The Lovely Lichen

In which you discover ways to symbioticize…

“Common Witch’s Hair” and “Old Man’s Beard” are synonyms for the same stuff: Alectoria sarmentosa.  In this neck o’ the woods, which is central Oregon at about 6,000 feet in the snow, you aren’t sure which name you’ll give it.  Reaching up and raking down a lock of it from a tree branch you’re level with because of about 8 feet of snow you’re now standing on, you roll it around in your gloved hand.  It is a long, stringy, fruticose variety of lichen, which means it isn’t leaf-like and it isn’t crusty: those are foliose and crustose varieties.  This kind is rumored to have been made into ponchos and footwear by Indians, though animal hide was preferred. You are invited to sample it with your fingertips, your tongue, your nostrils and so you do; the texture reminds you of your grandfather’s unwashed beard ; the smell of it and the taste of it…the lichen, not grandpa’s beard…are unremarkable.  Deer will eat it in a pinch during the winter months.
Your guide points up to a higher branch of a Mountain hemlock and asks you to observe another lichen.  This, you learn, is not to be eaten as it was reportedly used to kill wolves and foxes.  Some native tribes, however, brewed it as a weak tea to treat stomach disorders.  This Foliose-type, bright yellow-green organism strikes you like a highlighter gripped by the hand of an ambitious toddler near a white wall.  It’s christian name is Letharia vulpina, or wolf lichen (vulpina means fox-like in Latin).

You glance up again at the hemlocks housing this somewhat sensitive species and observe how it sits there, seemingly inert.  You imagine yourself painting your arrow with wolf lichen’s toxic vulpinic acid, setting out in a slink and a quietly moccasined step.  You pull back the bow….strong, uninhibited, breathing with the same cadence that the wind has…whoosh…and let go the feathered point.  Your victim slain and a sacred pelt is yours to be traded for some equally valuable good.

The wind sprays some prickly snow off the branches and you learn that the wolf lichen is can bring itself back to metabolic function after 15 hours in a freezer and begins photosynthesizing again after only 12 hours.  Indeed, you thought it was just a type of moss at first, but then you hear the story of its symbiotic origins:

Francesca Fungal was a superior architect; she could build the best home on any scaled tree branch or rock surface..  Alberto Algae was a smart cook; he could photosynthesise with the best chlorophyll-loving, sugar-addicted green leafy around. Francesca and Alberto got together.  Francesca provided some structure and Alberto brought home the sustenance, and after awhile they took a lichen to each other.

“Not easy.  Not easy at all.  At this very moment 12 billion stars are pumping light in and out of 360 degree notion of a limited universe…” -“Brian,” The Shadowbox, Michael Cristofer


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