“Daddy, look!” he calls from the top of the slope. “Sausage lichen!”
It is a rare cloudless blue sky in the middle of the summer just gone, and we are visiting a favourite spot on Dartmoor. Holding a small branch like it is the most fragile of porcelain sculptures, he runs carefully towards me. There is a subconscious skill in the way he runs down the slope, aware of everything around him: his precious cargo remains safe as he effortlessly dodges the most delicate purple violets, and zig-zags through young green ferns unravelling their bright green new fronds, cautious not to trample anything. Perhaps his senses are so astute not because he has super powers, but because he is aware of the natural world around him. He is four and a half years old, but he has an innate respect for nature. And it shines.
He approaches, holding out his prize. The small rugged looking branch is about as long as my forearm, but this is no ordinary piece of wood. And he knows it. Dangling down, is a soft looking, light green clump; as if an oddly coloured sheep has snagged its wool on the branch.
“And look Daddy, there. Lettuce lichen,” he says excitedly. His subtly creased brow lines reveal his familiar seriousness when he has discovered something he is proud of.
We talk about the wind-broken stick and the lichen that have made their home there. He is hungry and his curiosity needs feeding. His enquiring mind is churning out many questions so he can make sense of this odd thing he has discovered. This clump of an otherwise obscure growth on a broken twig gets us talking about Peter Rabbit, the beasts of the last Ice Age in the South West, and, perhaps surprisingly, leading us quite naturally onto Father Christmas.
And why shouldn’t it? Lichen is bizarrely wonderful. What makes lichen so funky is that it is not just one species but two, and sometimes three! In passing, it may seem like a flat, dull, lifeless, crusty thing on a surface, but it is in fact an incredibly complex system of two (or more) organisms living together for mutual gain. Lichen is the Han Solo and Chewbacca of the natural world (with Luke Skywalker occasionally hanging around). This incredible relationship is between single celled algae or cyanobacteria (or sometimes both) and filaments of fungus. It is a truly symbiotic relationship: the algae get the protection from the fungus, and the fungus feeds from algae’s photosynthetic food. With no need for roots to take up food, the fungus can grow almost anywhere from the tops of delicate leaves, to in-between paving stones beneath your feet. Lichen can grow in some of the most extreme environments on the planet from the hellishly hot environments at Yellowstone Park to the freezing, Hoth-like environments on Antarctica.
And Peter Rabbit? Well, this is a nice little link. Peter Rabbit and friends were brought to life through the wonderful imagination and glorious illustrations of Beatrix Potter. Her fascination with wildlife didn’t stop with anthropomorphising rabbits, frogs and foxes. In incredible detail, Potter painted hundreds of elegant watercolours of fungi and lichen. She was fascinated with these botanical curiosities, and carried out countless experiments. She even questioned what lichens actually were. However, Potter wasn’t the first. Some 30 years before she pondered, a Swiss botanist, Simon Schwendener spent several years looking at the relationship between fungus and algae to explain exactly what lichen is. His ideas about lichen being two separate organisms didn’t took root with the British circle, even when Potter tired to reignite Schwendeners’ ideas, producing her own unique experiments. Her results, and her views, were ignored. The botanical world in the mid-1890s was not ready for two organisms living as one. Nor was it ready for a woman to be explaining what lichens really were, backed by successful experiments.
Little old lichen, inconspicuously alive and elegantly beautiful, is a lifeline for many animals. In harsh winters, the wonderfully shaggy musk ox and the elegant reindeer scrap lichen off the rocks for food with their strong front incisors. What’s more incredible is that, until relatively recently, these beasts were wondering the British landscape: while reindeer trundled along in their huge herds, woolly mammoths lolloped. Reindeer fossils have been found at cave sites across Britain. In the South West, of England, around 20,000 to 15,000 years ago, when the climate was much colder, reindeer were scraping lichen off rocks with wolves howling in the distance.
And of course, the link to Santa. While Father Christmas enjoys a mince pie and whisky, it is not to far a step to imagine Rudolf and chums enjoying a snack on the yellow, flat lichen that adorns our roof tiles. One simple, otherwise unassuming lichen can open up so many incredible doors into a plethora of fascinating areas.
One of the favourite stories my son loves is that some species were used to dye clothes in the past. There is a special ingredient added to lichen which was hand scrapped of the cold, hard granite on Dartmoor. The key is in the pee. (The ammonia in the unrine brings out the colour from the lichen). This has been used for hundreds of years all across Europe. A wonderful fact he shares with his little sister.
As we chat my son spots a small weevil moving through the sausage lichen. He holds his breath for what seems like an eternity, for fear of unleashing a terrible gale on this tiny creature. He watches it move each jointed leg incredibly slowly through what must seem like mangrove forests to this enigmatic little beetle. My little one notices everything: the odd, unsynchronised movement of the antennae, the comically disproportionate nose. His brow lines begin to crease again.
Lichen is beautiful. I like to tweet photos of them to share that beauty (#LoveYourLichen). I am not a lichenologist (although with a cool name like that, I am sometimes tempted), but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty in these bizarrely wonderful organisms. If you think about it, you are not an anthropologist, but the latest news about new human fossil discoveries fills you with excitement and questions. What makes the magnificent BBC natural history programmes so mesmerising is seeing the diversity and splendour of life in so much detail in your living room.
Nature captures us so strongly because we all have a natural curiosity with the animals and plants of the world. David Attenborough recognised this, when he wrote “Every child in this world has an innate pleasure and delight and interest and curiosity in the natural world.” I would go a step further, and say every person in this world has that innate pleasure, delight, interest and curiosity.
That may seem like quite a bold statement. I know, because I have seen it so many times. The reaction of little ones and their parents is so similar when they see a real skeleton up close or come face to face with a pickled octopus. The only difference being the adults are more restrained. But talk to them about the creature, show it to them close, and that inner child comes out pretty quickly. Perhaps as adults our lives are filled with bills, chores, jobs, and other things, we often forget to stop and look at the world around us. Maybe everybody doesn’t like dinosaurs. Not everyone likes trees. There is something about nature that everybody does like.
Lichen is one way of looking. You can choose anything really, trees, bees, flowers, or birds. I originally pointed out lichen to my little one because it was different: it is not always obviously there, but it is everywhere. It is also pretty weird. Step outside. Take a walk in your park, or local woods. Or just in your garden. Watch the autumn light shine on the vibrant colours of the leaves around you and look for lichen on rocks or the branches of trees. Lichen is one easy way to feed that curiosity in all of us. It is all around hanging on trees, or flat on the side of buildings. We see the lichen and its beautiful colours, with those stunning tiny cups to release its’ next generation.
When we do spot it, we look closer. We might catch a shimmer of blue as an iridescent ground beetle moves nearby, or a blue tit singing on a nearby branch. The world around us is breathtakingly beautiful. The more we look, the more we see that beauty.