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Looking at Lichens

Crusty, bearded, lobed – lichens thrive amongst us on pavements, graves and trees and are easily overlooked. Peer closely, run your fingers over a frilled edge or delicate antler – each lichen vibrantly itself in a human-centred world. 

Kathleen Jamie has talked of serious noticing – the idea of attention as a form of resistance. The more one pays serious attention to lichen, the more compelling and unknowable it becomes, vivid with what Vahni Capildeo has called the ‘lovely alterity’ of the non-human. How might we use poetry to encounter lichen and our relationship with it, and can the way lichen lives inform a mode of writing? Can its properties be expressed in language, even?

Lichen is more than one ‘thing’ – usually a fungus which provides the structure or ‘home’ and within the fungus a photobiont – an algae or cyanobacteria which produces sugars the fungus harvests. This synergistic relationship, or collaboration, if we can call it that, means the organism can live where it wouldn’t otherwise be able to, but not without some possibility of risk. If these hybrid forms press against ideas about what constitutes an autonomous ‘individual’, they also raise questions about entanglement and concepts of identity. Poems, of course, ‘contain’ more than one thing. Is there something inherent in the properties of lichen that can be drawn into poetry? What otherness might be woven or held in the walls of poem as lichen holds its own dualities?

There are some 2,000 species of lichen in the UK and thousands of places where lichen and human lives intertwine. The #lichensubstrates on twitter shows beautiful and often quietly amusing photos of lichen ‘living their best lives’ on metal bird feeders, shoes, skulls, TV cables, post boxes and Saxon deities.

This space of encounter between human and lichen is a dynamic space of exchange – we meet the lichen, perhaps physically altering it with our footsteps or hands. Humans directly impact its growth pattern through air pollution. Lichen enters us, as a sensory, aesthetic or poetic response. It also absorb minerals from rock. This mineral mass is able to ‘cross over into the metabolic cycles of the living’ according to the biologist Merlin Sheldrake. Thus some of the minerals in the human body are ‘likely to have passed through a lichen,’ he claims.

Timothy Morton describes the ‘strange interconnectedness of things’ as a ‘mesh’, an interconnectedness that is ‘full of gaps and absences’. It is taking things too far to suggest that these gaps are the places where lichens, and poetry, might grow? To make a composite poem, the idea of the single author becomes redundant or distant. To make a poem as lichen, is to combine encounter, relation and register into a composite more intricate and strange.
What can we find in that gap between perception and language – is this a substrate where poems might grow?

Forrest Gander suggests that the concept of lichen as a synergistic collaboration between fungus and algae is simplified and that the original organisms are ‘utterly changed in the compact’ and cannot go back to what they were.
‘The thought of two things that come together and alter each other collaboratively – two things becoming one thing that does not age – roused me toward considering lichen a kind of model and metaphor for the intricacies of intimacy,’ he writes.
If lichen exists on a time-scale beyond our own, what might it suggest about mammal-centric concepts of death (or ‘life-spans’), and indeed intra-species boundaries or membranes?

I hope we can consider some of these questions, and more, in the upcoming course while also sharing a sense of wonder and awe at these beautiful, intricate beings. Ecologist Joe Beale will guide us through some of the biological properties of lichen and help identify which species are growing in our localities and we hope to head outdoors to encounter and write about lichen ‘in the field’.
Come and explore the collusive, non-linear possibilities of lichen, challenging imagination and perceptions, as Jane Hirshfield writes in her poem For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen

Rock wools, water fans, earth scale, mouse ears, dust,
Transformers unvalued, uncounted.
Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.

Sarah Westcott and Joe Beale’ course Looking at Lichens, will take place on 17 July, 10:30am – 4:30pm.

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