IT’S A MOTHER OF A DAY. SO GIVE HER SOME MOSS.
Mother – it’s a weighty word, there’s no doubt. As a noun it’s meaning is innocent enough – a female with offspring. But as a verb it’s much more complicated. To mother; to give birth to, to raise, to care for, to look after, to support. It’s this doing of mothering that we’re celebrating this weekend. All primary school children will, no doubt, have been creating and painting and sticking some kind of cute confection, ready to present to their Mum on Sunday morning. Once a day of tradition and humility, today it’s feels rather less dignified. Like Christmas it’s become overly commercialized and mawkishly sentimentalized. It can cost a packet and stir up a whole hornet’s nest of emotions. But it wasn’t always this way.
Celebrating motherhood goes back to the ancient world, to the Greek and Roman festivals held in honour of the mother goddesses Rhea and Cybele. The Christian Church adopted a similar celebration during Lent when the faithful would return to their “Mother Church” for a special service. Over time this became a more secular holiday thanks in some part to American, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who in 1868 organised a Mother’s day to honour her own mother who had recently died.
Flowers though have always been integral to Mother’s day. Back when children, as young as 10, worked away as domestic servants it became traditional to ‘go a-mothering’ on the fourth Sunday of Lent – a day they permitted to return home and see their families. Along the way many would pick spring-time flowers, usually violets, but primroses and daffodils too, to leave in the (Mother) church or to give to their mothers. And so today these humble offerings of gratitude have become big, fussy bouquets of roses, gerberas or lillies.
But according to the Victorians we have it all wrong. In their language of flowers the plant they associated with maternal love was not a prissy or blousey bloom but the dank, green, boggy plant – moss.
Moss, as ancient as time (perhaps the oldest living plant) and as ubiquitous too, there are thought to be 22000 species. Low-growing, bracken-green, dampish, it’s a plant that creeps and covers, carpeting woodland floors from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Happiest in moist shaded places, it really needs no sun to thrive. But there’s much more to moss than meets the eye, it’s supports and provides nutrition for a remarkable range of invertebrates, an integral part ,then, of our ecosystem.
The Victorians, those most inquisitive of botanists, got this. To them moss was magical and meaningful; growing without roots, separate to everything around it; providing shelter and sustenance for others; always whole, always itself. Like a mother’s love; self-contained, self-assured, self-reliant.
For sure this an idealized, and rather daunting, version of mother love but it’s an interpretation that does well to acknowledge what we often overlook; the deep, deep bond between a mother and her child.
For it’s the Victorians who are telling us many important things; how we come to motherhood from many motives; biological, economic, social, even political. How we are required to transform from the happy-go-lucky to the responsible and assured, in a birthing instant. How mothering with it’s many expected capabilities; assumed expertise and unrealistic juggling skills will never be a paid job with prospects and a pension. How mothers are sacrificed at the home hearth (where are the Damehoods for that?) mostly winging it, sucking and seeing it and hoping (and praying) that their children will turn out ok.
And there’s something else that connects Mothers with moss; both are easily overlooked. So if you’re out for a woody walk today, take a look around, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll see. And if you stuck for a present idea this year… you could try something new, something mossy.