Friday, November 20, 2009

MOSS TRAILS


When I was in central Florida recently, I spent some time with a small boy named Alex who is a member of the Sullivan clan, a very clever two-year old who walked with me several times on the lake property belonging to Inez Sullivan. We chased butterflies and squirrels, gathered shells near the lakeshore, mocked crow calls, and picked up moss that had fallen from the oaks surrounding the property. My biggest success with entertaining Alex occurred when we decided to put the moss he had collected around faces that had been attached to two oaks along the driveway – eyes, nose, and mouth made of a clay-like material that adhered to the trees and which looked like the faces of old men. After we decorated the trees, Alex was so enchanted with the results, he wanted to go back after dark and re-do the old men’s faces.

The moss Alex and I used to create beards and hair on the old men’s faces is the same Spanish moss that trails from the ancient oaks here in Teche country. I can remember being impressed by the gray beards trailing from drooping branches of oaks on my first visit to this area. Spanish moss, which is gray-green in color, is an epiphyte related to the pineapple family and thrives on air and the extreme moisture prevalent in Cajun Country. Moss provided an industry for Acadian families before the advent of foam rubber and other synthetic materials and was used to fill mattresses, upholstery, automobile seats; it was almost indestructible as filler for those products.

The best description of moss gathering that I’ve read was written by Gladys Case in THE BAYOU CHENE STORY, written in 1973. When I was marketing THEIR ADVENTUROUS WILL: PROFILES OF MEMORABLE LOUISIANA WOMEN, I met Gladys Case at a book fair sponsored by the library in Abbeville, and she gave me a copy of her book about life in the Atchafalaya Basin from 1798-1927. She entitles the chapter about moss gathering “Louisiana’s Lagniappe,” the latter word meaning “something for nothing,” and she wrote that Spanish moss could be had for nothing “if one was not too lazy to pick it and get it ready for market.”

According to Case, families who gathered moss were usually large in number and children helped with the operation. The family also had to possess a small barge with a ladder on it, and the barge was pulled to a location where moss grew abundantly. Children picked the low-hanging moss, while the father used a long pole with a hook on the end to pick strands of the fiber from the tall oaks. When the family had filled the barge, they went home, spread the moss out on the banks of a bayou, and wet it down with water. The constant wetting process caused the outer fuzzy covering to rot and exposed a black resilient fiber that never rotted. Approximately six weeks later, pickers washed the moss and hung it on fences or trees so that it could dry. The fuzzy covering had rotted quickly in humid Louisiana weather. Then the moss was washed in water until it was a glistening black color. Again pickers dried it on bushes, trees, and fences. Later, it was made into hundred pound bales and transported to buyers.

Case wrote that if a family was energetic enough, they could initiate an assembly line process with black moss drying on the fence, green moss curing on the banks of a bayou, and the moss picker in the woods gathering more moss from the trees. She added that if the family was really enterprising, the father of the family could put out trot lines in the bayou to catch fish to trade for coffee, sugar, and other products needed.

Mattresses in Cajun Country were often made with the resilient moss, and some old-timers claim that they lasted a lifetime. In large families, several moss mattresses were placed on beds, and when company arrived, one of the moss mattresses would be taken from the bed and placed on the floor for visiting children. Case reports that now and then a moss picker would be lucky enough to come upon a tree that had been felled by a Louisiana storm or would find treetops from the previous year’s float. The moss on these trees had been in the water for months and would be well cured by the time the moss picker discovered it. The picker then bypassed curing the moss, which was a process that slowed down readying the moss for marketing.

I don’t know if Floridians were as resourceful as Acadians who used the abundant Spanish moss on their trees for making mattresses, but Alex, a city boy who lives in Columbus, Ohio, passed a good time using strands of it to create hair and beards for the old men faces on the oak trees surrounding Silver Lake. He and I got plenty of “something for nothing,” moss picking to satisfy our play impulses.
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