Oak Moss Lichen as Totem

Lichens are a unique set of beings. Rather than being a kingdom of their own, lichens are a combination of plant (either algae or plant-like cyanobacteria) and fungus. While it is possible to separate the plant and fungal parts of a lichen in a laboratory, and some of these plant and fungus species also live independently, for all intents and purposes lichens are singular beings rather than colonies.

I’ve long paid attention to lichens when I’m outdoors. Part of this is because they’re really good indicators of how polluted the air in a given location is. Lichens are very sensitive to airborne pollutants as they gain some of their nutrients from the air, and the more lichens you see and the bigger they are, the healthier the air is. I also try to take care to not step on them, as they take a long time to grow back.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Oak Moss Lichen. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But from a spiritual standpoint they’re also fascinating! When I’ve worked with the totems of lichen species, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Sometimes the lichen totem itself shows up; other times, I work with the totems of the individual plant and fungus species that make up the lichen. I’ve even had meditations where the lichen switched back and forth between the forms. I haven’t noticed a pattern, such as older species of lichens preferring to stay singular. Each lichen totem has its own preference, and for the purposes of my writing I’m going to refer to each one in the singular from here on out.

One of the lichen totems that seems to like shapeshifting is Oak Moss Lichen (Evernia prunastri). As a singular lichen totem, Oak Moss is bold and rather extroverted, a rather intense totem to work with. Oak Moss are fairly opportunistic lichens; they’ve often been accused of killing trees because they tend to grow on trees that are already sick or dying. The totem is similarly intrepid, and has on occasion egged me on when I’ve come to a tough spot hiking and taken a moment to rest and check in with the spirits of the landscape. Oak Moss’ plant and fungus totems, on the other hand, are fairly shy and retiring; they often hide behind a sort of “veil”, and I find this is a common trend with the plant/fungus derivatives of lichen totems.

Oak Moss, though, often switches forms to demonstrate a point. For example, when I went to my beach along the Columbia River last week, I spent some time simply hanging out with the locals, as it were. I’d been thinking a lot about the complexity of human communications and relationships, and I got into a conversation with Oak Moss about this.

See, it’s really easy for people to turn each other into one-dimensional characters. Sometimes this is just out of sheer efficiency. I don’t need to know the entire life history of the person who rings up my purchase at the grocery store, though we may exchange a few pleasantries as we interact, and I may find out that they have three children and like mint chip ice cream at least as much as I do. It’s not really necessary to get to know them beyond that, and we can have a civil society based on such things.

Other times, it’s defensive. When we disagree strongly with other people on something we feel very deeply about, it’s a lot easier for us to turn them into the mustache-twirling villain of old silent films. We don’t have to think about them as well-rounded people with thoughts, feelings, families, and with whom we might share many other opinions in agreement. In fact, the very thought of considering our “enemies” as actual people can be threatening to our sense of moral stability. Empathy becomes anathema.

And so conflicts go round and round, from small disagreements among neighbors to international wars, fed by mutual pigeonholing.

I talked with Oak Moss about this, and the intense sadness I feel over the loss of potential communication. First, Oak Moss showed me how its children find it easier to grow on the aforementioned weakened trees. It isn’t because the trees are defenseless, but rather because the trees’ loss of leaves opens up their bark to the much-needed sunlight that plants and lichens both need. So the lichens take the opportunity to soak up some sun while their host tree slowly passes away. This is a normal part of nature; trees become food for other living beings, even before they die, and this process is absolutely crucial to the health of the forest.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Assorted lichens on a branch. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

But because we are often biased toward beautiful trees, and because we see the lichens living on the bark of trees that then die, we’ve sometimes demonized the lichens as the cause of the trees’ deaths. In actuality, the lichens were just doing what they could to survive and taking an opportunity in the very competitive race for sunlight. The trees would have died anyway; sometimes they become necessary nurse logs for lichens and mosses and ferns and others even before they’ve completely died and fallen. The decay created by fungi, lichens, and bacteria all releases nutrients back into the cycle of life and death. Nature hates waste.

And that reminded me, too, of my recycling of hides, bones, and other animal remains. I make use of the refuse from those who are hunters, farmers, and the like, as well as occasional roadkill remains. And I turn those remains into resources that not only keep me alive through paying my bills, but I can also donate a portion of the funds to nonprofit groups that benefit wildlife and their habitats. Like the lichens, I’m doing what I can to survive and converting resources that are available into benefits for others. Sometimes people look askance at both me and the lichens. But on we go.

Oak Moss then split into its plant and fungus parts. The fungus was robust, the heavy structure of the lichen that supports it. The algae, on the other hand, was the swift-moving photosynthesizer, the one who added shape to the lichen’s structure. If you split a lichen into its plant and fungus components, the fungus will grow into nothing but shapeless masses of hyphae, and the species of algae it is combined with determines how it’s shaped. Algae also is rather shapeless on its own, but continues its creation of food from sunlight regardless. So in a way we can think of the fungus as the heavy mover and lifter, and the algae as the artistic creator. Both are crucial to the existence and form of the lichen.

