A Multi-Species Ethnography of Nature and Time: Human’s Long-Standing Relationship with Moss in the Japanese Temple Garden

Natasha Hoare



It has long been acknowledged that the Earth’s species are interdependent on one another. When studying the ecosystems of the rainforest or the ocean we learn that one species cannot exist in isolation of those which surround it; these environments must be considered holistically. But, as Anna Tsing argues in her 2012 study of mushrooms as a companion species, human’s role within species interdependency tends to be left out of anthropological (and wider) research. Too often we see ourselves as exceptional, “self-maintaining”, remote from the rest of the species kingdoms (Tsing, 2012: 144). In the field of anthropology, the past couple of decades have seen the rise of “multi-species” ethnography which seeks to challenge this hierarchy of life on earth. Recognising that animals, plants and other non-humans are deeply connected to our social worlds, a multi-species method examines this entanglement of humans and non-humans to give new insight into human interaction.

This paper will adopt a multi-species approach to discuss the role moss plays in a human-shaped landscape, particularly focusing on its presence in Japanese temple gardens. After considering the current status of plants in multi-species ethnography, I argue that moss has been largely disregarded – not only in anthropological study but also in wider fields of garden design and Japanese studies. I question why it has been a consistent feature of the Japanese garden across all eras, and what kind of response it evokes in the observer. Conscious of past tendencies to ‘Other’ Japanese society (Adeney Thomas, 2001; Said, 1978), I compare the use of moss across cultures to reflect on how far these attitudes are unique: arguing that appreciation of moss, whilst particularly prominent in Japanese society, is not limited to Japan. Both appreciation and hostility is evident across cultures.


Plants in Anthropology: More Than Just a Model of Thought

Plants have long been used in metaphorical form to better visualise and understand human society. The image of the tree is utilised recurrently to map human origins both in religious texts and Darwin’s evolutionary theory (Basu, 2004; Bouquet, 1996). In more recent history Deleuze and Guattari (1987) proposed a shift from the metaphor of the linear tree to one of rhizomes (networks of shorter, non-hierarchical stems), better reflecting the multiplicity of society. Botanical tropes are ever-present in the English language to indicate identity and belonging; individuals often refer to their ‘roots’, ‘soil’ or ‘turf’ (Basu, 2004; Ghorashi, 2017). Yet, as Nealon (2015) points out, despite their prominence in our language and models of thought, plants themselves tend to remain on the outskirts of anthropological research. Even in Deleuze and Guttari’s (1987) rhizomatic model, which they refer to as a ‘vegetal model of thought’, the image is used as “a template for discussing virtually everything except plant life” (Nealon, 2015: 85). Although plants are abundant in the vocabulary we use to understand human phenomena, little attention has been paid to human’s relationship with the species itself.

However, more recently this has been changing with a shift towards a broader sense of multi-species ethnography pioneered by academics like Donna Haraway and Edward Kohn. Donna Haraway (2003) refers to the ‘Significant Otherness’ of non-humans. A multi-species ethnography does not anthropomorphise non-humans, nor assume that all species are all the same. It is their ‘Otherness’ which makes non-humans an interesting subject of enquiry, because of the different and unique ways in which humans interact with them. Much of the criticism directed towards multi-species ethnography tends to revolve around how far non-humans should be given agency. From this view, plants are even more problematic than animals because they do not present us with any interpretable emotions at all – it is impossible to see from their point of view. However, researchers like Archambault (2016) and Nealon (2015) criticise this need to classify non-humans; we should not get “caught up in a theoretical shell game of what counts and doesn’t count as life” (Nealon, 2015: 110). They argue that it is not essential to define the status of non-humans, nor attempt to see from their point of view. Instead, multi-species ethnography should focus on the products formed through the entanglement of humans and non-humans – emotionally, aesthetically and so on.

