The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Lichens and the Meaning of Life

“We are lichens on a grand scale.”

Lichens and the Meaning of Life

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the great naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote a century later as he considered the meaning of life. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

Because of this delicate interconnectedness of life across time, space, and being, any littlest fragment of the universe can become a lens on the miraculous whole. Sometimes, it is the humblest life-forms that best intimate the majesty of life itself.

Take, for instance, lichens.

The Cowarne Red Apple with lichen, 1811. (Available as a print, as a backpack, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Lichens — which are not to be confused with mosses — are some of Earth’s oldest life-forms: emissaries of the ocean gone terrestrial. For epochs, their exact nature was a mystery — until an improbable revolutionary illuminated that they are, in fact, part algae.

In the final stretch of the nineteenth century, Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter punctuated her writing and her painting with a series of experiments with spores, demonstrating that lichens — which Linnaeus considered the “poor peasants of the plant world” — are in fact not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae: living reminders that the supreme vital force of life is not competition but interdependence, that we survive and thrive not through combat but through collaboration.

Lichens come alive as an enchanting miniature of the miraculous interconnectedness of nature in biologist David George Haskell’s altogether fascinating book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (public library).

Having previously written beautifully about the interleaving of life, Haskell details the ecological and evolutionary splendor of lichens as living symbiotes:

The quietude and outer simplicity of the lichens hides the complexity of their inner lives. Lichens are amalgams of two creatures: a fungus and either an alga or a bacterium. The fungus spreads the strands of its body over the ground and provides a welcoming bed. The alga or bacterium nestles inside these strands and uses the sun’s energy to assemble sugar and other nutritious molecules. As in any marriage, both partners are changed by their union. The fungus body spreads out, turning itself into a structure similar to a tree leaf: a protective upper crust, a layer for the light-capturing algae, and tiny pores for breathing. The algal partner loses its cell wall, surrenders protection to the fungus, and gives up sexual activities in favor of faster but less genetically exciting self-cloning. Lichenous fungi can be grown in the lab without their partners, but these widows are malformed and sickly. Similarly, algae and bacteria from lichens can generally survive without their fungal partners, but only in a restricted range of habitats. By stripping off the bonds of individuality the lichens have produced a world-conquering union. They cover nearly ten percent of the land’s surface, especially in the treeless far north, where winter reigns for most of the year.

Having so mastered the art of unselfing, lichens emerge as living testaments to the visionary evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” In their biology lies a poignant metaphor for how we think of the relationships that surround us, lacing our human lives:

Like a farmer tending her apple trees and her field of corn, a lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victors and victims makes little sense. Is corn oppressed? Does the farmer’s dependence on corn make her a victim? These questions are premised on a separation that does not exist. The heartbeat of humans and the flowering of domesticated plants are one life. “Alone” is not an option… Lichens add physical intimacy to this interdependence, fusing their bodies and intertwining the membranes of their cells, like cornstalks fused with the farmer, bound by evolution’s hand.

But the most beguiling manifestation of lichens’ gift for the art of relationship is found in how they acquire their haunting otherworldly color:

Blue or purple lichens contain blue-green bacteria, the cyanobacteria. Green lichens contain algae. Fungi mix in their own colors by secreting yellow or silver sunscreen pigments. Bacteria, algae, fungi: three venerable trunks of the tree of life twining their pigmented stems.

The algae’s verdure reflects an older union. Jewels of pigment deep inside algal cells soak up the sun’s energy. Through a cascade of chemistry this energy is transmuted into the bonds that join air molecules into sugar and other foods. This sugar powers both the algal cell and its fungal bedfellow. The sun-catching pigments are kept in tiny jewel boxes, chloroplasts, each of which is enclosed in a membrane and comes with its own genetic material. The bottle-green chloroplasts are descendants of bacteria that took up residence inside algal cells one and a half billion years ago. The bacterial tenants gave up their tough outer coats, their sexuality, and their independence, just as algal cells do when they unite with fungi to make lichens. Chloroplasts are not the only bacteria living inside other creatures. All plant, animal, and fungal cells are inhabited by torpedo-shaped mitochondria that function as miniature powerhouses, burning the cells’ food to release energy. These mitochondria were also once free-living bacteria and have, like the chloroplasts, given up sex and freedom in favor of partnership.

