August 10, 2021
From Autonomies

A legend tells us that Christian soldiers took the city of Béjar in spain from its Muslim-Arab inhabitants in the 12th century by disguising themselves with coverings of moss, enabling them thereby to enter the city gates by surprise.[1]

Our task is more modest, sharing only transgressive affinities with the legend.[2] Though we are sceptical of manifestos, they can nevertheless serve to distil images and thoughts. These of course can only be the consequence of momentary inspirations.

What follows finds its animus in an essay by bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, entitled Gathering Moss, passages of which we also share below.[3] From moss then we gather a few ideas on what a contemporary anarchist politics might be.

A moss-like anarchist manifesto    

I. We must learn to look, to sense, in all ways, to attend to the life that surrounds us, that is us. The revolution begins as a revolution of the senses.

A Cheyenne elder of my acquaintance once told me that the best way to find something is not to go looking for it. This is a hard concept for a scientist. But he said to watch out of the corner of your eye, open to possibility, and what you seek will be revealed. The revelation of suddenly seeing what I was blind to only moments before is a sublime experience for me. I can revisit those moments and still feel the surge of expansion. The boundaries between my world and the world of another being get pushed back with sudden clarity, an experience both humbling and joyful. (9)

II. The act of naming is an act of power, dangerous if taken as a sovereign gesture, liberating if seen as playful “cross-dressing”.  Names are the first instruments of thought. They shape the things named as well as the act of thinking. The act of naming is liberating when it listens to the senses and the rhythms and resonances of thought.

Knowing mosses, however, does not require knowing their scientific names. The Latin words we give them are only arbitrary constructs. Often, when I encounter a new moss species and have yet to associate it with its official name, I give it a name which makes sense to me: green velvet, curly top, or red stem. The word is immaterial. What seems to me to be important is recognizing them, acknowledging their individuality. In indigenous ways of knowing, all beings are recognized as non-human persons, and all have their own names. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it. Words and names are the ways we humans build relationship, not only with each other, but also with plants. (13)

III. Revolutionary politics is about inhabiting a boundary layer, the meeting point or place of confluence of different (“natural” and “social”) elements and agencies. In such spaces, microenvironments can be created for autonomous ways of life.

Revolutionary politics is a matter of “finding one’s place”, a moving, living place created amidst the fissures and blind spots of totalising power

The illusion and violence of total politics is rooted in the desire and belief of complete sovereignty over an accumulating plurality of microenvironments and their colonisation and/or destruction.

… mosses can live in a great diversity of small microcommunities where being large would be a disadvantage. Between the cracks of the sidewalk, on the branches of an oak, on the back of a beetle, or on the ledge of a cliff, mosses can fill in the empty spaces left between the big plants. Beautifully adapted for life in miniature, mosses take full advantage of being small, and grow beyond their sphere at their peril. (16)

Mosses take possession of spaces from which other plants are excluded by their size. Their ways of being are a celebration of smallness. They succeed by matching the unique properties of their form to the physical laws of interaction between air and earth. In being small, their limitation is their strength. (22)

IV. Revolutionary politics involves an act of remembrance. Human communities and human beings are not radically autonomous. We live and create in places and moments which we do not and cannot master. The multiple sources of our existence must be seen, sensed, recalled and lived with. To live and create with is to care for and nurture, it is to cultivate with care.

Forgetting to care for that which ultimately sustains and animates us, whether we are nomadic or sedentary, leads to a severing and separation from the sources of life and creativity, a starving of our senses, a hollowing out of our languages. We cease to inhabit our worlds, the remedy to which can only be to conquer the world. The remedy however will be our destruction.  

The traditional knowledge of the Zuni people tells that the world began as clouds and water until the marriage of earth and sun bought forth green algae. And from the algae there arose all the forms of life. Scientific knowledge tells us that, before the world was green, the only life was in the water. In shallow bays, waves broke on an empty shore. The sunbaked continent was without a single tree to make a pool of shade. The early atmosphere had no ozone, and the sun’s full intensity beat down on the land, a deadly rain of ultraviolet radiation, damaging the DNA of any living thing that ventured up on the shore.

