The recent deluge of rain led me to contemplate the lives of those who made their home on Kodiak before my time. Imagine the Rock before planes and barges supplied us with grapefruit, soap, tarps, bullets, socks, dishes and toys. Imagine life before oil heating. And woe of all woes, imagine living here without your Patagonia-TheNorthFace-Grundens-Columbia clothing fastened like armor around your body against the rain. The beaches were free of plastic and every basic human need was met with goods foraged, carved and harvested from land and sea.
I tucked into a stack of books at the library this week to learn more about traditional subsistence lifestyle on Kodiak. Survival methods were ingenious and creativity abounded in the face of necessity. People transformed sea mammal and bear gut into rain coats so ethereal and beautiful you’d think they were the latest from fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Blueberries, irises and cranberries lent themselves to dyes for baskets, according to the Alutiiq Museum website. But the one material that kept drawing me in for its practicality in my own life was moss.
Kodiak’s nickname, the “Emerald Isle,” can be attributed in part to the vivid green moss blanketing the forests, spruce trees and hillsides. More than 600 kinds of moss pepper Alaska’s landscape, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Maori people in New Zealand, the Chippewa of Michigan and about a thousand other cultures all arrived at the same conclusion — moss was a perfect diaper material. On Kodiak moss was the hottest thing before Pampers arrived. In fact, “uruq,” the Alutiiq word for moss, also means diaper, according to the Alutiiq Museum website. No parent who reads this may ever complain about the price of Pampers again. I dare you: Go swaddle your little angel’s bum in nature’s diaper.
Uruq was also employed as menstrual pads, wicks for stone oil lamps and to line cooking pits. When in a pinch on camping trips and hikes I’ve reached for a little moss to use as toilet paper; it turns out I was following a long tradition on this island and also of the ancient Romans. The Alutiiq Museum website notes tree moss provided insulation in sod houses and thatching for roofs because it does not shrink as it dries. People padded their mittens, shoes and clothes with moss, as well.
Moss is used worldwide for its insulating and absorbent properties. Its many uses astounds the imagination — bedding, pillows, cradle stuffing, packing material to transport fruit and mushrooms, stuffing for children’s dolls, smoke filters, brooms and dusters, clothing, a barrier contraceptive method, garnish for flower arrangements, and as bandages in World War I, writes Janice Glime in her publication “Bryophyte Ecology.” And that is to name but a few of the more fascinating applications.
In the modern world moss is prepared medicinally as a tea in China and India. Exotic plant growers nestle orchids in moss. In Mexico a rock-inhabiting moss is used to dye clothes, according to Glime. She also writes Moroccan women wash their hair with a mixture of dried flower petals, herbs and moss. Many countries including Finland, Ireland, Russia and Sweden convert peat moss into a fuel source for heating, while Scotland distilleries count on peat to imbue whisky with a unique smokey flavor.
My favorite discovery was designer Nguyen La Chanh’s living moss bath mats, created from three types of moss situated in a foam tray that is mold resistant. The moss thrives off the moisture from showers and baths. I will most certainly be asking for one next Christmas.
Ecologists are studying the role of moss in nature’s ecosystems, but it remains somewhat mysterious. As with most foraging, a little here and a little there is a good practice for sustainability and will help mitigate potential damage to the environment. But if you ever get stuck out in the bush, moss is your new best friend.
You can gather moss to line your driftwood shack and shape it into a bed or pillow. My father and brother created a soft cushion of moss in a shelter they built to overnight in during a snowy hunting trip; I can attest to its comfort as I stuffed a pillowcase with moss and took a nap on it for this story. It functioned brilliantly until spiders started to crawl onto my face.
If blisters form on your heel while you are hiking, tuck a little clump of moss into your boot to prevent further friction. Another great use is as a sponge to clean your glasses or helmet visor when you’re in backcountry. You can also wipe slime off your hands when fishing.
And, of course, moss is the perfect substitute for toilet paper when you are out the road and find yourself in need. You are welcome. And happy foraging.