The world is changing in many ways, and one of them is our human awareness of the kingdom of Fungi. We are increasingly aware that fungi, in many forms, is involved in all of life. From wine and beer to bread to medicine to the health of the soil we grow our food from, fungi are essential for all the rest of life. Now we are renewing our knowledge of life to include fungi. ‘Flora, fauna, and fungi’ is much more accurate than ‘flora and fauna’ to describe life on Earth.
For several years I have been considering and wondering about lichens. Lichens always are partly formed by fungi, and they are different from other life forms. Recently several people have written and spoken about fungi, including lichens, giving both the scientific community and the average person a very different understanding of what fungi are and what fungi do in the living world.
Lichens are just one of many forms fungi take to do their work in the world. Micro-rhizome networks that are everywhere the soil is healthy have been almost unknown to humans yet are vast, complex and have many functions.
I believe humans will continue to adjust their concepts of how life is arranged on Earth. Beyond fungi, the world is filled with archae https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaea, and protists https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protist and more creatures than we can imagine. Humans are a minuscule part of the vast diversity of life. We do not have a complete knowledge of the insects, animals, or plants, but there are many more microscopic forms of life than there are visible forms.
If you can’t be in the woods meeting fungi in person, start an exploration of what is being learned about fungi with Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. Once the door to the mysteries of the Fungi Kingdom opens, you will find more to explore. Many people have been quietly learning about fungi, and now their ideas and work are in print https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/fungi. Some of you may have seen the beautiful movie https://fantasticfungi.com/ .
News sources run feature stories about the Fungi Kingdom, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/11/fungi-earth-secret-miracle-weapon. Humans are voraciously collecting and consuming the fungi in forests across the continent. Creative ideas about using fungi for clothing, packaging, new medicines, and more are being explored.
Some of our knowledge of fungi is very ancient. The ‘Iceman’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi who died 5,000 years ago and was preserved in ice in the mountains on the border of Italy and Austria was carrying a piece of fungi with a string through it. The fungi is known to have medicinal properties, and could also be used for making fire.
There may be many kinds of fungi for every plant and tree you see. Under the ground, inside the roots, and through bark fungi weave a vast and complex network supporting all other life. Think about the fungi as you walk along, and you will begin to notice them, popping up everywhere.
Fall is a good season to find many types of fungi. The leaves are gone, the weather is still mild and many fungi appear. I’ve found Conopholis americana (squaw root) in large patches in the fall.
Many more people are harvesting mushrooms now than ever before. Many areas have damaged soil, and many fungi are becoming rare or missing due to our taking so many from their place in the land. Please consider this if you are ‘hunting’ mushrooms. To remain viable most of the fungi need to be left in place. You may take what seems sustainable, but how many others will be taking from the same area? Good stewardship considers the situation for the plants or creatures in question, beyond personal expectations.
Take more pictures, take fewer fungi from the forest. Enjoy their beauty, sample a few, take a picture. They are busy working to keep the whole forest healthy for all of us.
As in any well done science work, new information that can be verified may change our understanding of the world. We can only learn ‘the next step’, we can never completely know the depth and complexity of the world from any one perspective. And so now lichenologists have found something new going on in lichens that revised our understanding of when lichens first appeared on earth as well as what makes a lichen; at least certain lichens. I suspect they will always fool us; they are too complex to box into a category and leave them there.
The study originally looked for reasons some fungi and algae ‘hug’ each other and don’t let go. But along the way, the evidence seemed to show that fungi figured out how to do this in many places and times, not just from one ancestor. The earliest fungi to do this, that humans have evidence of so far, do not show up before ferns and a few other plants. So it may be that lichen did not colonize land before plants.
There may still be more surprises in the fossil records, and we may need to revise this story again in the future. It’s like a big puzzle; each piece is useful but only part of the picture. Even though we don’t have the whole puzzle figured out, we do see part of the story. Making adjustments, like sorting pieces-sky pieces we know go near the top of the puzzle, water pieces near the bottom- helps understand the patterns of life on earth even as we continue to search for the details.
For a life as simple looking as lichen are (to us), they do have amazing abilities to be flexible and adaptable; traits we might find useful. So the scientists continue to look for why and how the lichen do what they do, and I’ll let you know when I find out too!
