Some things in nature aren’t beautiful. They just are as they are, like ball moss growing on a branch: a plant that is not a parasite (as people often think) but an epiphyte, getting a living by perching on a convenient limb, minding its own business and making its own food. Its roots only cling, they don’t penetrate, so it doesn’t kill its tree-host by sucking the juices out of it. It doesn’t kill trees by shading the leaves, either, for it mostly grows in the interior of a tree’s branching structure, on branches that are already shaded by overhanging limbs. Its tiny, blue-violet flowers appear in the spring. When it dies and falls to the ground, its nitrogen lives on in the soil.
You’ll see ball moss on trees in the southern tier of states, where the temperatures are relatively warm and the humidity is high. I noticed this clump growing on a live oak few years ago. It was a rainy, chilly morning, and the dogs and I had been for a walk in the woods. I looked up and was suddenly struck by the thought that this plant was one of the most perfect things I had ever seen–perfectly suited to what it does, where it grows, how it lives. Not a beautiful thing, if beauty is showiness, or color, or fragrance, or symmetry. But beautifully adapted to its place, beautifully made, beautifully alive, all to itself, in itself, for itself. Seeing it filled me with a sense of rightness, of balance, of wholeness. Of things being perfect and good, just as they are. I was grateful.
It’s easy to see and feel the beauty in lovely things, easy to admire blue skies or a crimson rose or a soft, fragrant breeze. It’s harder to appreciate ball moss. Harder, but perhaps even more rewarding.
Reading Note: I said to the grasshopper bounding along the road–how excellent you are at what you do!–Mary Oliver