But, in the sea and inland ponds where water screened out the UV rays, algae were busily changing the course of evolutionary history, as the Zuni story explains. Oxygen bubbled from the algal strands, the exhaust fumes of photosynthesis accumulating molecule by molecule in the atmosphere. Oxygen, this new presence, reacted with strong sunlight in the stratosphere to produce the ozone layer that one day would shelter all terrestrial life under its umbrella. Only then did the surface of the land become safe for the emergence of life.

Freshwater ponds provided easy living for green algae. Supported by the water itself and constantly bathed in nutrients, the algae had no need for complex structure, no roots, no leaves, no flowers, simply a tangle of filaments to catch the sun. Sex in this warm bath was easy and uncomplicated. Eggs released from slippery strands floated aimlessly about, and sperm were released freely into the water. New algae would grow from that chance fusion of egg and sperm without need of a protective womb, the water providing everything.

Who knows how it happened, the migration from the easy life in the water to the rigors of the land? Maybe the pools dried up, leaving algae stranded on the bottom like fish out of water. Maybe algae colonized the shady crevices of the rocky shore. Fossils record successful outcomes and rarely preserve the process. But we do know that during the Devonian era, 350 million years ago, the most primitive land plants ever seen emerged from the water to try and make a living on the land. These pioneers were the mosses.

To leave this easy aquatic life behind and venture out onto the land posed formidable challenges, chief among them the matter of sex. The algal ancestors handed down the legacy of floating eggs and swimming sperm, which was fine in the water, but a liability on dry land. A drying pond would be the end of peeper eggs. The drying air would doom an alga egg, as well. The life cycle of mosses evolved to meet these challenges. (24-5)

Each in our own way, we all go back to the pond to reproduce, connecting to our watery origins. (25)

V. The revolutions of the past often spoke of freeing humanity. This humanity however was an abstract genus, to be filled in by imaginary national communities, hierarchies of race, ethnicity, sex, in sum, sovereign and colonial violence. The illusion of ethical homogeneity and hegemony must be surrendered. Ways of life have always been and will remain plural. Anarchist politics can only be a politics of coexistence and not of conquering and triumphant competition.

Remember wanting what your brother had, just because he had it? At the family dinner table, if everyone wants a drumstick from the Sunday chicken someone will be disappointed. When two closely related species put the same demands on their environment, with not quite enough to go around, both will end up with less than they need to survive. So, in families, siblings can coexist by developing their own preferences, and if you specialize in white meat or the mashed potatoes, you can avoid competition for the drumsticks. The same specialization has taken place in Dicranum [moss]. By sidestepping competition, numerous species can coexist, each in a habitat that they don’t have to share with a sibling species, the mosses’ equivalent of “A Room of One’s Own.” (32-3)

VI. Ways of life are cultivated through conviviality, through relationships of love and friendship, what early Christians, using an older Greek word, called agape and which they celebrated in love feasts. The ties and bonds of organisations and institutions may be useful, but they are as dangerous as the ancient Roman dictatorship; both have been means which quickly degenerate into ends. Institutions easily come to feed upon the informal relations of communities, in turn, shaping and moulding the latter, such that the conviviality of friendship weakens and parches. In its place, social reality is flattened out, classified, and finally hierarchised and governed through roles and tasks (easily then matched to identities). Where complex and overlapping institutional forms of life thrive, communities vanish before the atomised and dependent individual.

The revolution must de-institutionalise; it must be destituent.

Wherever there have been human communities, the catastrophes of institutionalisation have always been made up for by the conviviality of mutual aid. The practice of mutual aid is both permanent and a practice in waiting, an expression of our affinity with love.

Ways of life are tied to the comings and goings of love. We are shaped by love and love is changed by us.