(The title image is Chicken-of-the-Woods, growing behind my horse barn, on an old log.)
Veering off topic from Lichens to Mushrooms today; I just can’t help myself because the story is so wonderful. A human has written music from mushrooms. Not one song, but thousands, from every mushroom he encountered over decades of walking in the forest.
Recently a friend gave me information about the discovery that lichens disable prions, particularly the ones that make CWD. In the last post, I mused about what else they might be up to that we have no ideas about yet. As elders and others from cultures with intact connections to the living world know and occasionally inform us, everything is alive and interacts in myriad ways with the world. Some people still know that, and sometimes they make something beautiful from their love of the world’s beauty. And sometimes, a human interacts with the living world in a new and beautiful way. That’s the story of Vaclav Halek.
Today, while listening to the radio program ‘To The Best Of Our Knowledge’ the story of Vaclav Halek’s willingness to listen to what he heard years ago, and his inspiration to add his own gifts to the mushrooms’ songs so other humans could also hear them sing, brought to mind all the discoveries made about mycelium, lichens, fungi, and other Tiny Ones, such as bacteria. So few humans notice the Tiny Ones, the Small Ones, the Stemmed Ones….all those who are quiet and small and everywhere. Sometimes we “hear symphonies” when in the presence of a grand landscape, or spectacular sky. But Mr. Halek’s symphony came from….mushrooms.
While wandering in the forest in the 1980’s, he first heard music coming from a mushroom. He seemed to have no hesitation in hurrying to write down what he heard. That response started a long relationship with thousands of mushrooms, all of them giving him their own unique music. Melodies, symphonies and many other pieces of music have been created over the years.
Here is the story about Mr. Halek:
John Cage was a mycologist as well as a musician, and used mushroom names in his works. He also commented that he could hear mushrooms. So Mr. Halek isn’t the only person to be aware of Mushroom’s voice.
Here is the last stanza from his poem ‘Mushrooms’:
they’ll be separated froM the rest of creation
and pUt in a kingdom
all of tHis is an attempt
Our understanding of these plants, which perhaps
are not plants at all. so far they’ve
Managed to remain
juSt as mysterious as they ever were.
It’s easy to find a label…’synaesthesia’ and dismiss this man’s work as a harmless pathology. I invite you to consider if there are other possibilities that hold potential, or simply cause happiness, for what he is doing.
If any of us go outside our walls, away from our electronics, and become quiet and slow and wait for a while, anyone may hear or see new and wonderful ways the world is alive, and maybe even singing to us, and maybe even has something to say or offer that is worth the effort to listen.
How do you see, or hear, or smell the world? What places or beings could you discover by bringing your special awareness to a part of the world so far unnoticed? Maybe simply being in the presence of a sunset, or a mushroom, or an animal inspires your own creative expression of beauty, and maybe what is around you will also contribute in some way to that creative process. There are so many reasons to go out wandering in the fields and woods, but this is one of the most unique. If you hear a mushroom (or maybe even a lichen), let us know. And if you’re inspired by whatever you find or meet in your wanderings, please share your story.
We may be hearing a lot more in the future about mycorrhizal fungus. This site is an ongoing story about lichen, and officially, mycorrhizal fungi are not really ‘cousins’ of lichens. But cousins are often the most numerous relatives we have, so I use that term to foster awareness that the fungus Kingdom is varied and vast. Sometimes getting to know one member of a family entails getting to know other members of the family one had not planned on meeting, or even knew existed. At the party called Daily Life on Earth, meeting all the relatives is part of the fun.
I met a mycorrhizal fungus last fall, on a dead tree trunk at the end of the Wintergreen Trail. I believe it is hyphae but do not know the fungus species. If anyone reading this knows, please post your ideas! Even deceased, it was an impressive presence. Long dark threads hung from the leaning tree trunk where the dry bark had separated from the inner wood. The threads formed a complex web several feet long, dangling in the air. The strands were so strong I could not break them by hand. There was yards and yards of this fibrous material. It seemed to have covered most of the surface of the tree trunk, under the bark.
Fiber strings from under tree bark
The picture is blurry, but the very dark strings and dark bark had no noticeable detail, so the picture is close to what I saw. The extent of the fiber mass was impressive.