Haraway’s (2003) Companion Species Manifesto drew attention to the fluidity of a multi-species approach. Haraway (2003) focused on dogs in her study because of their long-enduring relationship with humans, but by referring to them as companion species rather than companion animals she helped open the door for this approach to extend to all non-human entities. Referencing Haraway’s work, Anna Tsing (2012) studied not animals but mushrooms as a companion species. She traced the ways mushrooms were species-interdependent with humans as well as other parts of the plant/fungi kingdom. Julie Soleil Archambault (2016) studied feelings of ‘love’ between young male gardeners in Mozambique and their plants. Whilst researchers like Archambault and Tsing help bring non-humans into the spotlight of anthropological research, the plant and fungi kingdom is vast and diverse; it requires more than a handful of notable multi-species ethnographies to address wide issues like the binaries of wild/domestic and natural/man-made. This essay seeks to add to the growing field of multi-species ethnography by discussing a plant not often considered either in multi-species ethnography or more traditional studies of garden and landscape design: moss.


 Nihonjinron and the Othering of Japan

According to Kazuyuki Ishihara (2012), a Japanese garden designer renowned in the UK for his multi-award-winning works at the Chelsea Flower Show, “it has been difficult to make them [judges from the UK] understand what moss means to us [Japanese people]”. Comparisons like Ishihara’s are helpful in highlighting where perceived differences might be, yet it is important not to take dualisms like this at face value. Japan has long gained attention in western media and academia for its status as a particularly ‘unique’ country and society – leading to its own field of enquiry, ‘Nihonjinron’ (Hijiya-Kirschnereit, 2013). A common perception of the Japanese is that they possess an innate love of harmony, achieved through oneness with nature. However, studies of Japan’s uniqueness have become widely critiqued for their historical inaccuracy and sweeping generalisations (Adeney Thomas, 2001; Kuitert, 1988; Yamada, 2009). Though Japan is not being homogenised with all countries considered part of the ‘Orient’, Said’s Orientalism (1978) is still a useful reference when considering the issues surrounding Japanese studies. Said (1978) argued that separating Eastern countries as the foreign ‘Other’ was a way for western countries to refine their own identity against this. ‘Othering’ qualities do not always have to be negative; Japan’s love of nature is often seen as admirable; but this does not necessarily make it a reality.

Academics like Adeney Thomas, Yamada and Kuitert have given agency to Japanese people themselves in shaping these dualistic identities, adding depth to Said’s (1978) theory. In 20th century Japan, in a bid to compete culturally with the West as well as materially, the state amplified characteristics of society which were garnering interest overseas. In 1934, Japan’s Ministry of Education defined the Japanese ‘spirit’ as one of harmony, in contrast to the West’s perceived individualism (Kuitert, 1988: 152). This led to what Yamada (2009: 5) calls the “Magic Mirror effect” – a polished image being presented which reflected only the most positive ideas, in order for the Japanese state to negotiate power in the form of cultural capital. Within this was a politicisation of nature; relationships with nature (seen as an enemy to modernity) became a part of the national identity (Adeney Thomas, 2001). This had an impact on Japanese gardens: in the West during the mid-20th century it was widely thought that the gardens were in themselves an expression of Zen philosophy. This has since been criticised, as well as their intellectual design clashing with Zen notions of intuitivism, the claim was first made only in 1935 by Western author Loraine Kuck, a year after Japan self-defined itself with a ‘spirit’ of harmony (Kuitert, 1988; McKellar & Deane, 2015).

With both Orientalism and this “reverse Orientalism” in mind, it is important not to make assumptions about an innate Japanese understanding or perception of beauty in regard to the role of moss in the garden. Its prominence still makes it worthy of research – Japan cannot be written off as a place of study for fear of contributing to stereotypes (Berthier, 2000). Nonetheless, appreciation of moss is not absent in other societies and the use of moss in the garden is not simply a desire to be ‘at one’ with nature.