We, too, are complex beings with multiple roles in life. We all have times when we’re strong, and we all have times when we’re sensitive, and sometimes both. We wouldn’t be who we are without all these parts. As anyone in any form of relationship knows, it takes time to get to know a person in all their parts and pieces, as well as as a whole. It can take a great deal of patience and bravery, too, on the part of everyone involved. But empathy makes it easier to not hate someone, and to see them as a multi-layered person with whom we have agreements as well as disagreements. Sometimes it’s not safe to engage with someone who’s being actively hostile, and so it’s better to not directly interact with them. But even trying to imagine what it might be like to be that other person is better than that one-dimensional villainy.

And so Oak Moss reminded me to be patient with others–most especially those with whom I disagree. It’s more challenging to see certain people–homophobes, religious fundamentalists, corrupt politicians, as a few examples–as human beings, well-rounded people. But I feel it’s necessary to keep trying, if I’m to not perpetuate the same sort of hatred and lack of communication that is at the heart of so many problems. And it’s necessary to remind myself that I am a fully functioning human being as well, that I have my well-thought-out reasons for what I do and why. These can be difficult concepts to keep in mind, but I feel it’s crucial to do so.

And in this exchange, Oak Moss helped me to remember some of the most important ideals I live by. Some of them stem from childhood, but are just as relevant now. Just because I gave up Catholicism years ago doesn’t mean I didn’t learn important things from it. I do hold to heart two thoughts in particular:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Grant that I may not seek to be understood as to understand.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

Tree bark supporting a mini-ecosystem. Photo by Lupa, 2013.

The first is, of course, the Golden Rule, which can be found in cultures around the world. I know that I don’t care to be yelled at or insulted; it tends to be a real mood-killer when it comes to intelligent discourse; sometimes it’s better just to keep quiet than to continue arguments, fights, even wars. And so I tend to imagine that it’s the same way for other people, and I try to grant them the sort of patience and understanding I’d appreciate (even if I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be). And even though I sometimes get frustrated with other people, once I calm down I try to see thing from their perspective. Keep in mind that understanding someone’s perspective doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with it, and I think sometimes that’s what keeps people from trying to understand others’ perspectives. But if you hold true to your own opinions you won’t be so easily shaken as that, and if you do change your mind it will be an informed change, not one based on kneejerk reaction. Most importantly, it lets you keep sight of that other person’s personhood, which can go a long way in creating civil discourse.

So I left Oak Moss that day feeling lighter in my heart, and with more purpose and reason for being here. And from here on out, whenever I feel tempted to reduce someone to a single dimension, and especially if I only want to hang onto the worst possible picture of them I could have, I’m going to remember this conversation, and the image of Oak Moss splitting into two parts, very different from each other and yet both necessary to the whole. Life is full of complexities, lichens and humans among them. Better to focus on those complexities than to go to war over one-dimensional caricatures.

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7 thoughts on “Oak Moss Lichen as Totem

  1. Usnea and I have a thang going on. Kinda a love affair. I have a massive happiness in evergreen forests and usnea is in there killing the already weakened trees. I tincture usnea as an antibiotic and it has helped me a lot. With my weird relationship with bacteria it is funny my lichen totem is usnea, the bacteria killer. Maybe it shows how each “God” or “spirit” or person has someone who knocks them down, keeping balance. We need a lot of balance these days. Sigh.

    Lichens make good dyes as they do not need mordants but the fact it takes so long for them to grow makes me wary of killing them for dye. In winter people gather lichens off apple trees (apple trees are our big lichen trees here) for dying or making mordant for other natural dyes.Again I feel creepy killing someone so old for dye, even if I have MCS and almost any dyed fabric makes me ill and I have sensory defensiveness and white makes me get a headache. It’s hard to weigh out. I’s rather dying involved lichen more than chemicals, but it would have to be done in a cultural context that respects lichen enough to make sure it has clean air. Which humans need too of course, kincentric living. Again, balance. I would rather be interacting with lichens in the dying process than poisons.

    • Or simply to accept that things die, and those deaths benefit others, and it’s futile to make a judgement on the goodness or badness of it, too.

      I think it may be better to choose plants and such that grow more quickly and abundantly if you can get a similar color with them. Granted, I agree that lichens are still better than chemical dyes, but but substitutes first, IMO.

  2. This is wonderful. I’d never considered lichens as allies before – we’ve certainly got plenty of them around here, especially oak moss.

  3. I too have a liking for Oak Moss. It makes me agreeable toward decay in my life. It levels the ground. But it also has a kind of “morbid fun”, reveling glee exuding, kind of making fun of my pompous aspirations. It is not just moss but has a personality to ot.

  4. I have always felt drawn to the beauty and complexity of fungi, lichens, moss, algae, and the combination of these, but had never thought of them as a Totemic Spirit that could be spoken to or worked with. Now that I think about it, I am surrounded by several different wooded glens with all kinds of trees sporting lichens, moss, or all of the plant life you mentioned like coats or jewelry. Makes me want to go talk to them and see what they have to say.

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