Author, teacher and bioregionalist, Stephanie Mills offers this essay to Nature Change readers on the beauty and wonder of mosses and ferns as seen through the eyes of naturalist and teacher, Rick Halbert.
Many a nature lover was introduced as a child to the outdoors by a parent or teacher. The outdoors can be just the back yard, but the crucial thing is awakening what Rachael Carson called in her wise and lovely essay of that title A Sense of Wonder. Pheasant hunting with his father first kindled it in local naturalist Rick Halbert. As a teacher and volunteer, he’s spent his life connecting people and nature. A botanist, he knows, loves, and fosters the native plants of our region.
Many naturalists learn how to learn with a deep study of a certain species, genus, or family. If they stay in the biology racket, the learning may extend to whole bioregions and the heavens above. Studying biology at MSU, Halbert gravitated to botany because, as he wryly told me, there are more plants than animals and “they don’t run away.” Then, having learned about the flowering plants, he noticed that nobody seemed to be paying much attention to the small non-flowering plants–mosses and other bryophytes–so he proceeded to study them.
Bryophytes are thought to have been among the earliest land plants, algae become terrestrial. They lack roots or vascular systems, internal vessels for moving water and minerals. Rather they absorb their necessities directly through their permeable leaf surfaces.
Moss reproduction is two-phase, by water and then wind. First the plants develop differing structures that produce sperm and ova. These depend on ambient wetness for their meet up and chromosomal mingle. Then come spore-bearing structures that require dryness to open and cast their packets of future moss to the breezes.
So while we do get to gaze at and hunt some charismatic mega fauna in our bioregion, conspicuous critters like black bear and white-tailed deer, closer to the ground there’s a phenomenal diversity of no less fascinating organisms, quite as worthy of our attention. Plants apparently generic as mosses or ferns are actually of many tribes: nearly three hundred moss species, thirty to fifty of ferns, and perhaps a dozen species each of club mosses and horsetails inhabit Northwest Michigan. It does take some close looking to sort them out.
Graduate study in bryology took Rick Halbert away from Michigan to the rugged back country of British Columbia. “He’s been to places that have never been told,” said Chris Halbert, who taught kindergarten in Vancouver while her husband scaled remote mountains researching their mosses. The advent of their first child prompted the Halberts’ move back to Michigan, where Rick began teaching junior high school in Traverse City, whereupon, he said “I got busy and got away from bryology.”
Busy indeed. In addition to the following decades of public school teaching, for several years, Rick and Chris operated Willowbrook Herb and Dried Flower Farm.
He was a weekend ranger naturalist at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Rick worked for the Leelanau Conservancy monitoring its holdings, walking hundreds of miles annually through the county’s second growth forests. “I’ve seen a lot of Leelanau that nobody else has seen,” he said, “which has been a joy.”
Rick studied with the renowned tracker Tom Brown, as did Matt Miller, one of Rick’s junior high students, and the co-founder of the Human Nature School. Matt tapped Rick to teach HNS classes in edible plant foraging, orienteering with and without a compass, survival skills, and celestial navigation. I took that latter course without distinguishing myself, but happily made the Halberts’ acquaintance.
Pursuing my own study of the natural history of naturalists, this past May I asked Rick if we could go for a plant walk. We met at the Halberts’ home, near the De Young Natural Area. Arriving at the same moment as a front on a dank cold day, I saw that the builder of these condominiums must have been something of a nature lover, for mature hardwoods surrounded the residences, slender alleys of the North Woods, freer and far more interesting than the average woodburb’s stark landscaping.
Indoors, on Rick’s bookshelf along with works on woodcraft, tracking, and the like, I noticed a massive two-volume treatise on the Hepaticas, or liverworts, those low-lying plants of damp shady places, even less conspicuous than mosses. There were both a dissecting and a compound microscope, indispensable tools in serious plant identification. When it comes to minuscule forms that don’t flower, says Halbert, “There aren’t a lot of characters you can use to identify them,” and because the bryophytes’ appearance changes dramatically from wet to dry “you really have to learn them both ways.”
“I keep threatening to go back and learn my mosses,” he said. These days Halbert’s learning the ferns. Given that ferns are bigger and number fewer species here, they may be a little easier to master than the mosses. But not that easy. Until you try to identify it by species, a fern’s a fern. I know Maidenhair, with its unmistakable fan-like arrangement of leaflets, is obvious, but once in the realms of pinnate ferns, identification becomes more challenging.
Rick and Chris and I began our counterclockwise walk on the trail around the neighborhood, following a little stream. We passed a patch recently cleared of myrtle and planted now with ferns doing nicely. Many a North woods native plant, many of them either cultivated or liberated by the Halberts, greeted us: Celandine poppy, Solomon’s seal and wild ginger; mayapple, and jack-in-the-pulpit.
Rick pointed out a Christmas fern, “quite uncommon in Leelanau,” and elsewhere an abundance of Bulblet ferns “I’ve never seen so many in one place.” An area that Rick has cleared of sweet woodruff, another plant like myrtle that blanketed the ground, crowding out the likes of foam flower and blue cohosh. These returning natives now grow more freely in these woods.
We notice the lurid white cast of an infected beech tree, and wonder aloud about the future of our forests. “We’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” he said. “What’s happening to our trees is really sad. If the maples are ever in trouble, then it’s all over for us.”
Later I asked if he’d noticed any ill effects of changing climate on the ferns or mosses of our area. “They seem to still be here,” Halbert said. “The biggest thing is habitat destruction” Thus these venerable, pioneering little plants may be resilient to the weird weather so far, but they can’t persist without a variety of moist and mostly shady places to grow.
As of this cloudy May day, it’s not over for us or the mosses. The rains fall, and the bryophytes grow greenly turgid and reproduce. Weed out the myrtle and woodruff and the ferns and celandine return. Rekindle the study of natural history and get kids outside and some of those kids, like Matt Miller, will begin to have a care for nature and pass it on. Rick Halbert and nature mentors like him know that the living Earth can teach us what we need to know, if we learn the paths and reclaim our sense of wonder.
[Publisher’s note: We send out this special thank you to Rick Halbert for the pictures included here.]