Written by H. D. Williamson
Originally published by: Australian Geographical Society, Australian National Publicity Association & Australian National Travel Association 1934, ‘The moss gatherers’, Walkabout, vol 10. no. 11.
The gathering of sphagnum moss is one of those small and little-known industries that emerged which the urgency of war has underlined in red. After processing, the moss is used to pack the insides of acetylene gas containers and has the effect of keeping the gas over a long period in the same state as when it was first forced into the cylinder. Without this packing of moss to maintain it in a constant state acetylene gas acquires an explosive property which makes the cylinders dangerous to handle. The longer the gas is stored away in a “clean’’ cylinder the more “touchy’’ it becomes, and a bump during loading or unloading, even a sudden jar in transit, may result in an explosion. One such bursting cylinder would, of course, mean that cylinders carried in the same lorry or railway truck would also fly to pieces; the concussion and damage caused by an accident to a number of these containers can be imagined.
The use of processed sphagnum moss eliminates this risk. It is extraordinarily absorbent and has an almost insatiable appetite for oxygen, and this quality makes it an ideal material for the purpose for which it is used. There is a great deal of difference between the moss in its natural state and the finished product. For the moment it is sufficient to say that a pile of newly gathered sphagnum moss resembles a water-laden mass of filmy, pale-green seaweed. Dried, cleaned and chemically treated , it can best be compared to the white, downy feathers used in pillows.
The cylinder, being lightly packed with this feathery substance, is then filled under pressure, the gas percolating through the moss. It might be permissible to say that the enclosed gas is now permeated with processed sphagnum moss which acts as a regulator and a guarantee of safety in cylinders which contain acetylene gas under high pressure. The cylinder, being safe from the risk of explosion from ordinary shocks, can now be handled with confidence, not for getting that ordinary respect which is due to any container under the stress of high compression.
Today, the importance of acetylene gas for the cutting and welding of metals is obvious, for the demands of this machine age have been multiplied a thousandfold by the ceaseless outpour of guns, tanks and other weapons of war. Above all, the call is for steel. So the acetylene gas cylinder is found in every manufacturing plant and repair workshop. But transport is quick and easy to great industrial centres, and cylinders are soon emptied.
It is in the field that the value of sphagnum moss becomes fully evident. Soldier technicians must make repairs in out-of-the-way places. They have often to cut the hardest of steels, and the acetylene torch is their stand-by. The cylinders which have travelled so far to reach them arrive in a safe condition. One risk to the soldier’s life has been removed —the risk of death caused by a cylinder sent from his own base. So the moss gatherers camped in the bush on the slopes near Mt. Franklin in the Canberra district are of vital importance in the winning of one of the multitudinous materials used in the manufacture and maintenance of mechanized fighting equipment.
Also —and apart from its value in association with acetylene gas there are certain chemicals which can be extracted from the moss; and it has been used in the manufacture of surgical dressings. Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia has this to say: “The ability of the large hollow cells of the leaf of sphagnum to absorb and retain large quantities of water leads to the extensive use of sphagnum moss as a material in which to pack live plants for shipment. For this reason also and because sphagnum is naturally a sterile substance, harbouring few bacteria, certain species have been used as surgical dressings, especially in times of great need.”
There is only one genus of sphagnum moss, but there are a number of species, all very alike in appearance. Many of these species can be identified only after careful examination by scientists who, in addition to their specialized knowledge, have the aid of microscopes and chemical tests for determining the constituents of the sample submitted. Under the title of bog moss it is fairly common in countries from temperate to sub-Arctic zones. Also, it grows in Arctic regions. In warm climates the moss is rare and is found only at high altitudes. Formerly, most of the moss used here was obtained from Tasmania, but such sources of supply as were exploited there eventually petered out and new beds were sought on the Australian mainland.
During the course of Governmental enquiries it was learned that a certain moss, apparently corresponding to that found in Tasmania, occurred in the mountainous country west of Canberra. The information was followed up. Samples of moss were taken by bushmen who knew the whereabouts of the beds, and on being examined and tested these specimens were found to be indeed sphagnum moss of a similar variety to that from Tasmania. Of the few’ “strikes” then made in Australia the most convenient from the point of view of transport was that made near Mt. Franklin, and arrangements were made for the cutting of this moss and its delivery to processing works in Sydney.
