Friday, November 15, 2013

Spanish Moss

There are stars in the Southern sky
Southward as you go
There is moonlight and moss in the trees
Down the Seven Bridges Road...
So opens the song Seven Bridges Road, written and recorded by Steve Young in the 1960's, then covered and made famous by The Eagles in 1980. It's something of a minor anthem in the genre of Southern rock, a genre that is near to my heart, as frequent readers of this blog no doubt know. Young was inspired to write the poetically gorgeous lyrics of the song by his travels in Alabama, but the imagery--from the moonlight to the moss to the multiple bridges--fits in well with most of the southeastern United States.

Source: UNC School of Education
The moss he writes about is commonly called Spanish moss--scientifically, tillandsia usneoides--and is found throughout the southeast, but particularly in humid areas, making it a common sight in trees along riverbanks, near bridges, in areas not too close to the coast and heavy with vegetation. It is technically not a moss at all, but instead is a kind of angiosperm, a flowering plant that actually has tiny flowers and fruit. Oddly enough, it is in the same plant family as the pineapple, of all things.

The sight of Spanish moss is, for me, an indelible memory of my childhood. Growing up in Virginia along the brackish James River, there was no Spanish moss to see. Rather, my experiences with it stem from trips in the family station wagon--thankfully not a metallic pea one--to the west coast of Florida, in the days before I-95 had been fully completed. As my father drove south, we would invariably exit I-95 somewhere in Georgia in order to take U.S. Route 301 for the remainder of the trip. Spanish moss would begin to appear in trees as we cruised south, but then disappear as we crossed into Florida and traveled around Jacksonville.

But soon enough, it was back with a vegeance, with our passage into central Florida en route to the retirement communities dotting the states's gulf coast. For we were on our way to visit my grandparents who at the time lived in Fort Myers. It was--to be sure--a long and mostly boring trip. The occasional stops for gas or food were the highlights of each day. There were no handheld video games to play, no iPods to enjoy, just the tedium of the open road and the wavering signals of various FM radio stations (which I know made my trip far less boring than those taken by my parents when they were young).

To pass the time, I read books, colored, just looked out the window, or pestered my parents with the perennial questions "Are we there yet?" and "Can we stop soon?" There was one momentary period wherein the scenery always served to hold my attention: the portion of the drive from the lower part of North Carolina to the border of South Carolina. That stretch of I-95 was--and still is--home to numerous billboards advertising the famous (infamous?) South of the Border rest stop, just past the border between the Carolinas. The signs were big and goofy, humorously so to a child, and served their purpose well: I asked to stop there every single time we took that route. I think my parents agreed to stop just once.

Apart from this, though, there were few moments of real excitement on the trip, at least until Spanish moss really became a common sight. For it was at this point that I knew we were actually getting close to our final destination, that I knew our trip was nearly over. The signs for snake and alligator farms were the next thing to appear, followed by ones for glass-bottom boat rides and trips to see "real" Indian villages. But it was always the Spanish moss that stood out, because it was a part of the natural environment, not just a man-made sign or poorly-built tourist trap. It was evidence of change, of going from one place to another very different place, a signal that we were entering--in my mind--a different world, entirely.

Spanish moss is actually a common sight not only in the southeastern United States, but also in equally humid and heavily vegetated areas of Central and South America. Native Americans used the plant in many different ways. As early as the 1500's, European explorers made note of the plant and the various ways it was employed by the natives, from clothing, to rope, to various other textiles, to bedding. It was even used as a folk remedy for fevers and chills (by brewing a tea from it).

Of course, the various tribes in the Americas did not call the plant "Spanish moss." They had their own names for it, names that often described the plant as "tree hair" since that is very much what it looks like. How and when the term "Spanish moss" developed is an open question, though the most plausible--and defensible--explanation is that early French explorers of the Mississippi delta region began to call the plant "Spanish beard," something of a shot at the unkempt facial hair of their competitors. In response, Spanish explorers called it "French hair." But the first name stuck and over time became Spanish moss. There is also the possibility that the term "Spanish mustache"--also common--was corrupted into "Spanish moss."

But aside from these etymological explanations, there also exist some far more interesting ones--if likely untrue-- that are common in Southern and Native American folklore. For instance, there is a story told by New World settlers wherein a man came to settle in the New World with his Spanish fiancee. They chose a place to build their home, staking out a claim. But the Native Americans in the area were unhappy with their presence. In order to drive them away, the Native Americans came to their home and cut off the women's long, beautiful, black hair and threw it into the trees. The chief of the tribe then cursed the settlers and their home, causing the hair to turn gray and spread from tree to tree as a warning to all other would-be settlers.

Another tale--also with marital connotations--involves an elderly Spanish conquistador who tries to take a beautiful Native American girl against her will to be his bride (or to just rape her, in some accounts). She escapes from him and runs into the forest. He pursues her and she eventually climbs a tall tree, in hopes of evading him. The Spaniard, however, follows her up the tree. She prays for deliverance and the gods answer, causing the branch on which the Spaniard stands to splinter and break, just as he reaches out to grab her. As he falls to his death, his graying beard becomes entangled in the branches and is ripped from his face. And there it remains as a warning to those who would try to take Native American women against their will.

There are still other tales that have sprung up over time to explain the name. And again, it is unlikely that any reflect the real truth of the matter, of how the name came into existence. Still, these stories serve a cultural purpose--as do all folktales, myths, and legends--insofar as they offer life lessons or warnings by explaining some mundane reality.

Traveling with my family all those years ago, I knew naught of these stories, I only knew the name of the plant that I waited to see with such great anticipation. But now, in knowing what was behind the name, I realize just how right my instincts were at the time. The moss represents a boundary between worlds, not only that of my own life, but also between the past and the present, between history and myth.

In our rapidly changing, fast-paced modern world, it is often noted how we--as a culture--often fail to stop and smell the roses from time to time. While that's undoubtedly true, we also fail to understand the stories behind those roses--or that Spanish moss--even when do stop to smell them. And those stories are where life actually happens, where our own histories unfold into our present. They are--or were--what binds us with the world.

Cheers, all.

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