 Moss: The Ignored Element in the Japanese Garden

Why dedicate a study to moss, and why focus on Japan in particular? Thanks to multi-species ethnographies the idea of plants as an object of study is beginning to gain some traction in the field of anthropology. But ‘plants’ is a huge field of enquiry and moss occupies a very different space in the landscape to a tree or a flowering plant. When Deleuze and Guattari (1987) stated that they were ‘bored of trees’ and proposed rhizome theory, they were talking metaphorically; thinking ‘rhizomatically’ was a framework for considering human society. Instead of linear roots (implying hierarchy and chronology of thought), rhizomes are tiny stems which spread horizontally and connect like a web (indicating the multiplicity of society). I would like to apply the notion more literally. Whilst trees have long been studied for their connection to genealogy, blood and ‘rootedness’, what of rhizomatic plants like moss? The rootlessness of moss allows it to grow on surfaces that most cannot colonise, such as rocks and rooftops. Because it does not need nutrient-rich soil like rooted plants, moss is fantastic at taking advantage of environments in which other parts of the ecosystem are failing. It is remarkably resilient and known for being difficult to kill. Thus, colonies of moss can survive across generations, a longer time span than many plants. As Deleuze and Guattari (1987) alluded, plants with roots and plants with rhizomes are entirely different categories; in connection to humans, a plant like moss deserves to be studied in its own right.

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Figure 1 Saihō-ji’s garden (Fuji, 2017)

In Japanese gardens, moss can adopt a very prestigious role. Take Saihō-ji (pictured above), a Unesco World Heritage temple in Kyoto renowned for its garden. Saihō-ji’s familiar name is “Koke-dera”, literally translated to the “moss temple”. As the name suggests, its main attraction is the rich green moss that blankets much of the gardens surface. Saihō-ji is not alone: along with water and rocks, moss is a key component of virtually every Japanese garden, extending to even the most baron.

The Karesansui garden, or Dry Landscape garden, is iconic precisely for its lack of life. Consisting of rocks (often representing mountains or other natural forms) carefully placed within a garden of raked white gravel (representing water), this style has evoked interest worldwide due to its simplicity: imitating nature in microcosmic form rather than actually incorporating natural elements (McKellar & Deane, 2015). In the garden of Ryōan-ji (pictured below), undoubtedly Japan’s most famous Karesansui, there are no grasses, no trees, and no rooted plants within the confines of the strictly bounded rectangular plot. And yet, in this garden of austerity, moss is allowed to grow at the base of each of the fifteen rocks. Nitzchke (1993), in his detailed overview of the history of Japanese Gardens, seems almost reluctant to acknowledge its presence: simply stating that “apart from a few traces of moss at the foot of its rocks, the garden is utterly devoid of plant life” (1993: 90). And yet it is not just a few traces; particularly in the summer months when moss is at its most lush – it is a burst of colour in a monotonous landscape. Precisely because Ryōan-ji is devoid of other plant life, moss plays a crucial role in the overall effect of this garden.

Figure 2 Ryōan-ji’s garden (Yee, 2009)
Figure 3 Ryōan-ji’s garden (own image).

Lack of attention to moss seems consistent in even the most influential English-language studies of Japanese temple gardens. Ryōan-ji, Kuitert’s (1988)Themes, Scenes, and Taste in the History of Japanese Garden Art makes exactly the same limited observation as Nitschke: there is a “complete absence of any planting material, aside from some moss at the base of the rocks” (1988: 118). In both, there is detailed discussion about what the garden lacks, but not what the garden contains. In Nitzchke’s (1993) otherwise thorough account of Saihō-ji or the “moss temple”, only one line mentions it: “the garden is floored with a thick, moist carpet of intense green” (1993: 68). Despite its namesake there is no insight into the reason for or meaning of its prominence. Great attention is paid to rocks and water as the key elements of a Japanese garden; entire books have dedicated to the “language of rocks” in the Karesansui (Berthier, 2000). But despite adorning many of these rocks, moss only ever gets mentioned in passing – a by-product of these other, more ‘worthy’ objects of analysis. Japan’s humid climate makes it a perfect home for mosses, leading to an abundance of species. For this reason, they could be written off as a practical, unfussy choice in landscape design. Yet the gardens of Japan are revered around the world for their nuance and attention to detail; if this is so, surely the choice to consistently use moss is not purely practical.


