La molsa t'ajuda a veure el món de prop / Moss helps you see the world close up
The starting point of the project Plantes rares (plec de treball, Farrera) is the fascinating intersection between plants and people, and in particular a rare plant that was found in the lower part of the Farrera Valley by a woman who was a rara avis, that is to say, unusual for her time: the botanist, pharmacist, pioneer and passionate specialist in the Flora of the bryophytes of Catalonia, Creu Casas i Sicart (1913-2007). In 1969 Casas collected and documented a species of moss called Oedipodiella australis var. catalaunica which presents some characteristics that are anomalous for its species and which, moreover, is also known to be only found in Europe on Cape Creus, although mysteriously it also grows in the Central Pyrenees. How did this species that originates in Southern Africa reach the Farrera Valley and become adopted by Catalonia? Without doubt this was the initial input of the project, the McGuffin.
The other curious feature of this plant, as Casas describes, is that it grows between the stones of the artificial walls built in the old fields, and thus is closely associated with the customs of the inhabitants of the Valley.This fact was the starting point for a search for the traces of this plant and of this bryologist that led me to make contact with a number of centres and scientists.
In July 2014, in order to document the moss Oedipodiella, I approached the Botanical Institute of Barcelona. Neus Ibáñez, Keeper of the Herbarium, had located this species in another centre, and so I was redirected to the Bryology Laboratory of the UAB (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona) founded by Creu Casas. This Laboratory, housed in dense premises, is hidden away in the maze of buildings of the university’s Bellaterra campus. Its bryophyte collection (Herbari BCB) has an archive of 43,000 specimens of mosses. The bryologist Montserrat Brugués, a close collaborator of Casas, told me that the Oedipodiella “var. catalaunica” did not properly exist, that it had once been described but later it was found not to be sufficiently differentiated and thus was not valid. In spite of her scepticism about my interest, she agreed to show me the exemplar of Oedipodiella that is still preserved in the collection. I was astounded to find that the envelope that contained this bryophyte had nothing in it but some remains of dry earth.
I wondered how Casas had managed to collect this invisible moss in 1969. In this first meeting with the Oedipodiella I realised that to find out what mosses really hide would need an experienced eye rather than a simple look through a magnifying glass.
Brugués gave me the name of another bryologist who lived in Farrera, Francisco Lloret. Paco, as he is known in Farrera, agreed to introduce me to the fascinating world of mosses. There had been a lot of rain that summer and the mosses were growing everywhere, so there was no need to go far afield to collect a variety of specimens. The work of the naturalist is peculiar; it means crawling on the ground, climbing walls, getting soaked in ponds, and especially doing everything possible to shorten distances so as to make the exploration more efficient. Creating a herbarium of mosses seems to have no great mysteries. The samples are placed in envelopes made of newspaper to dry them, details of the collection are noted, then they are transferred to the permanent envelopes and finally they are identified. And the identification is another story that requires the rigour, the time and the patient, methodical attitude of the scientist.
While we were exploring the mosses of the area, Paco explained to me everything that I could see inside that microcosm and then, suddenly, he picked up the magnifying glass and said, “Mosses help you to see the world close up,” and he went on picking through the earth. I suppose that Paco must have been surprised that someone had turned up in Farrera following in the footsteps of Creu Casas, that generous lady with a prodigious memory who had directed his doctoral thesis. Paco told me that Dr Casas spent the summers in the nearby Ribera de Cardós and had roamed all over the countryside. So, it was more than probable that at some time the village Farrera had been the object of her explorations, collecting some exemplars of muscus populus farrerinensis.
This committed ecologist told me that he thought that there were about 40 different specimens in the village of Farrera alone. This figure impressed me, especially seeing that it was comparable to the number of residents (houses) in Farrera. Well, that’s not really true, because it easily exceeds the number of permanent residents in the village.
That same summer I found two documents in the Berlin Botanical Museum that were to help me greatly: a illustration of the life cycle of the mosses (that would later turn into the life cycle of the mosses and of a lady bryologist) and the book Icones Plantarum Rariorum Horti Regii Botanici Berolinensis commissioned by King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1841 to illustrate rare, unknown and exotic species.
But to return to the mosses, these tiny, curious, rare beings, there is a rich variety of specimens with widely differing morphological characteristics. These require and call for a careful look through the magnifying glass. Under the seductive appearance of a velvety mat they hide a magic microcosm. They are gregarious by nature and they cluster together out of harmony, as they are also selective in their locations. Their life cycle is exciting and of great complexity, hard to understand, where gametophytes, antheridia, antherozoids, archegonia, and sporangia lead us to the sporophytes before ending up in a shower of spores. Moss hibernates in dry weather and comes back to life when it rains. It has a fascinating ability to adapt to its location. It manages to pass unnoticed in the crevices left by humans. Its beauty embellishes everything. All in all, moss teaches us a way of being in the world.
Finally, the artist book Plantes Rares brings together the research of the project into a publication format. This book with its varied contents, offers a hybrid space that records the experience of the artist who adopts the role of field researcher and gathers the testimony of a space: the space where mosses and people meet. The production of a book is a journey in space-time, that gives us the magical possibility of being in different places at the same moment. The book is crowded with experiences, histories, people, plants, in fact with spaces, spaces of memory.
In Plantes rares you will not find scientific rigour, though it does in a certain way adopt the appearance of special kind of guide to ethnobotany from an artistic standpoint. These concessions from art aim to generate poetic descriptions of the social and plant-life universes of Farrera. It becomes a discreet tribute to its common inhabitants: the mosses and people of Farrera.