The Work of Moss-Gathering


Moss grows not on the oft-turned stone, the saying goes.

Or, in Italian, Pietra mossa non fa musco.

In Spanish, Piedra movediza nunca moho la cubija.

In French, Pierra qui roule n’ amasse point de mouse.

In German, Wälzender Stein wird nicht moosig.

In Dutch, Een rolende steen neemt geen mos mede.

In Danish, Den Steen der ofte flyttes, bliver ikke mossegroet.

In Scots, A rowin stane gathers nae fog.

In Scottish Gaelic, Cha chinn còinneach air clach an udalain.

In Irish Gaelic, Cha chruinnigheann cloch chasaidh caonach.

In Welsh, Y maen a dreigla ni fysygla.

In Greek, Λíθος κυλιóμενος φυκος όυ ποιει.

In Latin, Saxum volutum non obducitur musco.

I’ve taken these examples from an 1881 book by Alexander Nicholson, who was an important collector of Scottish folk-sayings. But he had nothing to say about the origins of this remarkably widespread proverb, which, it turns out, are rather murky. The oldest extant source is apparently Fecunda Ratis (“The Well-Laden Ship”), an 11th-century collection of proverbs by Egbert of Liége, which has it as Assidue non saxa legunt uoluentia muscum. However, Egbert of Liége does not seem to be the inventor of the proverb, or of any of the proverbs in Fecunda Ratis; in his introduction, he describes the book as a collection of rustic sayings.

So how did a folk-saying with no known literary origin get into so many European languages?

You have to wonder… what if it was just there, from the beginning? Maybe, just maybe, the proverb exists in so many languages because it was already there when they split apart from each other. Maybe it dates back to the time before the western Indo-European languages diverged, in the prehistoric days of the continent, when moss-covered stones were a ubiquitous part of the landscape.

If that were true, it would make the proverb venerable indeed—predating Western Civilization. Of course, without written records, that’s just an unprovable flight of fancy. But even if the proverb is not prehistoric, the fact remains that it is extremely old and has had exceptional success taking root in disparate cultures throughout Europe.

Which leads to another question:

What does it mean?

Most people either (1) have no idea, or (2) think they know, but are wrong.

The standard interpretation of the proverb nowadays is that “getting mossy” represents something like stagnation, so the point of the proverb is that moving around a lot, making changes, mixing things up, being adaptable, and so forth prevents that misfortune. For example, in “American Pie” Don McLean gets a dig at the Rollings Stones (and stagnant music culture in general) with the line, “Now for ten years we’ve been on our own, and moss grows fat on a rolling stone.”

But that’s not at all what the proverb meant until quite recently. The original meaning of the proverb was that if you lacked stability in life, you wouldn’t develop social ties and responsibilities—a lack which was, self-evidently, bad. That is to say, “mossiness” was a good thing. Only in the 19th century did the idea of mossiness begin to become negative, and the proverbial “rolling stone” begin to take on a positive connotation.

There was a transitional period when the original meaning of the proverb had not been forgotten, but the value of “mossiness” was under doubt. You can see this in Nicholson’s appraisal of the proverb in his book:

The usual application of it [the proverb] shows that a very popular saying may be founded on a very superficial analogy. It implies that the gathering of moss is a useful and meritorious function for a stone, and that the stone which innocently rolls when set in motion is not so well employed as the one that sits still and gathers moss!

The philosophy of the German proverb, ‘Ein Mühlstein wird nicht moosig,’ ‘A millstone gets not mossy’, is much better.

Nicholson understood the original meaning, at least in part, but a lesser-known German proverb with the opposite meaning made a lot more sense to him. His gripe about the strength of the metaphor seems at first glance to have little to do with his rejection of the proverb’s philosophy, but the two complaints probably share an underlying source.

The primeval farmer or hunter-gatherer who first coined the proverb apparently thought moss was nice. To Nicholson, moss was an unnecessary accretion, offensive because it does not seem to exist to serve mankind; it should be scraped off. This is ironic. By dismissing the proverb, Nicholson seems to reveal in himself the very thing the proverb is warning about: an inability to leave alone anything that isn’t immediately and self-evidently gratifying or useful.