There were some initial difficulties, but these were overcome and now regular consignments of moss leave the nearest railhead, Canberra, on the first stage of its journey to its ultimate destination. Of course, in winter months the supply is interrupted, for then snow lies thick on Mt. Franklin and the surrounding peaks. During summer every effort is made to build up sufficient reserves to carry over the winter and into the following spring, when gathering is resumed. The gathering and delivery of the moss is carried out by the Commonwealth Government. Lorries run from Canberra to Mt. Franklin three or four times a week and return loaded.
The writer, not having gathered much moss himself, was naturally anxious to see how it was done and, accordingly, accepted an invitation to visit the beds as a passenger on one of the transport lorries. The journey itself is worth a short description. First, we travelled almost due west from the capital, passing Yarralumla, the Governor-General’s residence, and then the Commonwealth Solar Physics Observatory on Mt. Stromlo, both on our right. From there we made a long, straight run over undulating to hilly country to the Cotter Weir, about fifteen miles from Canberra.
We began to climb and, looking back, could see below us the junction of the Cotter and Murrumbidgee Rivers. Soon the way became steep, a succession of descents and ascents with the road winding indefatigably with the contours of the slopes and the whine of second gear too constant to be pleasant. Pine forests —they are under the control of the Australian School of Forestry —swept in broad, sombre swathes through the grey-green bush. Some of the forests are newly planted, others contain trees nearing maturity. Now and then the track swung round a spur and miles of space would expand between the road and the next mountain ridge, misty blue with distance, on to the turn-off from the Brindabella road, and then almost due south towards Mt. Franklin.
A short distance from the turn-off we glimpsed a lyrebird in flight, which was something in the nature of a privilege. Evidently taking wing a moment before we rounded a sharp turn, the bird was gliding in a long, descending curve into an apparently bottomless gully. Scarcely veering from its chosen direction, it faded before our eyes as it sailed deeper into the shadows of a forest of mountain ash. Nearing the end of our journey the driver stopped his lorry to point out Kosciusko, showing like the tip of a storm cloud above a nearer ridge.
Already Mt. Franklin towered on our left. From a distance, in summer time, the skiing ground looks like a bare patch on the back of a gigantic furry animal. Many of the trees have been cleared, and there seems to be nothing to prevent an inexpert skier from sliding into the depths below. Doubtless a closer view would be more reassuring, and, anyway, my guide told me that the best grounds were on the other side of the mountain. We passed a chalet and a mile or so further on halted, still some distance from the crest of the mountain.
As we stepped from the lorry the sudden silence pressed in upon us, but, gradually, the effect of the noisy engine, which had drawn us up about three thousand feet from Canberra wore away, and we could hear the breeze in the snow gums. Height—even a height of about five thousand feet above sea level —seems to intensify the quiet of the bush.
Leaving the road, we picked our way through an open forest where the moss gatherers’ tents were sheltered and came to a shallow gully winding away in those regular, flowing curves which more usually belong to rivers than to valleys. “There is the moss,” my guide pointed out, but although the floor of the gully was greener than its slopes I could see no moss. However, sphagnum moss there was by the hundreds of tons. As we went on, the ground gave under us resiliently, like a huge, saturated sponge. Water oozed up at every step.
Leading from a higher land a rough drain, put down some years before by forestry authorities, finished in the morass. It was dug deep, and some idea could be formed of the accumulation of sphagnum moss in that depression. Just how many years must pass before a gully is filled with the dense growth and its stream slowed to a gentle seepage through such a gigantic filter must remain a matter of guesswork, but it is a fact that the bottom of the gully and the stream that now crept along it were choked with layered moss —the new, live growth on top and, below, to a depth of eight feet and probably more in places, a black, porous mass of dead stuff.
In places, mounds and hillocks of moss swelled above the otherwise level surface. Here and there small bushes thrust up into the sun. Saucer-shaped depressions in the cool, green dampness showed where the brumbies had been rolling. A pit, now partly filled with water, marked the place where a bush fire during the last dry spell had eaten through the green overlay into the dead moss underneath. Having the quality of peat and not being so water-laden as usual, the old moss had smouldered on, the hot glow of the fire sinking down and down until, no doubt, it was quenched by the shrunken stream seeping along the length of a tall man below the level of the growing moss.