By August, the winter rains have long been consumed, and the land is thirsty again. The oak leaves hang in the hot air and the buzzing cicadas broadcast the weather forecast: the 65th day without rain. The wildflowers have retreated underground to avoid the drought, leaving a landscape of parched brown grasses. The moss carpets now lie desiccated on the bark of the summer oaks, their shriveled, wiry skeletons barely recognizable. In the summer drought, the oak grove is hushed and waiting. All growth and activity is suspended in drought-sleep. (38)

The mosses begin their time of waiting. It may be only a matter of days before the dew returns, or it may be months of patient desiccation. Acceptance is their way of being. They earn their freedom from the pain of change by total surrender to the ways of rain. (39)

What art of waiting is practiced by the mosses, crisped and baking on the summer oak? They curl inward upon themselves, as if suspended in daydreams. And if mosses dream, I suspect they dream of rain. (39)

Mosses must be awash in moisture in order for the alchemy of photosynthesis to occur. A thin film of water over the moss leaf is the gateway for carbon dioxide to dissolve and enter the leaf, beginning the transformation of light and air into sugar. Without water a dry moss is incapable of growth. Lacking roots, mosses can’t replenish their supply of water from the soil, and survive only at the mercy of rainfall. Mosses are therefore most abundant in consistently moist places, such as the spray zone of waterfalls and cliffs seeping with spring water. (39)

But mosses also inhabit places that dry out, such as rocks exposed to the noonday sun, xeric sand dunes, and even deserts. The branches of a tree can be a desert in the summer and a river in the spring. Only plants that can tolerate this polarity can survive here. The bark of these Oregon oaks is shaggy with Dendroalsia abietinum all year round. The name Dendroalsia translates from scientific Latin to something like “Companion of Trees.” Like others of its kind, beautiful Dendroalsia tolerates these wide swings in moisture, with a suite of evolved adaptations known as poikilohydry. Its life is tied to the comings and goings of water. Poikilohydric plants are remarkable in that the water content of the plant changes with the water content of the environment. When moisture is plentiful, the moss soaks up the water and grows prolifically. But when the air dries, the moss dries with it, eventually becoming completely desiccated. (39-40)

Such dramatic drying would be fatal to higher plants, which must maintain a fairly constant water content. Their roots, vascular systems, and sophisticated water-conservation mechanisms allow them to resist drying and stay active. Higher plants devote much of their effort to resisting water loss. But when water depletion becomes severe, even these mechanisms are overcome, and the plants wilt and die, like the herbs on my windowsill when I left for vacation. But most mosses are immune to death by drying. For them, desiccation is simply a temporary interruption in life. Mosses may lose up to 98 percent of their moisture, and still survive to restore themselves when water is replenished. Even after forty years of dehydration in a musty specimen cabinet, mosses have been fully revived after a dunk in a Petri dish. Mosses have a covenant with change; their destiny is linked to the vagaries of rain. They shrink and shrivel while carefully laying the groundwork of their own renewal. (40)

Poikilohydry enables mosses to persist in water-stressed habitats which more advanced plants cannot endure. But this tolerance comes at a serious cost. Whenever the moss is dry, it cannot photosynthesize, so growth is limited to brief windows of opportunity when the moss is both wet and illuminated. Evolution has favored those mosses that can prolong this window. They have elegantly simple means of holding on to precious moisture. And yet, when the inevitable drought arrives, their acceptance is total and they are beautifully equipped for endurance, waiting until the rains return. (41)

The mutuality of moss and water. Isn’t this the way we love, the way love propels our own unfolding? We are shaped by our affinity for love, expanded by its presence and shrunken by its lack. (44)

VII. In our current times of serial catastrophes, needs take precedence. And where constituent, institutionalised totalising power fails, seemingly forgotten mutual aid reappears in all of its rich diversity, if sought for and in resistance against that which would seek to destroy and erase it from our memories. As death attracts death, so too does life attract life. The beauty of creative mutual aid is that it inspires, it engenders enthusiasm, it seduces. And without desire, there can be no revolution; a desire that binds the wounds and heals the damages of unrestrained appropriation and extraction.