Why am I talking about this mat of dark threads? Because I was exploring the NASA Global Climate Change site and found a story on mapping the mycorrhizae locations in forests, by mycorrhizae species. Read the story for why NASA is doing this; it’s interesting. There are two mycorrhizal species and trees use one or the other. The forests are regulated by the signals the mycorrhizae send through the trees. They work with other plants too. Scientists think this is important enough to make maps of where each species is in the forest, in relation to the tree species, and they are doing so by satellite images. So that old adage “you can’t see the forest for the trees” is true for us in a much deeper way than we ever understood before. The trees are one part of a vast and complex web of living beings, all talking to each other and cooperating to regulate themselves and their environment. Once we lift the curtain of our preconceptions, amazing things start to show up everywhere. If we only see trees, birds and some flowers, we are missing the major part of the forest. There is far more diversity and number of living beings in and under the soil than above it, and as much metabolic function occurs on and in the ground as above. The Small Ones may be at least as interesting as the large plants and animals we easily recognize.
After reading the article and thinking again about the mycorrhizae, I wonder about the relationships between fungus that don’t make lichen and those that do; between the chemistry created by one group of trees and fungus, and the signals of moisture, temperature, nutrients and more that may be allowing or encouraging certain other living beings to take up residence nearby. We know so little about the extensive activity going on just underground. What similar actions may the lichen be doing? After bacteria, they are the original homesteaders, setting up the terrain to be hospitable to the first mosses and vascular plants. Lichen are very good at getting along with other life forms and have made a place for themselves everywhere on earth. Maybe they have something to tell us about their part in regulating the forest, beyond their original activity of creating soil and available nutrients from rock and wood and air.
So, no lichen pictures today, just questions about this green and shining world we share with unknown others.
Check this blog again soon, for information on our first KVR lichen survey route.
Today a friend and I walked to the top of Black Hawk rock. A light snow still covered shady areas, the sun was low in the sky and gray-blue clouds scattered into the distance. There was no wind, no birds singing. A flock of turkeys walked across the ridge above us making clucky noises. As we climbed up the west side of the hill, the colors of tree trunks, fallen leaves, and rocks seemed to get brighter and brighter. Greens, blues, white, yellow. Lichens! If they could sing, they probably would be doing a hallelujah chorus today. Everything is saturated from many days of rain and light snow, and the temperatures have been above or near freezing, and nothing else is growing to block the light. The Little Ones are feeling good! The forest is full of living, growing plants in the middle of winter. They are all very tiny and all they need is moisture, light and above freezing temperatures to flourish while all other plants and most animals are dormant.
Green and blue lichen covered pieces of bark scattered on the ground from a fallen branch.
Part way up the hill a tree trunk was lined with white stripes. From smooth white layers to toothed patches this fungus (possibly Irpex lacteus) changed shape and finally supported small white fungus with purple red undersides.
Moss, liverworts and lichens crowded branches and then rocks as we climbed onto the top of the ridge.
At the top we stand on the rocky point and the whole Kickapoo valley falls away into the distance; to the east, south and west. The sun breaks through clouds illuminating the far reaches of the valley and fallow fields turned golden. Juniper and oak cling to bare rock here and the lichen cling to the trees and rock. Every living thing is attached to another living thing. Snow and lichen share the rough branches. Some of the lichen are frozen solid but close to them others are soft and flexible. The cup shaped lichen are frozen solid, the liverworts, moss and flat green lichen are not, in the picture below.
The rock at the top of the cliff feels many footsteps over time but lichen are everywhere here. Gray, yellow, orange, blue, green, purple, white; the rock looks painted with lichens. We look down across the valley and realize that much of the color we see in the landscape is the color of the lichen and mosses that are an essential part of the system of lives that make our world alive. The white and pale green colors of branches in the treetops are lichen; the yellow, gold, green and black of rock faces are lichens, and their companions the moss and liverworts.
We ended the day walking through a field of big bluestem and other prairie plants, now golden and coppery in the sun. We know tomorrow the Little Ones will be frozen and dormant under the coming snowstorm; but as soon as the sun touches them again they will come back to life.
PS: My attempts to name species is open for corrections and suggestions. We are working on learning to identify lichen (and fungi and moss) so at this time are making guesses at best. If you know what a lichen or plant is in one of these pictures, please let us know what you think.