 Moss as “Beauty of Natural Accident” and “Perfection of Man-Made Type”

The previously held binary suggested that the Japanese created their gardens in harmony with nature, while the West created their gardens in an attempt to conquer nature (Kuitert, 1988). This has been plenty critiqued with reference to the thought-process behind placement of rooted plants and rocks. For example, the influential Zen master Oribe was known for sweeping away the fallen leaves in his garden and scattering leaves or pines of his choice; this was often an entirely different species from the trees above (Nitschke, 1993: 162). Nitschke (1993) used this case to show a shift in human’s relationship with nature in the garden – whereas in previous eras the trend was to imitate nature in a microcosmic form, Oribe was consciously overwriting natural design with his own imaginings. The Meiji era – roughly 1868-1912 – took this further with the introduction of carved rock and synthetic materials. Lamenting how the mark of ‘man’s hands’ tends to be worn away in gardens, modern sculptor Isamu Noguchi stated that he “didn’t want to be hidden” from his works (Noguchi, 1989 cited by Nitschke, 1993: 233). These instances suggest that ‘conquering’ nature through conscious garden design can be as much a part of Japanese garden design as Western. It is particularly important not to be ahistorical in this respect. As noted, styles have undergone significant changes throughout the ages.

In reality, a garden can rarely be reduced to simply ‘harmonising’ versus ‘conquering’ nature, or, as Nitschke (1993: 11) refers to it, “beauty of natural accident” versus “perfection of man-made type”. The two can be present in the same place, even within the same element. It is surprising that moss has not been used to illustrate this point: in the Japanese garden it provides a perfect example of the fluid dynamics between the ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’.

In his book Earth Diver (2005) Shinichi Nakazawa, anthropologist and artist, imagines Tokyo as a gigantic form of the Karesansui (dry landscape) garden. In his descriptions, roads are like the flowing water, buildings the rocks, and gardens/greenery the moss. Nakazawa (2005) uses moss as representative of nature in its simplest, most pure sense. This could be because of moss’ primitivism; it is part of the bryophyte family, the first plants to colonise land. It could also be the way in which it grows, with rhizomes spreading in all directions, rather than linear roots. This makes it more random than a rooted plant; more reflective of the chaos and spontaneity found in nature. When speaking about why they keep moss in their private gardens, multiple Japanese people linked it to clean air. This is scientifically accurate: because of its dense surface area, it’s an excellent absorber of pollutants (Wall Kimmerer, 2003). This could contribute to the perception of moss as the ‘purest’ form of nature. Finally, there is still a sense of mystery surrounding moss – there’s a lot unknown about its growth patterns even today. For example, it is extremely difficult to cultivate it on rocks despite this often occurring naturally (ibid.). In these ways, moss can embody Nitschke’s (1993) notion of ‘natural accident’.

Yet these indicators of ‘naturalness’ are in many ways at odds with the way moss is kept in a Japanese temple garden. As aforementioned, Japanese garden design is a very conscious process and does not have to follow the rules of nature. In a similar vein to Oribe’s leaf replacement, the garden of Sanzen-in (a temple in Northern Kyoto) contradicts natural formations. Sanzen-in’s Yusei-en garden features a spectacular carpet of moss, amongst which maple trees grow. The maple trees are well known for the shades of red and orange they turn during the autumn season. Yet, according to Wall Kimmerer (2003: 15), moss carpets should only grow under evergreen trees. Deciduous trees like maple would smother them with their falling leaves, making the ground virtually uninhabitable. It is fair to say that the blanket at Sanzen-in would at least be less uniform if the garden was left growing naturally. Two elements which do not grow together harmoniously have been united and human interference keeps them both in pristine condition in this garden. Like most temple gardens, viewing is done from within the gravel path (pictured below) or from the temple veranda. To interact with this scene and walk through the moss itself, as one might be naturally inclined to do, would be hugely disrespectful.

