I give a few mosses their name tags and get a diploma in return

I found the strangest packet of tiny mosses while identifying — many species were half their regular size.

I’m done. Graduated. No longer a student fumbling through science and journalism — though I don’t know how to work through things any more now than I did last week.

Alaska plants, too, are on an internal clock that supersedes someone arbitrarily saying the seasons have changed. Many of the trees got up early, flexing their leaves even as they were busily spitting out pollen. The horsetails are now stretching and baby leaves of many other plants are finally popping out of the soil.

Cameras take surprisingly nice photos of mosses when held up to the eyepiece.

To graduate, I had to defend my thesis a year and a half after starting it. This involved a lot of looking at mosses in December, January, February and March. I knew nothing about moss species going in, yet last fall I found my room covered in boxes upon boxes of nearly 300 bags stuffed with mosses.

Eventually, I carried my mosses to the UA Museum of the North Herbarium. I stooped over a microscope for months, trying to decipher the foreign language of bryologists. Here, an illustrated glossary became my most trustworthy guide.

During this time, the mosses and I got to know one another.

I spent high school drawing, in love with the human form and the ratios of body parts. Learning to identify mosses, or anything, is like taking a life drawing course. You start off with a rough sketch — you can clearly see the leaves or arms, and you throw those on the page. Soon you sketch in the details until it looks about right — the leaves are pleated like a thin skirt, or they are hooked like overgrown claws.

You check these observations against a big book known as a dichotomous key, which leads you to a name.

Each moss, once named, snapped into position in an Excel spreadsheet. From there I could direct a sort of ballet of numbers, a frenzied few weeks of analysis that now, two months later, seem surreal. In April, on Friday the 13th, I defended. Last year I presented my proposal on April Fool’s. By this time, I’d learned to take the whole experience a little less seriously.

To celebrate, I drew my newfound moss models with the familiarity of a close friend.

I’m entering my first summer as a college graduate, my second summer outdoors and my third summer being able to greet the trees in the forest by name. The snow has retreated from my yard and uncovered the spruce cone meals for our resident squirrel, Mercutio, who curses my name whenever I walk outside.

Mosses, too, are now exposed. Wherever I crouch, I see new friends, and the adventures ahead don’t seem so daunting anymore.

From left to right: Hylocomium splendens, Aulacomnium palustre, Tomenthypnum nitens, myself, Dicranum fuscescens, Sphagnum girghensonii, Leptobryum pyriforme. Illustration by Kelsey Gobroski.


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