The insight of the proverb, lost on a certain type of modern person, is that those things which seem to be sitting there pointlessly often gain benefits not visible to the impatient and selfish. If you keep changing things that don’t suit your whims, you’ll destroy that vital potential without ever discovering it, and you’ll never see the slow growth of life that springs only from stillness, peace, and stability.

Now, to forestall a potential objection, I want to stop here and say that I am not going to argue that action is bad. That would be a pretty stupid stance to take. On the contrary, action is often good, and we often fail to act when we need to. What I want to argue is that, just as often, inaction is good—and that we often act when we need to be still. Inaction in one sphere is often a necessary prerequisite to productivity in another sphere. That is the basic principle the proverb teaches, which society has forgotten to its detriment. It is broadly applicable—beginning with the mind and how we use our thoughts, extending to how we fill our hours and our days, and continuing all the way up to career, geographic mobility, how we spend our lives, and beyond.

It’s telling that the proverb became confusing to people shortly after the Industrial Revolution. This shows how deeply our modes of thought have been changed by the technological world we created; a void now stands between us and the ancient rustic who first coined the saying, who was (if I’m allowed another flight of fancy) perhaps someone a bit like the wizard Merlin in C.S. Lewis’s fantasy That Hideous Strength:

Merlin was like something that ought not to be indoors. Bathed and anointed though he was, a sense of mold, gravel, wet leaves, weedy water, hung about him… And in that deepening inner silence of which his face bore witness, one might have believed that he listened continually to a murmur of evasive sounds: rustling of mice and stoats, thumping progression of frogs, the small shock of falling hazel nuts, creaking of branches, runnels trickling, the very growing of grass.

It’s a perspective at home in a fantasy novel because to us it is fantastical. Like Alexander Nicholson, we have no time for mossy stones. We’re too busy.

No, actually, I take that back. We’re not.

We just think we are. It’s not that we are over-burdened with work, compared to our ancestors—on the contrary, the time-saving devices of the Industrial Revolution are multitude. But apparently we hate having time. It turns out that the more time we have, the more we want to get rid of it. We would rather exchange it for just about anything. Money, success, pleasure, or merely an hour scrolling through Facebook.

Not all motion is equally commendable. It can be hard to distinguish between duty, desire, and addiction. After all, doing something is better than doing nothing, isn’t it? But this is not the only way to see the world. C.S. Lewis’s advice (in Letters to an American Lady) is worth considering:

Don’t be too easily convinced that God really wants you to do all sorts of work you needn’t do. Each must do his duty “in that state of life to which God has called him”. Remember that a belief in the virtues of doing for doing’s sake is characteristically feminine, characteristically American, and characteristically modern: so that three veils may divide you from the correct view! There can be intemperance in work just as in drink. What feels like zeal may be only fidgets or even the flattering of one’s self-importance. As [George] MacDonald says “In holy things may be unholy greed”. And by doing what “one’s station and its duties” does not demand, one can make oneself less fit for the duties it does demand and so commit some injustice.

We’ll skip over Lewis’ opinions about female nature (except to note that he says elsewhere that he believes males have a tendency towards the opposite sin, laziness—a sin which is not the subject of this essay) and focus on the other two targets of his criticism.

Lewis was right that we—the modern world in general, and America in particular—are a strange society. Although the world is rapidly conforming to the standards of the WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) nations, most people in most of history have not viewed life the way we do.

I remember hearing that when my great-great (or maybe great-great-great) grandparents finished their farmwork, they would simply sit and stare into the fire. They had a couple books, but they had already read them.

This kind of story probably makes you thank God you live in the twenty-first century. But perhaps this attitude reveals the extent to which we’ve internalized the belief that inactivity is a hell of boredom to be avoided at all cost. Sitting and staring into the fire when you’ve finished your work is actually a very nice thing to do, if you can get rid of that guilty little itch in the back of your mind, that nagging voice insisting that doing something, anything—even just playing Candy Crush—is better than doing nothing!

For the little voice is lying. Sometimes doing nothing is better than doing something. Undisturbed soil can be fertile. Constantly disturbed soil cannot be. Staying in place and doing nothing is work, not in the sense of being difficult (although it certainly can be that), but rather in the sense of being productive. If you want to grow moss, you have to stop turning the stone.

But we post-industrial people seem to have an ever-increasing compulsion to stone-rolling. We are a fidgety people, a twitchy nation, hurried, harried, always rearranging and reconsidering, never letting any small area of our time, our minds, or our lives simple be.

