Lichens: Toward a Minimal Resistance
Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, 2023
250 pp., illus. b/w and col. Paper, $24.95
Vincent Zonca’s lyrically-written book Lichens is a banquet of selections from literature, visual art, and creative thinkers or artists who have mediated on the reality and metaphors of lichens. Because of its anthology-like voices skillfully knitted together thematically, there’s something new and sparkling every few pages in this multi-dialogic text. The work is an engrossing and erudite meditation on the ubiquitous but neglected lichen. Politics are now implicated in species webs, and lichens are examples of entities on the margins struggling to overcome class divisions. Lichens do not command attention, and the inability for people to identify with species like lichens is at the heart of political aversion to environmental causes. Lichens, though common, are ignored and devalued since they are mistakenly assumed to hold no economic worth and are even associated with disease. Through Zonca’s field work and comparative readings, his mission is to give purpose and standing to commonplace but unacknowledged lichens in relation to human physical spaces.
What is lichen? It’s actually a combination of fungus and alga. The first lichens appeared about 450mya at the beginning of terrestrial ecosystems demonstrating how no bio-network is fixed but open in dynamic tension. Many people see lichens as inferior material rejected from nature. Nonetheless, along with insects, plankton, and mushrooms, Zonca notes that lichen represent 80 percent of living species. He offers a brief history of the botanists who studied and classified what were then considered “inferior plants” (pg. 15). True identification would not come until the nineteenth century with more sophisticated instrumentation. Lichens are symbiotic: parts are fungi, and parts are algae supporting and inhabiting the whole organism. This contingent pairing of fungi and algae was likely among the first life forms to occupy land. Fungi root the organism and offer water and nutrients while the algae photosynthesize food as sugars. This fundamental symbiosis of parts, Zonca says, explains why hardy lichens universally occupy eight percent of earth’s land. Lichens appear on almost any surface, from volcanic rock to trees, but they do need light and humidity, possible even in deserts and glaciers. Lichens act as ground temperature regulators, as microbiomes for small organisms, and as food for species from insects to reindeer. Zonca says lichens are “pioneer vegetation” (pg. 21) that build soil and help foster other plants in food webs. Lichens are like a metaphor of life, he asserts, in their “desire for contact” (pg. 35) and for communication and transition in relations of attachment.
Zonca explains how the problems of classifying and describing lichens have been overcome by scientists using personification in terms of skin, hair, and even teeth. Lichens are multi-dimensional, not flat, and are many colored and not just pale or dull green. Their surfaces and tints are offset by their stone or wood substrates. With their forms and colors, perhaps lichens inspired painting, as he recounts Leonardo da Vinci musing. Some artists have been motivated to copy the textures and hues of lichens. The implied question is whether or not human creative renderings can fully depict the three dimensional works of nature. Zonca offers detailed accounts of writers, musicians, and artists who revel in collaborating with wonders of inconspicuous plants where others perceive mundane nature. Lichens, in particular, evince surreal life on subtle margins. For a number of artists, he argues, lichens manifest autocatalytic art and a window to archetypes of a collective unconsciousness. Lichens are in a strange dialogue between the living (trees), the inert (stones), or the dead (fallen trees). He also touches on differences of cultures, for example how the Japanese mindset responds respectfully to lichens and mosses in their solitary imperfection compared with social attitudes of other nations that that disdain them.
Because lichens can grow in urban places, Zonca suggests we use this indomitable organism to evolve a better relationship with nature. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he encourages us not to ignore but rather to study with a new sensibility the smallest aspects of our plant environment to understand how and where we fit into the biosphere, “to relocalize our gaze” (pg. 96). Take, for example, H.D. Thoreau who marveled with New England Transcendentalism at how lichens spring to life, even in cold when infused with mist. As early as the late eighteenth century, but certainly by the mid nineteenth century, naturalists were beginning to comprehend how lichens act as barometers for industrial pollution. Observers noted that lichens weakly appeared in the bustling city of Paris responding negatively to the air’s fouled hygiene. Human development along with climate change might reduce lichens up to 40 percent in coming years. Urban areas, Zonca believes, should be re-engineered as interiors of nature, not exteriors. Cities sanitize from walls vital organisms like moss and lichen that help sustain valuable life forms, from consumers like squirrels to nest-builders like birds. Nonetheless, the world of lichens is local, minimal, and solitary, not epic; yet mysteriously they persistent in healthy climes. In this way he spends much time talking about poetry as analogous to that which endures in a kind of meagerness, often unread but calling for attention. Zonca advocates for wild spaces in cities with replantation whenever possible, colonizing microhabitats or pocket forests to help people reimagine their place in nature, a “new ecology” (pg. 169) without boundaries.
In a special chapter on symbiotic ways of thinking, Zonca sees that fungus “cultivates” alga in a “nutritional strategy” to help it symbiotically survive (pg. 174). Fungus cannot support itself but when merged with alga as lichen, both flourish. This organism raises biological, philosophical, and political questions of individuality. In miniature, lichen supports other tiny organisms, so it’s a symbol of a forest: part consists of and contributes to the whole. Lichens, as nineteenth century German and Russian botanists began to realize not without controversy, represent plural entities, a form of communalism or at best mutualism. Symbiosis means two beings are cohabiting one organism without parasitism, both sharing one life externally and internally. This idea was confirmed late in the nineteenth century with the realization that fungi on plant roots were also symbiotic. In fact, much ecological theories of that time were driven by lichen studies.
Following a long tradition of thinkers before, up to, and beyond Plato, Zonca continues his discussion of symbiosis with the idea that sympathetic harmony among species rests on a political foundation. By the 1870s in France, mutualism was viewed as social and biological with voluntary association and shared assistance. Nature as cooperative was not widely held, justifying capitalistic competition. He cites work of Lynn Margulis who posited that on a cellular level with the sharing of interacting genetic materials evolution is fundamentally symbiotic. He goes on to note how symbiotic ideas from biology now touch many disciplines, from the arts to economics. None of this thinking reduces Darwin’s opinion about the struggle for existence. Links between organisms, Zonca admits, can become tentative. He suggests, therefore, that the idea of symbiosis not include shades of mutualism. A focus, rather, should be on an indefinite relationship that contains competitive cooperation epitomized in the fungus (earth) / alga (sea) lichen that’s laden with microbes so that the whole is almost void of singular identity. In nature, the secret to success is not dominance but political interdependence with a lack of separation. Symbiosis is not later acquired but integral to the formation of lichens. Thus, the concept of individuality is held in question since what is considered a single organism is indeterminately open to other formations in potential process. This is a powerful metaphor that can shape not only ecological but also social thought. It’s not just that genes respond to the environment but that symbiotic partnering with the environment contributes to an organism’s genetic constitution, evident in lichens.
Artists and poets capitalize from the notion of ecological fragmentation, according to Zonca. Symbiosis is about affiliating qualities and capacities to increase an organism’s “emergent” capabilities (pg. 200). As elsewhere in the book, Zonca shows how artists accommodate these ideas in their works as expressions of nature and culture interacting. Zonca and the creative thinkers he adeptly assembles propose that humans, who are currently parasites to symbiotic Gaia, can enter into, pursuant to philosopher Michel Serres, a natural contract of mutual cohabitation and exchange of benefits with nature. Zonca irrefutably shows how for the sake of planetary health humans still have much to learn from these ancient organisms we call lichens.