|Peering into the strange lichen (and moss) forest.|
Lichens are not plants. In fact, they represent a highly successful symbiosis. Symbiosis occurs when two different organisms live in close proximity and each partner either partly or completely depends upon the other for its existence. Lichens are simply the physical manifestation of a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and either an alga or a cyanobacterium (or both). (My field guide describes the cultivation of algae by fungi as "agriculture".) The fungi provide protection to the algae, while the algae in turn supply the fungi with carbohydrates formed through photosynthesis. This partnership enables lichens to colonize areas that plants cannot, and to survive in places that neither would have been able to survive alone. Lichens are often the first organisms to colonize a new piece of land, such as rock exposed after the retreat of a glacier. As organic matter breaks down and soil builds, mosses, grasses, and other plants will gradually move in. (In ecology, this process is often referred to as primary succession.)
Lichens grow slowly, steadily, and unobtrusively. In the Arctic, some specimens of the species Rhizocarpon geographicum are reputed to be thousands of years old, older than the oldest tree species. Individual colonies of this species, because of their steady growth rate, are also used as a means of dating rock surfaces. The larger the colony, the longer the surface has been exposed and undisturbed.
|A collection of rock-dwelling lichens.|
It is easy, I think, to notice only the large and showy species: the trees, the large mammals, the birds, the colourful wildflowers, perhaps a few butterflies. But there's a lot of stuff out there, and it is often the small and inconspicuous that attracts me. Lichens are a favourite. So are clubmosses and spikemosses (neither of which are mosses, by the way). Tiny moths and butterflies and any other insect that I happen to run into. Slime moulds. Mushrooms. I can spend half an hour entranced by the trunk of a tree, watching ants and other insects moving over it, examining closely the different species of lichens that grow on it. I can often be found staring raptly at patches of ground that appear empty to other, "normal" people. I stroll through the garden in the evening, and instead of checking out the flowers in the garden or admiring the changing colours in the sky, I find myself tracing the paths made by an aspen leaf miner or checking out a bumblebee tucked under a leaf for the night.
Why does nature have such deep meaning for us? Why does spending time outdoors, in the forest, on the shore, in the desert, make us feel so much better? Why does the sight of a new species give me such satisfaction? Why is it that, when I am peering into the lichen forest, I am not thinking about lichen biology or ecology, but feeling an inexpressible love for everything in the universe? Perhaps, I think, it is an instance of life responding to life. Life is a wholly positive force. Even in the death of an individual, new life is created as that individual's body breaks down and provides the stuff of life for others. Perhaps it is the recognition of our ancient kinship. Although as I peer at lichens they seem alien to me, perhaps on a deeper level my being recognizes their being and their connection to me. Perhaps because, in that moment, I feel my own life more acutely, my own mortality, my own awareness that I, like the lichens, am made of ordinary matter. In that moment, I am not thinking of the past or of the future. I am not thinking at all. I'm simply being.
Whatever the reason, I keep looking closer, looking deeper, looking longer. I listen to both the sounds that I hear with my ears and the sounds that are heard only inwardly. Observing nature closely is my spiritual practice. Learning to look past the obvious in nature teaches me to find contentment in the small details of my everyday life. It is a solace to me in my darkest hours. In the end, peering at the lichens on the stump is not a look into an alien landscape but a way in which I see myself more clearly. Because, in the end, there is really no difference between in here and out there at all.
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