From the dome of Cat Mountain, the Five Ponds Wilderness stretches out at my feet, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, rolling green hills stretching to the horizon. This sun-warmed granite is some of the oldest rock on Earth, and yet the forest below is relatively new. Only a century ago the redtails would have ridden the thermals over charred ridgetops, cutover valleys, and isolated pockets of old-growth forest. The Adirondacks have been called “The Second Chance Wilderness.” Today bears and eagles fish along the meandering course of the wild Oswegatchie River. Its logging scars healed by succession, it is an unbroken expanse of second-growth forest. (48)

VIII. The stench of clean sterility haunts the secure spaces of contemporary cities and their extension into the “country-side”. All is surveilled, movements are channelled and chronometrically conducted, intensities are controlled, minds-bodies are seduced into manageable and immunised joy, and everything sparkles with the tedious repetition of the same. The imperative refrain: “Be healthy, be happy” echoes incessantly in an increasingly poisoned and collapsing ecosystem.

The multiple creations of spaces of autonomous mutual aid are exercises in the cultivation of ways of life. No planned urban space has ever matched the vivacity of self-created neighbourhoods. A politics of anarchism is a fragile practice of sowing.

It took a flight across the equator, a perilous crossing of the Andes and three days down the river in a dugout canoe to bring me to the heart of the rain forest. But at home I don’t have to go that far to find a shadowy forest full of exotic beings that I’ve never seen before. In a five-minute walk down the path of my garden I can have a handful of moss, and a five-minute walk back to the microscope brings me to the lush interior of the moss forest. There is no word but awe for the biological excess of that place, the profusion of life, vivid and complex beyond our grasp. At every turn of a leaf, there are mysteries. There are life forms here that occur nowhere else on the planet and intricate relationships evolved over eons. You might take care not to step on them. (65)

IX. There is no plan for the anarchist utopia, no blueprint for the immense quantity and quality of “social” life that mark any human and non-human community. And while the desire for permanence is a death wish, only possible with the destruction of all sensation, movement, remembrance, thought, in sum, life, constant change is also unliveable.

Revolutions are lived in the always renewed equilibrium between stability and transformation.

For this reason, revolutionary ideologies and ideologues are the enemies of all revolutions (as are manifestos).

Paradoxically, disturbance is vital to the stability of the forest. (90)

G. Evelyn Hutchinson, a pioneering ecologist, spoke eloquently of the living world as “the ecological theater and the evolutionary play.” This decaying log is a stage, and the scenes take place in the gaps, where the colonists act out their drama.


In time, the wind-thrown trees become mossy logs and the aftermath of the storm is a tapestry of mosses on a log, mirroring the same dynamics that shaped the forest around it. Aspen seeds flying in the wind of a tree-throwing gale create a new forest. Tetraphis spores spread green over a landslide gap on the side of a log. Yellow birch quietly takes its place in a single tree gap, while D. flagellare fills small patches on a log top. There is a home for everything, the puzzle pieces slip into place, each part essential to the whole. The same cycle of disturbance and regeneration, the same story of resilience, is played out at a minute scale, a tale of the interwoven fates of mosses, fungi, and the footfalls of chipmunks. (96)

X. Amidst serial catastrophes, the apocalypse reveals the impossibility of our contemporary artificial and hegemonic world. Its needs, our needs, make of it a suicide in process.

If it is impossible to return to a “pre-Neolithic Eden”, some measure of choice must be taken over what is to be abandoned, preserved and/or pursued among our monstrous technological children. The primordial political question is no longer, “What is to be done?”, but “Why is it to be done?” The latter question, in turn, forces upon us the question, “What kinds of worlds do we – the many possible we’s – want to live in?”. At this point, we have left the domain of needs and set out towards dreams, visions, myths.

