(Note: Please bear in mind that this
profile was written in 1979. Robert Muma passed away in 1993)
[The complete "Discovering the Mosses"
article is available on The World of
A world apart but only a few steps away from Toronto's ultra-chic and sophisticated Hazelton Lanes lives Robert Muma, known affectionately to some as the moss man. No rolling stone, he has become host to a vast collection of delicate and beautiful mosses comprising over half of the 464 known varieties of mosses in Ontario. His home is a 100-year-old 8-room house with a red brick front, which in winter is filled with terrariums and other imaginative settings for the live mosses that in summer form his backyard moss garden.
Mr. Muma is rather like a moss himself. Unassuming and tucked away, he depends on friends and visitors to seek him out as the winter air plays havoc with his delicate health. Soft-spoken, with fine blue eyes, he descends from Dutch folk who settled in Pennsylvania.
It was as a youth that the natural world first captured his attentive and sensitive eye. He was encouraged by naturalist A. A. Wood, a neighbour, to begin to draw what he saw. He did. The result was a background rich not only in nature drawings, but in botany, ornithology, entomology and mammalogy, which subsequently qualified him for a position as illustrator in the University of Toronto's biology department. There, under the guidance of artist Shelley Logier, he refined his nature art.
Later, increasing poor health led him to a new career, indoors, in leathercraft and the fine old art of bookbinding. Mumart Leather Studios continued to be his major occupation until he retired a few years ago, when he decided to return full-time to nature study.
But Muma's nature research really began only about five years ago when he attended an FON conference in Red Bay. He had recently retired and a friend suggested that he join the conference in the hope that he would find a hobby to occupy his time. It was there that he rediscovered his first love - nature.
Now a spry 72, Muma has returned to nature with a fresh, new eye - a macro lens. Macrophotography, where small subjects are enlarged to the naked eye, was a perfect introduction to the beautiful but hidden detail of mosses. After this discovery, he began to collect them. He now owns over 1000 specimens of mosses, which he mounts on heavy folded paper and files in handmade boxes. His moss treasures include varieties from Greenland, Alaska and several European countries, as well as some less cosmopolitan ones from Canada. He says that each species has a different profile that is only revealed when isolated and properly pressed. In this way, Muma is able to find the "real" personality of each moss. "Separate one plant and you see its character," is the way he describes his approach. He says that to look at a clump of moss is like looking at a crowd of people, and that one must become acquainted with each individual character before one can really see the crowd. Once he is satisfied that he "knows" his mosses, he is then ready to draw them. He prefers to use wash instead of watercolours because he can get so many shades, and the size of his drawings varies according to the particular personality and characteristics of each moss. Some mosses, he says, are so tiny that he feels they deserve to be presented much larger than life.
Muma uses a zoom stereo microscope. Under his microscope, he is able to see the rainbow colours of his mosses come alive. Here, the vivid pinks, greens and yellows, magnified many times over, parade their intricate patterns and designs. "I've always wondered why something so beautiful should be so obscure," says Muma.
With his mosses close at hand for study and enjoyment, Muma is preparing notes for a future book. According to him, "there are so few books, if any, written for the layman. All the books are for scholars." He would like to produce a book with "a much more aesthetic and appreciative approach to the moss family," modestly maintaining that he does not have the academic background to approach his book another way. It is interesting to Muma that the first book he read when starting to collect mosses,
The Mosses and Liverworts, was by Henry S. Conrad, a not-too-distant relative. "There really must be something in the genes," he says with a twinkle.
Now that winter has set in, Robert Muma spends his time cloistered with his mosses. In his quiet retreat in the heart of downtown Toronto, he compiles data for publications and remains active in his many pursuits. Friends say he "moves quickly," but "I really don't get out much," he says, referring to his fragile health. "Even in summer I depend on friends to bring me new types of mosses. My microscope is really my transportation," he concludes, "I guess you could say that it keeps my mind traveling."