With an eye to the ancient union of bacterial genes that gave rise to all modern DNA, Haskell considers the elemental and existential role of symbiosis in every life, including our own:

We are Russian dolls, our lives made possible by other lives within us. But whereas dolls can be taken apart, our cellular and genetic helpers cannot be separated from us, nor we from them. We are lichens on a grand scale.

Complement with what remains the loveliest thing ever written about the symbiotic unself, then revisit bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer on the enchanting universe of moss and the poetic science of why leaves change color.


An Introvert’s Field Guide to Friendship: Thoreau on the Challenges and Rewards of the Art of Connection

“We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.”

Friendship is the sunshine of life — the quiet radiance that makes our lives not only livable but worth living. (This is why we must use the utmost care in how we wield the word friend.) In my own life, friendship has been the lifeline for my darkest hours of despair, the magnifying lens for my brightest joys, the quiet pulse-beat beneath the daily task of living. You can glean a great deal about a person from the constellation of friends around the gravitational pull of their personhood. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she contemplated how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship. Her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson — whom she taught to look through a telescope — believed that all true friendship rests on two pillars. In his own life, he put the theory into practice in his friendship with his young protégé Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — a solitary and achingly introverted person himself, who thought deeply and passionately about the rewards and challenges of friendship.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

Like all unusual people, Thoreau had a hard time connecting. In a desponded diary entry from his mid-thirties, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library), he writes:

Why should I speak to my friends? for how rarely is it that I am I; and are they, then, they? We will meet, then, far away.

Several months later, just before the Christmas holidays with their cruel magnifying lens of loneliness for the lonely, he rues his inability to connect openheartedly:

My difficulties with my friends are such as no frankness will settle. There is no precept in the New Testament that will assist me. My nature, it may be, is secret. Others can confess and explain; I cannot.

Thoreau finds himself pocked with self-doubt about his ability to connect, his sense of isolation at times swelling into punitive despair:

Nothing makes me so dejected as to have met my friends, for they make me doubt if it is possible to have any friends. I feel what a fool I am.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Over and over, Thoreau anguishes with the extreme shyness and reticence of his nature, longs for a confidante beyond the diary page, longs for companionship beyond the birds and the trees. On a beautiful spring Sunday, he despairs:

I have got to that pass with my friend that our words do not pass with each other for what they are worth. We speak in vain; there is none to hear. He finds fault with me that I walk alone, when I pine for want of a companion; that I commit my thoughts to a diary even on my walks, instead of seeking to share them generously with a friend; curses my practice even. Awful as it is to contemplate, I pray that, if I am the cold intellectual skeptic whom he rebukes, his curse may take effect, and wither and dry up those sources of my life, and my journal no longer yield me pleasure nor life.

Months after publishing Walden, with its lyrical celebration of solitude, his loneliness deepens into a primal scream of longing for connection:

What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone. My heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts. I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me.

And yet this openhearted longing is itself the only real raw material of friendship — only by surrendering to it, with all the vulnerability this demands of us, do we become receptive to the longing of others, the mutual yearning for connection that is shared heartbeat of humanity. Thoreau quietly intuits this equivalence, so that when he does connect, when he does feel the warm glow of friendship envelop him, it is nothing less than an exultation:

Ah, my friends, I know you better than you think, and love you better, too.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

At only twenty-four, Thoreau had arrived at a foundational fact of living — his own grand unified theory of human connection, which he spent the remainder of his short life trying, often with touching difficulty, to put into practice:

Friends are those twain who feel their interests to be one. Each knows that the other might as well have said what he said. All beauty, all music, all delight springs from apparent dualism but real unity. My friend is my real brother.

Pulsating beneath all of his uneasy reckonings is a deep-thinking, deep-feeling recognition of the essence of friendship:

The field where friends have met is consecrated forever. Man seeks friendship out of the desire to realize a home here… The friend is like wax in the rays that fall from our own hearts. My friend does not take my word for anything, but he takes me. He trusts me as I trust myself. We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Complement these fragments from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau — a biblical kind of book, replete with his deep-souled wisdom on how to see more clearly, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — with Seneca on true and false friendship, Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, Henry Miller on the relationship between creativity and community, Lewis Thomas on the poetic science of why we are wired for connection, and this lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship.