Amidst the traffic and the smokestacks, city dwellers confront the health impacts of air pollution every day. When you draw a breath of air, it is pulled deep and then deeper into your lungs. Down tiny branching pathways, closer and closer to the bloodstream which is waiting for the oxygen it carries. In the alveoli, your breath is but a single cell away from your blood. The cells are glistening and wet, so that the oxygen may dissolve and pass over. Through this thin watery film, deep in the lungs, our bodies become continuous with the atmosphere. For better and for worse. The urban epidemic of asthma is symptomatic of a wider air-quality problem. The health of mosses in a neighborhood also reflects the level of air quality. Mosses and lichens are both very sensitive to air pollution. Street trees which once were greened over by moss are now bare. Check out the trees in your neighborhood. Their presence or absence has meaning. They are the canaries in the mine.

Mosses are much more susceptible to air pollution damage than are higher plants. Of particular concern is the sulfur dioxide which spews from power plants. It is a by-product of combustion of high-sulfur fossil fuels. The leaves of grasses, shrubs, and trees are many layers thick and are coated with a waxy layer, the cuticle. Mosses have no such protection. Their leaves are only a single cell thick, so, like the delicate tissue of your lung, they are in direct contact with the atmosphere. This is advantageous in clean air, but disastrous in areas polluted with sulfur dioxide. A moss leaf has much in common with the alveolus, it works only when it is wet. The water film allows the beneficial gases of photosynthesis, oxygen and carbon dioxide, to be exchanged. However, when sulfur dioxide meets that water film it turns to sulfuric acid. Nitrous oxide from car exhausts turns to nitric acid, and also bathes the leaf in acid. Without the protection of a cuticle, leaf tissue dies and becomes bleached and pale. Eventually, most mosses are killed by such severe conditions, leaving polluted urban centers virtually without mosses. Mosses began disappearing from cities soon after industrialization began and continue to decline wherever air pollution is serious. As many as thirty species which once flourished in cities have all but vanished, as air pollution increased.

The sensitivity of mosses to air pollution makes them useful as biological monitors of contamination. Different moss species are tolerant of varying levels of pollution in highly predictable ways. The type of mosses present on a tree can be used as a measurement of air quality. For example, the presence of Ulota crispa in dime-sized domes on a tree indicates that sulfur dioxide levels are less than 0.004 ppm, since it is highly sensitive to pollution. Urban bryologists have observed that the moss flora changes in concentric zones, radiating outward from the city center. Mosses are often absent at the center, but several tolerant species inhabit the next zone, with increasing numbers of species at the margins of the city. The good news is that when air quality improves, the mosses return.

Some people, myself included, could never live in a city. I go to the city whenever I must and leave as soon as I can. Rural folks are more like Thuidium delicatulum. We need a lot of room and shady moisture to flourish, choosing to live along quiet brooks rather than busy streets. Our pace of life is slow and we are much less tolerant of stress. In a city, that lifestyle would be a liability. On the streets of New York City the Ceratodon style is much in demand, fast paced, always changing, and making the best of the crowds. The urban landscape is not the native habitat for mosses or for humans and yet both, adaptable and stress tolerant, have made a home there among the urban cliffs. Next time the bus is late, take those waiting minutes to look around for signs of life. Mosses on the trees are a good sign, their absence a concern. And everywhere beneath your feet is Bryum argenteum. Amidst the noise and the fumes and the elbowing crowds, there is some small reassurance in the moss between the cracks. (103-5)

XI. If needs underlie the politics of what in the 19th century came to be known as the “social question” – from which emerged all manner of “socialisms”, both of the “right” and the “left” –, the limits of this politics lie in its authoritarian bio-political expressions. In other words, the satisfaction of needs rests on a perception of those needs and the resources necessary for their satisfaction. They dictate no particular kind of politics. On the contrary, they lend themselves to all manner of hierarchical, exploitive, exclusionary and authoritarian governance (e.g., historically and to this day, the “welfare state” of the first world was the exclusive privilege of wealthy states).

The “social question” must be integrated into a broader vision of reciprocity. No one’s needs should be met at the expense of others’ needs. And these others must extend to include all of living nature, where each is seen to give and receive.

A politics of needs quickly collapses into a politics of financial-biological management. Needs must be woven into a much richer fabric, into a narrative of the mutual interdependence of life that is bound to places, times and affinities.

