Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sex By the Side of the Road

Yesterday brought a spattering of rain to our arid winter and for my oögamous neighbors, this incites a sexual frenzy. All along the roadside, as I took my walk last afternoon, there was the equivalent of heavy breathing. I tried to avert my eyes, but it’s such a lovely spectacle that I just couldn’t help sneaking a peek. I even took photos!

I’m referring, of course, to my neighbors the Bryophyta-Muscis, who are in a class by themselves when it comes to coupling. They are, you see, mosses, and their sperm is motile and can only swim to the large, non-motile eggs through the film of water that the heavens were kindly supplying. What’s more, the sperm are flagellated and are stimulated to wriggle in the direction of the female cells by secretions from the archegonium, or egg. One can but wonder what this mossy equivalent of Chanel #5 might smell like – or taste like, for that matter. Whatever its charms, it was working them by the roadside, yesterday evening. And consider how much moss there is  – on tree trunks, boulders, in sheets crawling along road banks; acres and acres of it!

The anatomy of the gonads of mosses reads like poetry: calyptra, operculum, peristome, columella, antheridia and archegonia, and could be mesmerizing set to a chant like We All Come From the Goddess. It would also be a great memory aid to botany students such as I once was at UC Santa Barbara, my freshman year. There, under the tutelage of brilliant Dr. Muller, who wrote the textbook I still cherish for its encyclopedic grasp of the plant world and its clear and well-labeled illustrations, I learned about a microscopic world that had fascinated me since childhood.

As a child, I was always wandering in the woods and packing home bits of this and that: a discarded deer antler; a bird nest; the seedpods of strange lilies, crystals or the feathers of birds. On my tenth birthday, my parents gave me a small magnifying glass with three different lenses that folded into a small, compact case and fit nicely into the pocket of my jeans. Now I could explore a still smaller and more diverse world that raised more questions than my amateur observations could answer. Why, for example, did the mosses suddenly erupt in fields of tiny, waving stalks with lantern-shaped ends? What was the meaning of the chalky cups that clustered, bluish and seductively moist, amidst the velvety green carpets?

 Now I know that from an early age I was voyeuristically present at the seasonal Bacchanalia of the mosses. Those tiny cups brimming with dewdrops were actually chalky with a powdery mass of spores. When the surroundings are moist, tiny teeth bend in and scoop out the spores; when the surroundings are dry, the teeth bend outwards, disseminating the spores to the winds. It’s the moss’s version of oral sex. Who knew? Certainly not my parents who, as good 1950s parents ought not, would never have mouthed the words oral sex in front of us kids even if threatened with the rack.

I fantasize that, to the mosses, the soughing of the storm wind through the pines is both a love song symphonic in its polyphonies and a clarion call to action. Sex happens fast on the side of the road and all those little velvet cushions of moss are whispering with pillow talk. 

As with the amorous dartings of birds in spring; the glad chorus of a summer frog pond; or the glistening fields of ripe grasses lying down beneath the autumn wind, winter has its procreative bonfire, too.  I lie in my monogamous bed, listening to the patter of the rain on the roof, thinking kindly thoughts of my oögamous neighbors, and I smile. It’s an orgy, out there!

Signs of Life:
Monty Python would clearly agree, as witness "Every Sperm Is Sacred," courtesy of my old friend Michael Mager:

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