Friday, 30 December 2011

Loitering amongst the lichen

“It is easy to overlook this thought that life just is. As humans we are inclined to feel that life must have a point. We have plans and aspirations and desires. We want to take constant advantage of the intoxicating existence we've been endowed with. But what's life to a lichen? Yet its impulse to exist, to be, is every bit as strong as ours - arguably even stronger. If I were told that I had to spend decades being a furry growth on a rock in the woods, I believe I would lose the will to go on. Lichens don't. Like virtually all living things, they will suffer any hardship, endure any insult, for a moment's additional existence. Life, in short just wants to be.”  

Sometimes, the idea of "being a furry growth on a rock in the woods" appears an incredibly attractive one. But then on the other hand, I have trouble settling into stillness on a soft rug in my room for more than 10 minutes, so I think it'll be a few lifetimes before I get to achieve anything near the lichen level of enlightened consciousness.

Our family walk through the woods today brought many patterns and colours of lichen to my attention. The bright yellows, rust orange, grey-silvers, against deep mossy greens held effortlessly tight to branches and trunks as if time was slow, unimportant and our rushing footsteps, irrelevant.

There's plenty of controversy about lichen. Are they algae or fungi? Are they an organism or an ecosystem? Perhaps it's appropriate that there is not one single scientific name for a lichen despite there being over 13,000 different species of them. They manage to defy a tidy definition by the fact that they are all these things and more. They're a plant without roots, leaves or flowers yet even the very simplest amongst them demonstrates how two unrelated organisms (algae and fungi) form a symbiotic relationship, to live as one.

Primitive as they seem, reminding us of primordial times, lichens are immensely sensitive beings. Their appearance (colour, structure, etc) responds quickly to their environment, changing as environmental conditions change. Lichen can indicate environmental pollution in an area and I always remember breathing deeper on my walks along the Cornish cliffpaths after my Dad had identified a type of lichen which only grows that way in pure environments virtually free of toxicities.
"Lichens are about as close as living things get to being place... Lichens are by far the most sensitive indicators of environmental change. Lichens, as much as, if not more than any other life form, are very sensitive to environment at every scale".
Unlike Bill Bryson, I cannot presume the desire of another organism's impulse to exist whatever the suffering, whether we are talking about lichen or any one of us. That is a uniquely individual relationship we each have between ourselves and 'life'. Perhaps we remain as vulnerable or as strong as the symbiotic relationship we nurture (or starve) between all our composite parts, to the extent that we can know ourselves wholly regardless of whether others can name us, to be at one despite the world's efforts to fragment us into broken, definable and isolated bits.

I reckon we could have a lot to learn from lichen. And in these times of huge environmental and social changes, it may be worth paying a bit more attention to what they are telling us.


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