On the surface this is logical. Why should we “let it be”? you might ask. Being is a waste; only doing matters. Most of the slowness and stillness of the past was not a matter of choice but of sheer necessity. Life was inconvenient back then. We all prefer to cut out dead time the first chance we get—that’s why we as a society did cut it out, the first chance we got. We didn’t want to spend all day corn-husking, or weaving, or walking, or plowing, or sitting in the dark without a lightbulb, or holed up in the cottage all winter. As soon as we could, we got ourselves free from those prisons that were restraining us from activity.

True enough. But what we want and what we need aren’t always the same thing. And while the abolition of “dead time” may have seemed like a good idea, it has had tangibly destructive consequences. Dead time isn’t really dead. Unturned stones aren’t often as inert as they seem.

If, for example, you keep switching hobbies every six months, you may end up eventually finding the “best” hobby for you. But you probably won’t get as much out of it as you would have gotten from an inferior hobby that you stuck with faithfully for thirty years. Or if you keep breaking up with your “significant other” every time someone better comes a long, you may well end up with a better person as your partner—but the resulting relationship will be nothing compared to what a long-term, faithful relationship with some “inferior” person might have been.

Try to think of examples of the principle, and you’ll find they just keep coming. It’s true of everything from the smallest and most personal domain (thoughts, mental attitudes, tiny habits) to the broadest and grandest (traditions, cultures, civilizations). It’s one of the basic principles of life: some things need to be left untouched to bear fruit.

A few years ago, an elderly co-worker of mine recalled to me something a great-aunt of hers had mentioned. The aunt had said that it wasn’t TV that had first disrupted community life in America; it was radio. Before radio, people would sit on their front porches after dinner, or visit other people on their porches. (What else was there to do?) But after radio, you didn’t want to bother people after dinner, because they would probably be listening to their program, and it would be rude to interrupt them. So you just stayed home.

The result is that today, around a hundred years later, houses are rarely even built with front porches. And most of us don’t know our neighbors very well—if at all. It turned out that the “dead time” after dinner wasn’t dead at all. It was fertile, a space for relationships to grow; and from those relationships, community, and from community, culture, and from culture, civilization. But the radio allowed us to keep that time buzzing with activity, and before we knew it the time was dead. We killed it.

If that was what mere radio did, what about today’s distraction technologies? Back in the 90s, the renowned sociologist Robert Putnam wrote about how TV was causing the collapse of communal activity in America. More recently, social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge have argued that the rapid decline in adolescents’ mental health over the last ten-plus years is largely due to the increased ubiquity of smartphones and social media platforms, which are addicting and isolating.

Other technological advancements have caused the same stone-rolling tendency in other spheres. Thanks to cars, highways systems, planes, and better communication networks, people can easily change careers and move to a new city. Sociological studies have confirmed the intuitively obvious, that geographic mobility correlates negatively to community engagement: when people move every few years, they don’t become deeply connected to any one place. It also seems clear (though I don’t know if any studies have shown this) that mobility disrupts the transmission of tradition. The Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman made this point in a recent homily about marriage (“a Lifetime of Suffering”). He notes that he grew up next door to his grandparents and that was the norm in those days. But today it’s the exception. How could that not have an effect on whether the younger generation receives the wisdom of age, or fails to?

Not many people would bother denying any of this. But neither would many people do anything about it, even at the smallest scale, in their own lives. It’s very hard to push back against the pressure to “make use” of time. The philosopher Antón Barba-Kay explains why in his 2023 book A Web of Our Own Making:

If you ride in a car to work (instead of walking or riding your horse), it soon becomes just “what is done”—no one continues to sing hosannas for a shortcut once established. But if you then choose to walk to work instead (in a world with cars), you must choose the hard way, with cussed stoicism, every day once more again, again, again. You can always hold out, but it is hard to row upstream when the effort seems arbitrary, when it’s just up to you, when there’s no shame in giving up, when the temptation to do otherwise accompanies each and every time… Once friction becomes optional, it is no longer a living option. It is unbearable for human beings to feel that our effort is unnecessary, that our pains sustain no greater meaning.

