the bryophytes? Moss is touch. It doesn’t poke the skin of the being it touches. And it takes practically nothing from the host it is in contact with: moss is no parasite. Yet it softens trees, prevents soil erosion, and shelters animals too small for us to notice. It is continuously in touch with Earth and all its beings, including us. Inside a rainforest and on the city pavement, moss beckons us. Moss isn’t everywhere and nowhere; moss is here.
I wanted moss to tell me its story. Quiet, humble, and peaceful, it said nothing. Perhaps moss didn’t want me to tell its story in isolation since moss is never alone. If anything, its story is one of touching bark, water, rocks, mountains, logs, and humans. I can’t go to moss for peace and solitude, or to rejuvenate myself in nature’s lap, perhaps not even to ruminate on the nature and limitations of language. Touching moss will amount to nothing if I don’t question the web of human and more-than-human relationships from within which I touch it.
A plant has become an object to be scrutinized: a moss, a carpet to be scraped and examined. You touch moss to bring it home and look at its structure under your university’s new microscope. You touch moss, and yet you do not touch moss. Touching mosses, I did not feel at one with nature. I felt severed; no return to an unadulterated relationship with nature. Between my fingertips and the sporophytes of a moss bed exist centuries of exploitation and extraction, and behind them, human hands, and the all-too-human touch.
Perhaps it is absurd, even fatuous, to contemplate if there is anything redemptive about touch. If touch itself, as an intersubjective sense of perception, has become corrupt, where does that leave our forever touching bodies and selves? I want to push against this interpretation. Because there is a touch beyond the history of touching too: the human capacity for touch and its existential, precarious, fleshy nature.
Touch as a cautious hand. The fleshiness of touch bares us to the other – human and nonhuman, but also ourselves. In touching the nonhuman, I’m thrown into the world, over and again, and each time I must reintegrate myself as what I was before touching. In this continuous operation of disintegration and reintegration, there is a generative moment where I’m not certain who I am, neither past-me, nor future-me. Am I human? Am I a part of this world? Can I change?
If, in the act of touching nature, I’m not practicing guileless nature connectedness but a complicitous, historical, and also utopian touch, perhaps touch can be reconceptualized as a complex, layered, and resilient sense-perception. Perhaps it is the other way around. Not touch itself as the deliverance of one-dimensional, immediate experience, but what we – our history and present – have engineered it to be. Perhaps the apparent superficiality of touch is the fiction. I wonder if I can cultivate and harness touch not as a cure for my estrangement from the nonhuman world, but as an open-hearted exposure to that world, and ours. Touch from the old French touché – a blow or, even, an attack. Touch as a prizing open.
Touch is so vital that even the language of digital communication is saturated with touch metaphors. We ‘keep in touch’ and acknowledge that we are ‘touched by your kind gesture.’ Even human fetuses are covered in fine hairs known as lanugo, which appear around 16 weeks of pregnancy, enhancing the sensations of our mother’s amniotic fluid gently washing over our skin, a precursor to the nurturing feeling that a child, once born, will derive from being hugged. Touch precedes genesis.
Untethered by layers of syntax and semantics, days and hours, and names forgotten, touch serves as an infinite solace. Sometimes our words are few and far between or simply ghosted, in which case, the hand–although limited by the borders of skin and cartilage–can be the third language that animates where the tongue falters. Doesn’t touch serve as a reminder that we’re still here?
Above all else, each cell in our body craves permanence. Dust is proof of a being’s rust, their avid decomposition, how they linger in the memory of the world they once beheld. Yet moss is the last act of rebellion – the very last breath of life, sitting on the husks of trees, on deadened beings who have accepted the process of being deceased. The touch of moss proceeds vitality and suspends beyond every circumstance – a touch of moss is a touch into the past, present, and future.
Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicenter only to return again, one circle removed — with each swing of the pendulum, comes a release of spore.
Eian Tsou is a current high school junior in New York. His work has been acknowledged by organizations such as the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Outside of writing, Eian loves to volunteer, play with his dogs, kick around a soccer ball, and eat tasty foods. One of Eian’s main goals is to visit every country in the world.