Writings

Wide Spot: So say the lichens

She was getting out of her van by the beach, clearly unnerved by the thick smoke in the air. “Did you hear that they’re evacuating all of Yellowknife?” I blinked; I didn’t know her from Adam, but she sure needed to talk. “Yes,” I said. I felt anxious too. But I know how to listen calmly, so I did. That was the first conversation yesterday. There were many more as I completed the errands. 

While last week we talked about Goat Mountain and then Lahaina, and yesterday it was Yellowknife, well before my first cup of coffee this morning I heard that West Kelowna was on fire. As I write this, I’m texting with a Kelowna-area friend who’s evacuating.

I am also thinking about lichen, which may seem like an abrupt shift. But stay with me here for a minute.

I read serious books slowly. It has taken months to complete Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. I like to savor the surprises, consider how new scientific discoveries impact my understanding of life. 

I’ve come out of this season of reading fascinated by lichen, those ancient and mysterious collaborations between algae, fungi, bacteria and sometimes even yeasts. I love their names—lungwort, specklebelly, British soldiers, old man’s beard—and I love that they are mutualistic non-binary beings, systems rather than entities. 

But I don’t simply admire lichen. I am learning from them. 

I was particularly struck by Wall Kimmerer’s consideration of when lichen occur. As Wall Kimmerer recounts, laboratory experiments show that both algae and fungi go it alone when they have sufficient resources. “But when conditions are harsh and life is tenuous,” she says, “it takes a team sworn to reciprocity to keep life going forward. In a world of scarcity, interconnection and mutual aid become critical for survival. So say the lichens.”

You can see why I am stuck on lichen. In the world of lichen-systems, whoever is there brings whatever they have. Resources are shared between multiple partners. No one can survive if reciprocity isn’t part of the equation. The goal is mutual sustainability in hard times, not winning.

It strikes me that the more lichen-like a community—the more “sworn to reciprocity”—the more resilient it becomes. Reciprocity, mutual aid, interconnection: these are the things that can save us. 

My Kelowna friend just wrote, “I’m overwhelmed by people’s willingness to provide us with shelter.” The list of what we have to offer each other is endless: shelter, food, music that calms the soul, plumbing skills, childcare, strength. I can’t wire a generator, but I can listen calmly when others are frantic, sometimes I can see the way out of a conundrum, and I can—and do—hold you in my heart. These are not inconsiderable skills, and I offer them to you, my community. As you offer your own not-inconsiderable skills.

A team sworn to reciprocity. Mutual aid. Interconnection. Whenever or wherever the fires come, this is the way to sustain life. So say the lichens.