Lichens: Celebrating the Small

They may be tiny, but they’re beautiful: a landscape in miniature, a tiny garden, so small that they are usually beneath our notice. Which, given the destructive habits of our species, is probably a good thing.

But being tiny doesn’t mean being unsuccessful. Lichens are among the oldest living things on earth. They inhabit every continent on the planet, thrive in every climate, number nearly 20,000 known species. (And who knows how many unknown?) They live in crevices, lurk in cracks and crannies, love dead branches, flower on rocks in Antarctica and in the frozen soils of the Arctic.

Lichens are a betwixt-and-between species: they fill the interstitial spaces in an ecosystem. They thrive in the empty places between this and that. Their microcommunities flourish where being big won’t work and fit sweetly into miniscule spaces from which larger creatures are excluded. Pioneers, survivors, masters of the slow and silent, they are incredibly powerful. Once established–on a rock, say–they set about breaking it down. Imagine that, for just a moment. Lichens are more powerful than the rocks they live on. They are capable of making a difference many times their size.

This past year, we have been overwhelmed by the sheer size of things. The millions of acres destroyed by wildfires in California, the dozens of hurricanes brewed up in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. the uncountable numbers of humans whose lives have been upended in the global pandemic, the stunning size of the egos of small politicians. In a time when forms of largeness darken our global landscape, I need to remember the lichens. I need to look closely at the in-between, celebrate the small, do the little things that might make a difference.

Maybe that would work for you, too.

Reading note What a wild family! Fox and giraffe and wart hog, of course. But these also: bodies like tiny strings, bodies like blades and blossoms! Cord grass, Christmas fern, soldier moss! And here comes grasshopper, all toes and knees and eyes, over the little mountains of the dust.–Mary Oliver





26 comments on “Lichens: Celebrating the Small

  1. I have just discovered your LifeScapes …. wonderful reading. When I first saw the picture of the lichen I thought it was of a small white spring flower.
    Although living in an apartment somewhat hampers me, I do enjoy observing nature in all seasons.
    I also enjoy your Dahlias mystery books and love reading and learning more about the 1930’s…. especially since your Dahlias are strong independent women….something else I admire and emulate.

  2. I love knowing what the stuff that grows on all of my trees are called. I have always rubbed it off. After reading this blog, I will leave it alone to exist in peace. It is a nice thought to know that there exists some peace in these times of trouble. I just signed up to receive your blog and look forward to many more. Stay safe.

  3. Today, Dec. 16, is Adelma Grenier Simmons birthday is today. I read that in your China Bayles’ Book Of Days. I went to Caprilands in the 80s, walked the gardens and had an herbal lunch. I have 3 of her books, Herb Gardening in Five Seasons, A merry Christmas Herbal, ( she signed this one for me) and The World of Herbs and Flowers, that I got for 25 cents at a library sale. It was nice to be remind of her, and to look at her books again. Thank you for the treat!!!!

  4. Gorgeous lichen photo that brought back so many memories. Thanks. As an undergraduate my work study assignment to help defray tuition costs was glasswasher in the basement of the biology department.. At that time Vernon Ahmadjian ( world renouned lichenologist) was on staff and was the major contributor to the pile of dirty glassware. One day I opened the autoclave expecting to find the usual discarded flasks of cultures sterilized, cooled, and ready for dumping before I washed the containers. Instead I found what looked like a primordialy soup in a pan filled with yarn. One of the graduate students had salvaged the excess lichens from a collecting trip and was dying yarn with lichens in preparation for knitting a Christmas sweater for her mentor. I was fortunate to see the finished sweater…… lovely heather and very much appreciated by the recipient.

  5. Love this…..I love lichens and this year have a lot of them due to the ash borers that have decimated so many ash trees !

  6. What a wonderful post… just what I needed this morning, Susan. I’m feeling anxious today. Our office has been closed since March and I am the only one who has been going in once a week to do a task that requires I be there. Early days it was offered to outsource, but I opted to go in and continue as long as I felt safe with the option to accept the offer at a later time if things changed. Now that we’re in the worst ever surge and the highest peak of the pandemic, I asked about the previous offer being implemented temporarily. My request was denied! I was stunned. I am the oldest staff member and in the higher risk demographic so their decision was unexpected. Today is the day to go in and my stomach is churning. Perhaps I can be like the Lichens – small and mighty with an incredible penchant for survival.

    • Linda, yes, you can! You’ve done it before, you can do it now. Mask up, stay distanced, and just focus on getting there, doing what you have to do, and getting home. It’s hard, and they should have temped it out of respect for your service. But you can do this. Brave You!

  7. A wonderful reminder of how something small can mean so much to our planet and us. Kindness to others is a simple small thing we can give to others that costs us nothing and can change anothers life.

  8. My favorite, learned in Pennsylvania long ago, British soldier lichens. Also, I just had the next to last serving of the Perdernales chili, and we had brownies last week for National Chocolate Brownie Day. Thank you for your lovely blog and almanac.

  9. Lovely stuff – lichen and your article. One thing I like about lichen is that it comes in so many colors and turns up in so many places. I forget how powerful it is – it’s so small and quiet about chewing up all those rocks.

  10. Leslie Fish, one of my very favorite singers, has a song called “Little Gray Lichen” about how it eats stone and will help us colonize Mars.

  11. Wonderful. Powerful. Uplifting. A reminder of perspective at a crucial time. Beautifully written. Thank You, Susan 💞

  12. I love the sentence “They thrive in the empty places between this and that.” Your gift of language is perfect for a busy season when we need to remember to see the smallest among us. Thank you.

  13. What a lovely essay and a reminder of how small things can have such a great impact. We need more small and less large and useless overblown gestures and rhetoric. Thank you for a soothing, hopeful message to start my day.

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