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Lichen is Beautiful

When a glacier retreats, a lot of new earth — mostly rocks — become exposed, starting up a process in which plant life moves in on true virgin land. But most plants don’t grow on rocks, so something has to “break down” the rocks to make them more hospitable. Leading the invasion of plant life is lichen.

Alaska has a lot of new land — it has only recently begun to shed its icy gown. Many fjords are very new in geological time, and you’d find glaciers at their ends spitting ice into the water. A journey on a boat into such a fjord is to travel back in time, backwards through the process that transforms bare rocks into forests. At the end of an Alaskan fjord, near the icy lip of a glacier where the land is new, you’d find lichen. The pioneer of plants.

Lichen has simple needs: just stone and the sun. Biologically, lichen is actually two species, a fungus and an algae, living together in perfect symbiosis. So close are the two life forms that their cells are merged together. The algae produces nutrients from the sun, while the fungus provides the bulk and structure for spreading, and for capturing water. Lichen thrives in the arctic because it is incredibly hardy: it can be completely dried up, but unlike the fish in our wood shed, it’d spring to life when water comes again.

Here’re a few pictures of lichen on Rødøy:

  1. Very pretty. Lichen needs a better PR department.

    October 9, 2011
    • For those who’re nerdy like me, the biochemistry of how lichen prepares itself when it gets dry, and how it comes back is even cooler. Not much in the world can come back to life after it gets completely dehydrated at the cellular level. Wikipedia has a description of this, although it’s a bit dry. 🙂

      October 10, 2011
  2. Beautiful photos. The textures in them are fantastic. And thanks for the lesson. Loved it!

    October 9, 2011
    • There’s other textures that I haven’t captured yet. Reindeer lichen look like thorns. As soon as I have a good picture of it I’ll add it to this blog.

      October 10, 2011
  3. Love the lichen! Thanks Winston.

    October 9, 2011
  4. AiTomBounDin #

    Now I’ve got very good practice in English, Winston. Thanks a lot for the new word LICHEN – photos are beautiful. May be you show us perspective with the stones and lichen on?
    “it’d spring to life” – one more good prase for me. For the moment me too “have spring to life” with one special program of rejuvenation:-)
    Best wishes!

    October 10, 2011
    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you pointed out these two words: “lichen” and “spring”. I like both of them a lot!

      October 10, 2011
  5. Kirrily #

    But is it pronounced Lichen (Lii chen) or Lichen (ly ken) – a constant disagreement in our household. Pretty either way you look at it.

    October 10, 2011
    • I’ve always pronounced it “Ly-Ken”. But “Lii Chen” would incorporate my last name in its pronunciation in addition to spelling! Maybe I like this stuff because I’m a part of it.

      October 10, 2011
  6. Stephen Pace #

    Anything that can survive in the vacuum of space and be totally fine is all right with me. Although it probably means lichen will outlive us all. I, for one, welcome our new lichen overlords.

    October 10, 2011

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