Figure 4 Sanzen-in’s garden (author’s own image)
Figure 5 Sanzen-in’s garden (author’s own image)

The ways in which moss is cultivated outside of the garden in Japan is also worthy of note. For example, it is almost always found at the base of bonsai trees and is wrapped around the soil of kokedera (moss ball plants). Bonsai is grown from the seedling or cutting of a regular-size plant; the artist stunts its development by shaping and restraining it to a small pot. Once fully established, expert bonsai can be displayed in museums or art galleries, further distancing them from the seeds or cuttings from which they came. Pictured below is the famous Uzushio bonsai; its name means ‘whirlpool’. Over roughly five hundred years this bonsai (including the moss at its base) has been tamed by human hands in order to reflect the ‘untameability of nature’ (Fox, 2017). In all the multiple ways in which moss is utilised in Japanese design – gardens, bonsai, kokedama – humans are clearly exerting their will upon it. Yet, almost paradoxically, appreciation of it in the first place is thanks to its status as nature in its ‘purest’ form. Moss is therefore useful in contributing to the argument, previously put forward by anthropologists like Knight (1996) and Adeney Thomas (2001), that binaries of natural/artificial in Japanese society are far more blurred than we might once have thought.

Figure 6 Uzushio at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum (BBC Four, 2017)

In terms of how unique this overlapping of the rational and the random (Nitschke, 1993) is to Japanese or Eastern thought, Nitschke (1993) leans towards the notion of a fundamental difference in the Western mind. He discusses how logics of design like geomancy (also known as feng-shui) have “a fundamental acknowledgement of the interdependence of all levels of reality, both natural and man-made” and are “not easily grasped by the Western mind” (1993: 33). Yet, this seems a little reductive. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (2003) ethnographic account as a bryophyte consultant shows that the combination of ‘rational’ and ‘random’ is not just something desired by the Japanese. Kimmerer discusses how she was enlisted by a wealthy property owner in the United States to give advice on his new golf course. The owner wanted her help to grow or transplant moss onto the newly blasted rock formations, thus making them look more aged and ‘authentic’.

Studies of Nihonjinron often cite the Japanese aesthetic notion of ‘wabi-sabi’; this phrase contains a love for things that embody imperfection and the passing of time (Nitschke, 1993). But Kimmerer was asked to help on the golf course because her employer also wanted the rocks to look less perfect, less new. When discussing his ‘Senri-Sentei’ garden design, Kazuyuki Ishihara (2016) said “I put them [the plants] there, of course, but I want people to think they were there naturally”. From this quote, Ishihara and the golf-course owner’s goals do not seem too far apart – both wanted to artificially evoke a sense that time had passed. It should be mentioned that Wall Kimmerer (2003) had to disappoint her employer; it would be impossible to transplant moss onto the rocks permanently, and it would have taken generations to encourage an entire colony to grow there naturally. Having been a feature of garden design in Japan for so long, the methods of growing moss are perhaps more widely understood there. But this example shows a consistency in the reasons for wanting moss in a garden across cultures. The dynamic between natural and artificial, highlighted in the use of moss, is especially prominent and artfully carried out in the Japanese garden, but is not a feature limited to them.