Round the next curve in the gully a dark square showed where the top layer of growth had been cleared away to a depth of eighteen inches. On the far side of this patch a gang of men was at work. Broad axes glinted in the sun as another strip was taken from the straight edge of the cut. Each stroke of the broad or squaring axe —very like an ancient battle-axe in shape and weight— lengthened the cut by almost a foot. The swathe fell away from the main body, to be broken into chunks and pitchforked into a waiting trolley.
We moved round the dark square of morass which had been stripped of its green skin. Water had filled the foot- prints of the workmen and was trickling in tiny, sluggish streams over the dead stuff, to be again absorbed as it reached the edge of the cut. There was a set of crazy rails bedded on sleepers which led to firmer ground. Here, a motor truck waited for the loaded trolley. When filled, the truck drew the moss along a bush track to the road at the top of the hill.
It was wet work. The squat iron trolley might have emerged from the bed of a river a few moments earlier, and the motor truck, bouncing up the hill to the road, gushed water. Back at the cut, every man was wearing gum boots, and needed them if ever workmen did. Every time a man walked into the denuded patch he sank ankle deep in the black, under-lying strata, and the squelching of so many feet sounded like a herd of buffaloes in a wallow.
Following the moss from where it had been cut to the roadside we found two presses in operation. A few hardwood slats were laid on the bottom of the lower box of the press, the moss was piled into both boxes, more slats were placed over the top box and, as the pressure of the descending “monkey” increased, water streamed from the moss, which, even when tightly baled, was still saturated. The bales were wired and rolled to the brink of a loading pit. The lorries backed down into the pit and the bales were securely packed. Each of them weighed close on a quarter of a ton, so that very few made a full load. Of course, the excessive water content was the main reason for their heaviness.
Forking the moss into a truck before it has been baled, pressed and wired sphagnum moss is just a block of sodden vegetable matter. Its delicate tint of green is blotted out by a proportion of older, darker moss, and, discoloured by dirty water, it looks anything but an attractive harvest. In its natural state the moss forms a pastel green carpet hardly distinguishable from the green of the bushes higher up the slopes. At close view, single stalks or tendrils are quite unlike the short, velvety variety of bright green moss which grows on damp masonry in almost any town in Australia. Sphagnum moss is much lighter in colour —a pale, yellowish green.
Although it grows so densely that it will support the weight of a man, one could easily mistake a few isolated tendrils for a species of seaweed, each filament when separated from the mass being long and slender and covered with tiny leaves which radiate from the central stem. It is easy to imagine these filaments affixed to a rock in a shallow bay, trailing in the current. However, sphagnum moss is found exclusively in fresh water. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that only fresh water is found in sphagnum moss, for it contains the stream rather than the stream containing the moss. Also, it grows only at considerable altitudes in Australia, generally in country which is snow-covered in winter.
Known deposits are mostly in inaccessible places. The beds near Mt. Franklin are not far from a serviceable bush road which was put through the district some years ago so that holiday makers could reach the skiing grounds by car. Other known beds of sphagnum moss*are not so easy of access, and, but for this road being already completed and in use, the gathering of the moss would have presented a difficult problem. As time goes on and more information on this strange fresh water plant is received it is reasonable to suppose that its occurrence in the district will be found to be not so infrequent as was at first believed. Provided the seepage from the heights is constant along the gently descending gullies in the surrounding ranges —and not all the descents are steep— many of them may contain moss.
Doubtless, too, there are bushmen who know of moss beds but do not realize that their knowledge is of any value. Probably they do not call the spongy mass by any specific name. But, occasionally, someone well informed and familiar with the mountain country will bring in word of other beds of sphagnum moss, and these reports, together with the definite knowledge of beds in the same district, assure the uninterrupted supply of this valuable pro-duct from above Australia s snow- line.
It was afternoon when we left the moss gatherers’ camp on the return trip to Canberra. The loaded lorry, dripping like a water cart, creaked down the same track by which it had come, and one by one we passed the landmarks which had interested us on the way up. Kosciusko seemed more remote than before; a sheet rock face, shaded in the morning, now glittered like pale gold, and there were purple shadow lakes lying under the mountains. Our speed increased over the flatter country from the foot-hills into Canberra.
That was in March. During the winter months the beds are lying deep under snow. The camp under the snow gums is deserted, and the men are working in other localities until warmer weather makes possible the resumption of moss gathering.