Advice From Some of Earth’s Oldest Beings

–by Robin Wall Kimmerer  (Oct 11, 2018)

This elder has sat silently in these lakeshore woods for ten thousand years as forests have come and gone, lake levels ebbed and flowed. And after all that time, it is still a microcosm of the postglacial era when the world was a cold desert of rubble and scraped Earth. Alternately baking in the summer sun and snow-blasted in the long winter, without soil in a world still treeless, the glacial till provided a forbidding home for pioneers.

Undaunted, lichens volunteered to put down roots and homestead stone—metaphorically, of course, since they have no roots. This is an asset when there is no soil. Lichens have no roots, no leaves, no flowers. They are life at its most basic. From a dusting of propagules that lodged in tiny pits and fissures just a pinprick deep, they settled the bare granite. This microtopography gave protection from the wind and offered concavities where water might rest after a rain in a microscopic puddle. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. […]

I come here sometimes just to be in the presence of such ancient beings. The sides of the boulder are festooned with Umbilicaria americana in raggedy ruffles of brown and green, the most magnificent of northeastern lichens. […]

The forest the lichens inhabit is a richly textured plantscape, but they are not plants. They blur the definition of what it means to be an individual, as a lichen is not one being, but two: a fungus and an alga. These partners are as different as could be and yet are joined in a symbiosis so close that their union becomes a wholly new organism.

I once heard a Navajo herbalist explain how she understands certain kinds of plants to be “married,” due to their enduring partnership and unquestioning reliance on one another. Lichens are a couple in which the whole is different than the sum of its parts. My parents will celebrate their sixtieth wedding anniversary this year and seem to have just that kind of symbiosis, a marriage in which the balance of giving and taking is dynamic, the roles of giver and receiver shifting from moment to moment. They are committed to an “us” that emerges from the shared strengths and weaknesses of the partners, an “us” that extends beyond the boundaries of coupledom and into their family and community. Some lichens are like that too; their shared lives benefit the whole ecosystem.

All lichens, from the tiny crusts to the stately Umbilicaria, are a mutualistic symbiosis, a partnership in which both members benefit from their association.

The algal partner is a collection of single cells, gleaming like emeralds and bearing the gift of photosynthesis, the precious alchemy of turning light and air to sugar. The alga is an autotroph, or one that makes its own food and will be the cook of the family, the producer. The alga can make all the sugar it needs for energy, but it’s not very good at finding the minerals it needs. It can only photosynthesize when it’s moist, but it has no ability to protect itself from drying.

The fungus partner is the heterotroph, or “other feeder,” since it can’t make its own food but must subsist on the carbon harvested by others. The fungus is brilliant at the art of dissolving things and liberating their minerals for its use, but it can’t make sugar. It creates specialized compounds like acids and enzymes that digest complex materials into their simpler components. The body of the fungus, a network of delicate threads, goes out hunting for minerals and then absorbs those molecules through its huge surface area. Symbiosis enables the alga and the fungus to engage in a reciprocal exchange of sugar and minerals. The resulting organism behaves as if it were a single entity. […]

The lichen, in a single body, unites the two great pathways of life: the so-called grazing food chain based on the building up of beings, and the detrital food chain based on taking them apart. Producers and decomposers, the light and the darkness, the givers and receivers wrapped in each other’s arms, the warp and the weft of the same blanket so closely woven that it’s impossible to discern the giving from the taking. Some of Earth’s oldest beings, lichens are born from reciprocity. Our elders share the teachings that these rocks, the glacial erratics, are the oldest of grandfathers, the carriers of prophecy, and our teachers. Sometimes I go to sit among them, the proverbial navel gazer at the belly button of the World.

These ancients carry teachings in the ways that they live. They remind us of the enduring power that arises from mutualism, from the sharing of the gifts carried by each species. Balanced reciprocity has enabled them to flourish under the most stressful of conditions. Their success is measured not by consumption and growth, but by graceful longevity and simplicity, by persistence while the world changed around them. It is changing now.

While lichens can sustain humans, people have not returned the favor of caring for lichens. Umbilicaria, like many lichens, is highly sensitive to air pollution. When you find Umbilicaria, you know you’re breathing the purest air. Atmospheric contaminants like sulfur dioxide and ozone will kill it outright. Pay attention when it departs.

Indeed, whole species and entire ecosystems are vanishing before our eyes in the vanguard of accelerating climate chaos. At the same time, other habitats are on the rise. Melting glaciers are exposing land where it has not been seen for millennia. At the edge of the ice, newly scraped land is emerging, a jumble of rocky till, harsh and cold. Umbilicaria is known to be among the first to colonize postglacial forelands today, just as it did when the Earth was raw and bare, ten thousand years ago—another era of great climate change. Our indigenous herbalists say to pay attention when plants come to you; they’re bringing you something you need to learn.

For millennia, these lichens have held the responsibility of building up life and in an eyeblink of Earth’s history we have set about undermining their work to usher in a time of great environmental stress, a barrenness of our own making. I suspect that lichens will endure. We could, too, if we listen to their teachings. If not, I imagine Umbilicaria will cover the rocky ruins of our time long after our delusions of separateness have relegated us to the fossil record, a ruffled green skin adorning the crumbling halls of power.

Rock tripe, oak leaf lichen, navel lichen. I’m told that Umbilicaria is known in the part of the Planet we call Asia by another name: the ear of the stone. In this almost silent place I imagine them listening. To the wind, to a hermit thrush, to thunder. To our wildly growing hunger. Ear of stone, will you hear our anguish when we understand what we have done? The harsh postglacial world in which you began may well become our own unless we listen to the wisdom carried in the mutualistic marriage of your bodies. Redemption lives in knowing that you might also hear our hymns of joy when we too marry ourselves to the Earth.

–Robin Wall Kimmerer from the her book Braiding Sweetgrass.  [Photograph of lichen from Biomimicry-Mex]

About pancho

To live in radical joyous shared servanthood to unify the Earth family.
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