9 January 2016

Lichens Teach A Life Lesson

Happy New Year! May the coming year bring you sunshine and a warm wind.

[Sorry about the big paragraphs in this post. It's just how it turned out]

Between Christmas and New Year this year we made a quick visit to the Lake District, staying in the Three Shires Inn in Little Langdale. We have been there a few times because it has an open fire, serves a superb apple crumble, and is ideal for the amateur hiker because you can start walking as soon as you leave the front door. Minutes after polishing off a Full English you can be slogging your way up the fells, without a building or car in sight.

This time we headed westwards up towards a tarn with a breath-taking view down an old glacial valley.

I like to think distant geological time can still be seen in the Lake District. You can easily imagine glaciers hundreds of feet deep, and high thin waterfalls roaring down the valley sides as the ice melts. And if you ignore the sheep and stone walls you can just about get a glimpse of the post glacial world of peat bogs, juniper and holly, and wind flattened hawthorn.

It is easy to forget the Lakes we see now is the product of intense agricultural and industrial activity. But I think there is still some connection with the time when reindeer and wolves roamed the fells.

As per usual the hubby and son yomped ahead, having intense discussions about boots and socks and sweat wicking underpants. I was left to flounder along at my own mum pace.

Behind Again

But this suits me really because I like to stop to look at the landscape and imagine ice, and eagles soaring in the sky. For Christmas this year I got a small pair of binoculars, so I was also stopping to whip them out and get a closer look at the distant fells. Which actually was a bit disappointing because there is not much to see in the distance. Before you focus on it you already know that white dot is a going to be a sheep. And my binocular wielding skills aren’t yet good enough to keep pace with flying birds. So all I could say was “yes, I can confirm they are birds.” I tucked the binoculars back under my coat (swinging binoculars are so annoying) and carried on looking at the plants at my feet.

Given that it has been such a wet winter not surprisingly the mosses were luxuriant: a beautiful green and deep and squishy. I don’t know how to identify the different moss species yet. I’ll have a go one day. Don’t worry; I will let you know when I can.

Nestled amongst the pillows of moss were strangely shaped growths. They were slightly taller than the moss fronds, a greyish green colour and seemed to be covered in dandruff like dust. They were shaped like golf tees, with a short stalk ending in a cup-like shape. In fact I’m pretty sure they were the model for Shrek’s ears. But since they were named in a time before golf was invented, and feature length Hollywood animated films existed, they are called Pixie Cups: they look like something the fairy folk would drink from. Though if you think about it who has ever seen a pixie? Do we know what size they are? Maybe they prefer pints.

Anyway, back at the inn, in front of a roaring fire, with a hot chocolate to hand I used the free wifi to learn more about our pixie cups. They are a form of lichen.

Until now I didn’t really know what lichen was. Yes, I could point to one, but what exactly is it?

Well, it’s not a plant, like the moss the pixie cups grew through in Little Langdale, nor is it simply a fungus like a mushroom. Instead it is a composite organism created by the symbiotic relationship between the filaments of a fungus and a type of bacteria - cyanobacteria. It is the combination of species from different botanical kingdoms. The variety of lichens you see – the white circular ones on stone, or bright orange ones on trees – have not evolved like a plant species would from a common ancestor over millions or thousands of years, but instead are the result of a particular combination of particular fungi and bacteria.

Experiments have been done that show that without its associated bacteria the fungus remains as an unformed mass of hyphae, but will slowly develop into recognisable lichen once the bacteria has been re introduced. Which sounds spooky to me. Like a horror story – a bit like Frankenstein.

Because lichen is a community rather than a single organism reproduction is tricky.

Fragments of the lichen may break off and manage to survive separate from the main body, but this is more expansion than actual reproduction. Like cloning I suppose. For sexual reproduction to happen both the bacteria and fungus have to disperse at the same time and travel on wind or water or hiking boots, and land some distance away together and then set up a new community. This can happen ... but I won’t go into details about it because it’s starting to get mind numbing.

However, it brings us back to our Pixie Cups. These golf tee shapes aren’t the lichen itself but its fruiting body. The spores (for want of a better word) grow on the rim of the cups. And the cups are on the end of a stem which raises them above the main flat body of the lichen and gives the spores a better chance of being blown away or brushed along by a passing reindeer, or a schlepping mum.

A couple of days later I was back home deep in the suburbs of Manchester. My son had flown to Sweden to be with friends for New Year (as you do), and hubby was in bed with man flu. I dithered about what to do with my free time. Should I be a good housewife and tidy up? Or be a bad housewife and sit on the sofa with a box of chocolates? Neither appealed so I forced myself to go for a walk, which seemed the sensible thing to do.

Now, walking in Manchester is very different to walking in the Lakes. There is no far horizon to gaze at, no fells or pikes or gills, no thoughts about reindeer herds roaming desolate post-glacial landscapes. It is mostly a matter of trudging along streets and taking short cuts through empty windblown parks.

At first I was very grumpy. My deepest wish is to live in the countryside. It always has been. Right from when I was very young. At one point I opened a savings account I called my Land Account. The plan was to buy some small plot of field, just so I could say it was mine. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Just owning land was enough. In the end what little money was in the account was spent on the wedding. Good idea eh?

So stomping down suburban roads is not how I would ideally like to live. But it looks like I won’t get to live in the country now. Time is running out. And I have no money. So I must make the most of my Mancunian streets, and enjoy the nature I find there.

After a while my grumpy internal dialogue calmed down and I started to pay attention to where I was. In a tiny park the recent bad weather had torn some branches from the trees. And on them grew patches of luminous green lichen with the same cup like growths as our Pixie Cups. Interesting.

I took a picture, and then went on a determined hunt for more lichen.

It is amazing what you can find when you look. There was another grey green type growing on tarmac. When you walk past it just looks like a grey splodge – like chewing gum - but when you crouch down to take a photo you can see it is made from little stubby branches.

And another powdery lichen on a tree on closer inspection looked like thousands of seabirds on a vertiginously tall cliff-face overlooking a wild sea.

The lesson I learnt is that what we seek in the vastness of National Parks, also exists in the grey drudgery of cities.

It is true if you want to be awed and challenged then yes, the sublime you look for is there out in the fells, and not at the end of your road. BUT the wild part of the wildlife that you can so easily see in the countryside also exists in the crevices of your streets.

What magic strangeness unites too separate entities to make a third? How can such a seemingly unlikely and precarious relationship survive successfully for thousands, maybe millions of years? Lichens were eaten by the reindeer that roamed Britain at least 8 thousand years ago. The reindeer have gone, but the lichen remain. Likewise the lichen that grows on the tarmaced footpaths of Manchester once grew on its sandstone bedrock left behind when the ice age glaciers finally retreated.

That’s awesome.

What did Dylan Thomas call it?

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins
How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.