A Study in Lichen

I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays.

But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are “members one of another.”

Denise Levertov

It became branded upon my memory in seventh grade biology class. It has always been a fascination of mine, and delights me whenever I find it. Lichen, a symbiotic relationship between a plant and a fungus, defies the simple designation of “this” or “that.” Is is plant or fungus? Yes.

And do you know what else? It’s beautiful.

One of the things I love about lichen is that it tends to flourish in areas where there is little human traffic. I recall that on the behind-the-scenes extras to either The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit (heck, maybe both) that those filming in remote places in New Zealand noted the unique mosses and lichens present where hardly any human (or hobbit, wizard, dwarven, or elven) foot had ever trod.

There’s just something inescapably serene and remarkable about that. It restores a grandeur to the world too easily and often lost by digitalized globalization.

For a few brief moments, one can feel like the only human soul—alone with God in the garden of his creation.

I found the specimens featured here in a dried-out stream bed in the Sandia mountains of New Mexico. While clusters of snow huddled in the shadows, the soft earth of the stream bed gave way beneath my laced-up boots, cushioning each step in a way that only silty soil aerated by snowmelt can do.

One of the many beauties of lichen is its striking variety of colors. Some are dark brown or gray like shades of rock, while others are the tealy green of corroded copper, rich-bright of orange zest or chrysanthemum pollen, even an arresting chartreuse.

We might catch a glimpse as passers-by, but only the devoted behold the hidden troves. Lichen-laden rocks and trees are like nature’s impressionist art gallery; yet, the only price of admittance is loving attention.

. . . that they who cannot see may see . . .

Denise Levertov
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