Yesterday, my daughter called my attention to an elaborate lichen formation on one of the decaying tree stumps in our front yard. Although I walk past it nearly every day with Kiko, I hadn’t noticed it. Amazing, the strange beauty we can so easily overlook. Our lawn repeatedly offers such spectacles. Yet I still forget. Oblivious, I walk right by.
I’ve written about the attachment our family feels toward our old trees. (See The Silver Maples Say Welcome Home, April 2012, and Barred Owl Update, June 2013.) The two immense maples that survive from the original six, planted the year our house was built, are ninety-three years old. Broad stumps serve as place markers, memorials for the trees that had to be removed. The life, so strikingly peculiar, that emerges from these dead stumps is further justification for our not having them ground down.
Lichen is one of earth’s oldest life forms. Very slowly, but with exceptional persistence, it emerges in unlikely, inhospitable spots, nearly impervious to extreme conditions and temperatures. In the crowded busyness of our twenty-first century world, it keeps a low profile and may go unnoticed. Lichen is not a single organism, but a complex partnership between fungi and algae. Lichen may grow from bare rock or wood. As it grows, it breaks down the substance from which it emerges, helping to create soil.
The lichen on our tree stump is a cascade of flower-like growths. Depending on your point of view, it resembles part of an exuberantly ruffled blouse, rippling water flowing over rocks, the feathered plumage of a giant bird, the petals of cabbage roses deconstructed and rearranged, or even the scales of a fantastic crocodilian creature.
I’m so glad we let nature take its course. Had we not said “no,” over and over, to unbeatable stump grinding prices (offered eagerly by every tree company that drives past the house), we would have no stage for this riot of oddly lovely new life. How satisfying, how hope-inspiring, it is that from the last vestiges of this maple tree springs an ancient vitality. Decay and growth, hand in hand, rather like the lichen partnership itself. The circle of life, circling on and on, underfoot. While the tree stump remains, we’ll be observers at the quietly fabulous end-time celebration it’s hosting.
Party on, lichen.