Nobody stays in a dead-end job in Butte, Montana when there’s a better offer in New York. Nobody walks to work when they can drive. Nobody sits in the dark all night when they can turn on the lights and do things. Nobody stops and does nothing in those in-between moments, when they can whip out a smartphone and instantly be absorbed in a bright, exciting, mini-world. Why would they?

Well, it depends: what do you want for your life? Do you want organic growth, and all the mess and inconvenience that comes with it? Or do you want life on-demand, made-to-order—safe, convenient, well-planned sterility?

“The messy, beautiful, exciting growth!” you say. (Well, maybe not, but I’m the one writing, so I get to pretend you do.) But does that answer bear out in practice? A lot of things sound great in an essay but don’t turn out to be very tolerable in real life.

We’ve all heard the phrase “putting down roots.” It might seem to fit well in this context. But notice that the saying “Moss grows not on the oft-turned stone” flips this idea on its head. According to the logic of the metaphor, it’s not that you are putting down roots, it’s that roots are being put down into you.

And that can hurt. It can certainly be inconvenient. It can make you feel put-upon, disrespected, even humiliated. We don’t want that, we want power, we want complete freedom and agency with no one telling us what to do or not do. We want to be God (or what we imagine God to be), and we hate to be the passive recipient of actions outside our control. We don’t want to let some outside agent pierce our barriers, tie us up, get its hooks into us.

But sometimes that’s what we need. Again I’ll quote C.S. Lewis:

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.

The goal of the root-averse society is that everyone can live smooth, clean, comfortable, stimulating lives. But these lives aren’t really lives at all. They are plastic lives for plastic people: sterile, barren, shallow, fruitless. We were made for much more. Those disquieting thoughts, bubbling up in the silence, those bothersome neighbors, knocking at the door when you were busy and asking to borrow an egg or a cup of sugar, those annoying relationships that hold on through sheer weight of time and shared history even when mutual affinity has waned, from such, it turns out, real Life is made.

And you can’t create Life. You have to let it grow on you.

The apostle Paul said, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Turning over stones is a great way to collect knowledge, and that knowledge has given us progress in technology and science. But civilizations, cultures, societies, communities, and human lives are built of more than knowledge. Love is the fabric that holds everything together, and love can only grow when you let things be. You might even say that to love something is to let it be—to accept the truth that it is not merely a means but an end.

But one of the strongest temptations of the human heart is the desire to make everything—everything—a means to some other end. I suspect the root of that temptation is a lack of love which comes from a lack of faith. God finished his work, looked at it, and said, “It is good.” But we can’t do the same. We lack God’s confidence. We can’t stop because if we allowed ourselves to ever finish anything, we would be forced to consider the final value of it—and perhaps find it wanting.

So keep asking, “What’s it good for?” Keep working on self-improvement; if you are going somewhere, you don’t have ask whether the place you are now is good or bad. Make society keep progressing; if it is going somewhere, it doesn’t ever need to be tolerable in the here and now.

But the question “What’s it good for?” will only lead to more of the same, ad nauseum, until you eventually stop and say, “It is not good for anything. It is good.” Or, “It is not good for anything. It is worthless.”

That second possibility is what we are all afraid of. But at some point, we need to take the risk. Let something—any area of life—sit still long enough to reveal itself in its true form. “By their fruits you will recognize them,” Jesus tells his disciples. If what appears is bad or worthless, you’ll have been made aware of what was there all along, incipient. You can tear up the weed and try again. But when something good appears, something truly good, you’ll be glad you let it grow.

It comes down to trust. Do we believe God’s word that the earth and all that is in it is very good? If so, we can set aside the fear that keeps us forever rolling and rest in the goodness of God—and begin the work of loving.

Image Credit: Charles-Claude, “Fautaua, Ile Taiti” (1847) via Picryl


  1. I wonder if there’s a version in Chinese. I detect a certain Daoist flavor here, as in the story in the Zhuangzi, about a crippled guy, who actually lives pretty well. His “chin is down by his navel”, but he doesn’t get drafted into the army, and so on. The last line runs: “Think what he could do if his virtue was crippled, too!”

    Likewise, from the Laozi: “Let the people give up use of their tools. Let them take death seriously and desist from distant campaigns. Then even if they hae boats and wagons, they will not travel in them….Then they will find their food sweet, their clothes beautiful, their houses comfortable, their customs enjoyable.”


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