From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

The making of our densely networked crucible of thought and tenderness.

From Cells to Souls: The Poetic Science of How the Brain Became

It seems inconceivable — that everything we know, everything we love, everything that ever was and ever will be, banged into being from the singularity, and out of that near-nothingness arose mitochondria and music and “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” all of it conspiring in the wonder of consciousness — the universe’s way of comprehending itself.

Down here on Earth, as if the way life evolved weren’t miracle enough, we were handed down through billions of years of evolution the miraculous benediction of brains — those densely networked crucibles of thought and tenderness, out of which our capacity for transcendence arises.

One of neuroscience founding father Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s revolutionary drawings of the brain.

In an uncommonly poetic passage from his novel The Echo Maker (public library), Richard Powers traces the evolution of that benediction, from its cellular beginnings to its existential end:

Energy fell on an ancient cell; the cell registered. Some prodding set off a chemical cascade that incised the cell and changed its structure, forming a cast of the signals that fell on it. Eons later, two cells clasped, signaling each other, squaring the number of states they might inscribe. The link between them altered. The cells fired easier with each fire, their changing connections remembering a trace of the outside. A few dozen such cells slung together in a lowly slug: already an infinitely reshaping machine, halfway to knowing. Matter that mapped other matter, a plastic record of light and sound, place and motion, change and resistance. Some billions of years and hundreds of billions of neurons later, and these webbed cells wired up a grammar — a notion of nouns and verbs and even prepositions. Those recording synapses, bent back onto themselves — brain piggy-backing and reading itself as it read the world — exploded into hopes and dreams, memories more elaborate than the experience that chiseled them, theories of other minds, invented places as real and detailed as anything material, themselves matter, microscopic electro-etched worlds within the world, a shape for every shape out there, with infinite shapes left over: all dimensions springing from this thing the universe floats in. But never hot or cold, solid or soft, left or right, high or low, but only the image, the store. Only the play of likeness cut by chemical cascades, always undoing the state that did the storing. Semaphores at night, cobbling up even the cliff they signaled from… Unsponsored, impossible, near-omnipotent, and infinitely fragile.

Complement with the poetic scientist Lewis Thomas’s forgotten masterpiece The Fragile Species and the fascinating science of how we think not with the brain but with the world, then revisit Powers on the power of music, living in bewilderment, and how to begin rewriting our planetary future.


O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

The ultimate anthem of resistance to the assaults on life.

O Sweet Spontaneous: E.E. Cummings’s Love-Poem to Earth and the Glory of Spring

There is a nonspecific gladness that envelops humanity in the first days of spring, as if kindness itself were coming abloom in the cracks of crowded sidewalks, quelling our fears, swallowing our sorrows, salving the savage loneliness. We are reminded then that spring — this insentient byproduct of the shape of our planet’s orbit and the tilt of its axis — may just be Earth’s existential superpower, the supreme affirmation of life in the face of every assault on it.

That superpower comes alive with dazzling might in a century-old poem by E.E. Cummings (October 14, 1894–September 3, 1962), originally published in his 1923 collection Tulips & Chimneys (public library) — that epochal gauntlet at the conventions of poetry, which went on to influence generations of writers, readers, and daring makers of the unexampled across the spectrum of creative work — and read at the fifth annual Universe in Verse by the polymathic creative force that is Debbie Millman, with a side of Bach.

by e.e. cummings

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

            fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

        beauty    how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

            thou answerest

them only with


Couple with spring with Emily Dickinson, then revisit E.E. Cummings (who, contrary to popular myth, signed his name both lowercase and capitalized) on the courage to be yourself.

For other highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor Roxane Gay reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To the Young Who Want to Die,” Zoë Keating reading Sylvia Plath’s “Mushrooms,” Rebecca Solnit reading Helene Johnson’s “Trees at Night,” and a series of animated poems celebrating nature.


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