For lack of a better expression, we may call this narrative the myth of natural mutuality.

In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave these to us, as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well. (106)

These gifts are also responsibilities, a way of caring for each other. Wood Thrush received the gift of song; it’s his responsibility to say the evening prayer. Maple received the gift of sweet sap and the coupled responsibility to share that gift in feeding the people at a hungry time of year. This is the web of reciprocity that the elders speak of, that which connects us all. (106-7)

The sanitized suburban life has succeeded in separating us from the plants that sustain us. Their roles are camouflaged under layers of marketing and technology. You can’t hear the rustle of corn leaves in a box of Froot Loops. Most people have lost the ability to read the role of a medicine plant from the landscape and read instead the “directions for use” on a tamper-proof bottle of Echinacea. Who would recognize those purple blossoms in this disguise? We don’t even know their names anymore. The average person knows the name of less than a dozen plants, and this includes such categories as “Christmas Tree.” Losing their names is a step in losing respect. Knowing their names is the first step in regaining our connection. (107-8)

XII. There can be no autonomy without a memory of what came before us and of what is before us now. To be able to see, feel, think, act and render all of this complex and interwoven experience meaningful depends upon pasts that continue to live in the present. At the same time, the presence of the past binds us to places and times, to accepted purposes, and to death, to our finitude. We can create ourselves collectively only with the awareness that what we are collectively is created.

Any “politics” severed from this ethical-natural substance of who we are,is no politics at all; it is but the management of needs, the breeding and raising of livestock (what some are prone to call “human resources”).

There is no ecosystem on earth where mosses achieve greater prominence than in a Sphagnum bog. There is more living carbon in Sphagnum moss than in any other single genus on the planet. In terrestrial habitats, mosses are overshadowed by the vascular plants and assume relatively minor roles. But in bogs they are supreme. Sphagnum or peat mosses not only flourish in bogs, they create them. The acidic, waterlogged habitat is hostile to most higher plants. I know of no plant, large or small, which has the ability to engineer the physical environment more thoroughly than Sphagnum through the remarkable properties of the plant itself.

Every bit of ground in a bog is blanketed in Sphagnum. Actually, it’s not ground at all. It’s only water, cleverly held by the architecture of moss. I am walking on water, on a mat of Sphagnum moss that lies over the surface of the pond. Some of the pool is still visible at the center of the bog, a flat dark surface. Bog ponds are unusually still and glassy. The dark water draws your eye downward, in search of the unseen. No current disrupts the reflections of summer clouds, since the only source of water is rainfall. No stream runs in or out of this island of Sphagnum. The water is clear, stained the color of root beer with humic and tannic acids released from the slow decay of Sphagnum.

An individual stem of Sphagnum is reminiscent of an English sheepdog after a swim in the pond, dripping puddles onto the floor. Sphagnum has a great moplike head, the capitulum, held above the water. The rest of the plant is concealed by long, pendant branches that hang from the nodes of the stem. The leaves are tiny, just a thin membrane of green and they cling like sodden fish scales to the branches. If the mat is disturbed, Sphagnum even smells like a wet dog as sulfurous vapors are released from the muck below.

What amazes me most about Sphagnum is that most of the plant is dead. Under the microscope you see that every leaf has narrow bands of living cells which border the patches of dead cells, like green hedgerows around empty pastures. Only one cell in twenty is actually alive. The others are merely dead cell walls, skeletons surrounding the open space where the cell contents used to be. These cells aren’t diseased; they achieve their mature, fully functioning status only when they are dead. The walls of the cells are porous, peppered with tiny pores like a microscopic sieve. These perforated cells can’t photosynthesize or reproduce and yet they are integral to the success of the plant. Their sole function is to hold water, lots of water. If you grab some Sphagnum from the seemingly solid surface of the bog, it comes up dripping. You can wring nearly a quart of water from a big handful of Sphagnum.

