Friday, December 31, 2010
The last day of the year is a good time to talk about lichen.
Lichen represent pretty much everything modern life isn't. They are slow-growing and long-lived. They are immensely adaptable, living almost everywhere on earth; they even survive exposure to the vacuum and radiation of space. They are beautifully symbiotic: not a single organism alone in the world, but two forms of life, two races if you will, a fungus and (usually) an alga, living in harmony.
Nature doesn't give lessons (although I'd like to think so, and it surely is fun propounding that it's a guide for human life). But it does give perspective, especially at holiday time. Many holidays have a natural beginning, related to the seasons of the year. That pagan basis took on a supernatural sheen in the religious eras, and has further evolved today to have little meaning, emotional or religious, beyond a kind of generic celebration of consumption. Imagining yourself as a lichen on the outside of the International Space Station brings things back into perspective.
New Year's Eve may be different from most holidays since it celebrates (or rues!) a purely artificial break in time. There never has been any natural or spiritual significance to it. We mostly pretend, for a couple of minutes or even a couple of days, that our reflections on the past or our avowals for the future are just something we've been meaning to do all year, should have been doing all along. Then we get drunk.
Lichen can help us here too, giving a warning at the least. Constancy is one word for what they are, but I especially like the concept, but not the fact, that lichen are rare in cities, being so sensitive to air pollution. I've nothing against cities (well, maybe a little); the point is that it's harder to live simply, purely, sensitively, sensibly, there. By definition, the human element is triumphing (although we're seeing at what cost to our lungs), and the natural element is losing. Time is no longer on our side when even lichen flee.
I'm not in Maine for this holiday - can you tell?