 Provoking Reflection on the Passing of Time

One of the appeals – or, as will be discussed later, deterrents – of moss consistent across cultures is its status as an indicator of age. Colonies of moss can exist across generations, and they take advantage of objects that are in a state of decay; causing the observer to reflect upon the passing of time. Previous anthropological studies have shown the concept of time as being crucial to the understanding of human’s relationship with plants. In his study regarding the social life of trees in the Hongu forests of Japan, John Knight (1996) discussed the long-term process involved in yamazukuri or forest management. In these largely family-run businesses, trees took on average sixty years to fully grow; a labourer would often fell trees planted by their grandfather or great-grandfather. Interviewees described the “deep affection” they felt for the trees due to way in which they linked generations (1996: 228). In a sense, the trees tell the stories of the villages they surround; they “come to be inscribed with the social relationships that made their successful cultivation possible” (ibid: 229). Differentially, in Mozambique, Julie Soleil Archambault (2016) studied the way in which young male’s in particular ‘loved’ the plants in their gardens. Like Knight, she notes how the plants “mapped out the passing of time”: this time through each plant’s association with a different life event, social interaction and so on (ibid: 225). So, in what way can moss contribute to this sense of plants embodying time?

Shinichi Nakazawa (2005) uses moss as allegorical for the ‘ancient world’, and moss is often a desirable plant because of its tendency to grow on that which has aged: humans can interpret this as a sign that the object has an authentic history, making it more aesthetically pleasing. If we were to apply anthropological frameworks usually reserved for humans, moss growing on an object can be seen to give it objectified ‘cultural capital’ (Bourdieu, 1984). Like Archambault and Knight’s studies, moss is autobiographical, but of its environment rather than of the person growing it. Wherever it grows, it gives that object a visible story for the observer to appreciate. To return to the garden of Ryōan-ji: other than the moss, the space consists simply of gravel and stone in its roughly 400 square yards -excluding the trees outside the walls, considered shakkei or “borrowed scenery” (Kuitert, 1988). The main expanse of gravel shows no sign of age; like all dry landscape gardens it has to be freshly raked often to maintain its shape against weathering (Mckellar & Deane, 2015). It is the moss-adorned rocks which give the space a sense of time, something seen as crucial to ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetics.

Of course, it is well known that moss is not always considered aesthetically pleasing. Despite Ishihara’s observation that the UK does not understand Japan’s love of moss, for households in both the UK and Japan moss growing out of place can be a nuisance. There are vast websites and products readily available in both the English and Japanese language to help remove it from lawns and buildings. Ironically, the same golf-course owner who hired Robin Wall Kimmerer (2003) to cultivate moss on rocks later hired her once again to help remove it from his pathways. Moss is often blamed for killing the object on which it grows, despite botanists like Wall Kimmerer (2003: 95) arguing that its shallow rhizomes are not capable of doing as such – they simply take advantage of environments in decay from another cause. Moss as a signifier of age can be positive – as a sign of authenticity and a reflection on the beauty of passing time – but it can also be negative; a sign of neglect and deterioration. In the Japanese temple garden, moss is caringly looked after. One can often see gardeners working at ground level, using tweezers to tend to the plants stem-by-stem. There is no fear of negligence here; moss can exist as a solely positive presence. In this space, its qualities are seen in a positive light, but this should not be taken to mean that moss is always a welcome plant. The very qualities that make it an object of beauty in the Japanese temple garden make it undesirable in certain other environments – in particular lawns and rooftops – both in Japan and in other countries like the UK and USA.

Figure 7 Moss on a wooden rooftop in Ohara, Kyoto (own image)



In this paper I have sought to demonstrate how the presence of moss in Japanese temple gardens – and further afield – adds an autobiographical aspect to its surroundings. It gives an insight into the history of the object on which it grows; often in line with traditional Japanese aesthetics, which makes the object more beautiful to the observer. But this can equally make it a nuisance: when it grows against human will it tends to lose its aesthetic appeal, in Japan as well as ‘Western’ countries. I have argued that moss also helps destabilise dichotomies between the natural world and the artificial world. At first revered for its status as primitive and ‘pure’, moss is then meticulously shaped and cultivated to the gardener or designers will. The way it is admired both for its natural chaos and its human-controlled perfection highlights the tenuous border between these two spheres. More than simply an easy choice to grow in Japan’s climate, the qualities moss embodies as a rootless and resilient plant make it a crucial feature of the garden. Its presence helps give insight into the designer or observer’s understanding of aesthetics and time: making moss a deserving addition to multi-species ethnography.




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