By allowing the dead cells to fill, Sphagnum can absorb as much as twenty times its weight in water. Its tremendous water-holding capacity allows Sphagnum to modify the ecosystem for its own purpose. The presence of Sphagnum causes the soil to become saturated, filling the spaces between soil particles that might otherwise hold air. Roots need to breathe, too, and the waterlogged peat creates an anaerobic rooting environment which most plants can’t tolerate. This impedes the growth of trees, leaving the bog sunny and open.

The lack of oxygen in the sodden mat below the living Sphagnum also slows the growth of microbes. As a result, decomposition of the dead Sphagnum is extremely slow; it may persist relatively unaltered for centuries. The buried portions of the Sphagnum plant simply remain, year after year after year, gradually accumulating, filling the pond. My red sneaker, if I could find it in the depths of the bog, would not have decayed at all. Odd to think that a sneaker would outlast a person. In a hundred years, it may end up being the most tangible sign of my brief presence on the planet. I’m glad it was red.

This preservative effect yielded a stunning find for peat cutters who unearthed perfectly preserved bodies from a peat bog in Denmark two thousand years after burial. Archeological studies revealed these were the remains of Tollund people, Iron Age villagers known as the Bog People. Burial in the bog was no accident. Evidence suggests that these people were sacrificed in agricultural rituals, life offered up in exchange for a bountiful harvest. Their faces are surprisingly serene and their presence speaks the understanding that life is renewed only through death. (118-20)

XIII. Cognitive and technological dominion is a form of sovereignty, a politics of colonisation and appropriation, which presupposes and creates, in parallel, ownership. Ownership demands the confinement and control of life and all that it expresses. Ownership uproots rather than sows.

Autonomous or  anarchist politics can exist only beyond ownership, beyond property.

I am trying to understand what it means to own a thing, especially a wild and living being. To have exclusive rights to its fate? To dispose of it at will? To deny others its use? Ownership seems a uniquely human behavior, a social contract validating the desire for purposeless possession and control.

To destroy a wild thing for pride seems a potent act of domination. Wildness cannot be collected and still remain wild. Its nature is lost the moment it is separated from its origins. By the very act of owning, the thing becomes an object, no longer itself.

Blowing up a cliff to steal the mosses is a crime, but it’s not against the law, because he “owns” those rocks. It would be easy to call this abduction an act of vandalism. And yet, this is also a man who imports a team of experts for the gentle wrapping of mossy rocks. The Owner is a man who loves mosses. And the exercise of power. I have no doubts of his sincerity in wishing to protect them from harm, once they conformed to his landscape design. But I think you cannot own a thing and love it at the same time. Owning diminishes the innate sovereignty of a thing, enriching the possessor and reducing the possessed. If he truly loved mosses more than control, he would have left them alone and walked each day to see them. Barbara Kingsolver writes, “It’s going to take the most selfless kind of love to do right by what we cherish and give it the protection to flourish outside our possessive embrace”. (145-6)


The patterns of reciprocity by which mosses bind together a forest community offer us a vision of what could be. They take only the little that they need and give back in abundance. Their presence supports the lives of rivers and clouds, trees, birds, algae, and salamanders, while ours puts them at risk. Human-designed systems are a far cry from this ongoing creation of ecosystem health, taking without giving back. Clear-cuts may meet the short-term desires of one species, but at the sacrifice of the equally legitimate needs of mosses and murrelets, salmon and spruce. I hold tight to the vision that someday soon we will find the courage of self-restraint, the humility to live like mosses. On that day, when we rise to give thanks to the forest, we may hear the echo in return, the forest giving thanks to the people. (156)

The time to be a bystander has passed. (162)

[1] Javier Martínez-Abaigar and Encarnación Núñez-Olivera, “The Legend and procession of the Moss Men of Béjar (Salamanca, Spain)”, Journal of Bryology, 23:261-266. (

[2] The spanish based media collective, Left Hand Rotation, has carried out a brilliant contemporary and critical appropriation of the “moss man”, video recorded, in both spain and portugal.

[3] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 2021. (All page references in the “Manifesto” are to this edition of the essay).