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Nonnegarten (Wayne Ferrebee, 2022), ink on paper

Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been working on drawing with ink using a steel nib. Of all the drawing media I have used, pen and ink provides the most expressive and beautiful lines–provided you can avoid blotting, smearing, or spilling the ink. Alas, it is exceedingly easy to destroy your drawings (and your wardrobe) through the least mishap with the INDELIBLE ink. In the spirit of the masters of medieval illumination (who also utilized pen and ink), I have been drawing a series of strange floral monastic people–well, perhaps it is a bit unclear if they are people or paphiopedilums. In the picture above, a loving deity of growth irrigates the sentient crops as a kindly sister looks on. Beneath the grass, a caecilian hunts for destructive grubs among the roots and mycelia. Speaking of mycelia, kindly note the little gnome collecting mushrooms. In the heavens, a pelican flies by with a fish struggling in its beak while a bat-winged putto plays religious music on a lyre. The odd-man out in the composition is the friendly ring-tailed lemur who seems perplexed by this harmonious tableau (surely this can’t be Madagascar), but takes in in stride with sanguine primate good cheer.

The Sisters’ Day Out (Wayne Ferrebee, 2021), ink on paper

This second drawing is more complicated and harder to parse out. A little chapter of nuns have left their onion-domed convent to luxuriate in the heavenly effulgence. I feel like that aerobic-looking fairy may well be a lay-sister. Unfortunately, their repose is disturbed by a big, stiff, skinny mummy which is just lyin’ around on the lawn. Who on earth left it there and why? Also, why does the mummy have a mummified flatfish? The day is additionally marred by the presence two faceless apparitions to the extreme right. Drifting through the air everywhere are little zygote-spores of some sort (or are they little seeds of the flower people). It is good to see that life finds a way, even if the sisters are putatively uninterested in reproduction. Also there is an ermine (the very symbol of purity and moderation in Christian art) who is looking quite closely at a banana split.

I am pleased at the way that using black ink and white ink gives these peculiar allegories a feeling of dimensional form. Speaking of which, drawing with sumi ink this way also gives a literal 3 dimensional aspect to the work (albeit a slight one). If you run your fingers over these drawings, all of the lines are palpable and i had to photograph them multiple times because of little shadows and strange reflections cast by the raised ink.

Lichen (by WiseAcre)

Cast your imagination back half a billion years ago to the Cambrian geological period.  Although Earth’s oceans were seething with strange experimental life forms, the alien continents were bleak and empty.  Huge brown mountains sloughed away into giant canyons. Black volcanoes eroded into naked black beaches. Great flash floods poured over a landscape bare of plants and animals. No horsetails grew.  No dragonfly buzzed.  Not even a miserable liverwort crouched by the empty streams. But were the ancient continents entirely bare? No—bacterial films and single cell algae were believed to have covered the land, and looming above that primitive slime were the first lichens, symbiotic life forms so hardy that they alone thrive on continental Antarctica today.

Red Lichen living in Antarctica (photo by Gerhard Hüdepohl from Atacamaphoto.com)

Lichen is a bizarre composite organism in which a fungus is paired with a photosynthesizing partner (either green algae or cyanobacteria).  The thallus of lichen (which makes up the organism’s body) is very different from either the fungal or algal components living on their own.  The fungi surround and hold up the algae by sinking tendrils through the algal cell walls (in much the same manner parasitic fungi attack their hosts).  By sharing the resources of the two different partners the organism is capable of surviving extreme desiccation, and, when the lichen is again exposed to moisture, a flood of nutrients becomes available to both partners.

Lichen (from "Art Forms of Nature" E. Haeckel)

The partnership makes for an extraordinarily resilient organism which can be found everywhere on land from the rainforests to the deserts to the highest mountains to the harsh frozen rocks of Antarctica. The European Space agency explored the durability of lichen by blasting living specimens into outer space where, to quote the ESA, the organisms were “exposed to vacuum, wide fluctuations of temperature, the complete spectrum of solar UV light and bombarded with cosmic radiation. During the Foton-M2 mission, which was launched into low-Earth orbit on 31 May 2005, the lichens…(Rhizocarpon geographicum and Xanthoria elegans) were exposed for a total 14.6 days before being returned to Earth….Analysis post flight showed a full rate of survival and an unchanged ability for photosynthesis.”

Lichen dot the face of a Song Dynasty statue on Qingyuan Mountain, China.

Lichens’ strange partnership also creates strange morphological forms. In many circumstances these organisms resemble exotic corals, sponges, or plants. Additionally, many lichens are brightly colored.  The result is often a miniature landscape of bizarre beauty.  I have included some photos from sundry sources but you should check out the lichen photos at Stephen Sharnoff’s site (even disfigured by the trademark, his lichen photos are the best on the net).

Competing Lichens Growing on a Rock

Since it involves both algae and fungi, lichen reproduction can be complicated and takes many different forms depending on the species and the circumstance.  Some lichens form soredia, small groups of algal cells surrounded by fungal filaments which are dispersed as a group by wind. Others produce isidia, elongated outgrowths from the thallus which break away.  During the dry season, certain lichens crumble into dusty flakes which are blown across the landscape.  When the rains come the flakes burst into full growths.  In the most interesting and complicated pattern of reproduction, the fungal portion of the lichen produces spores (as a result of sexual exchange and meiosis) these spores are disseminated across the landscape and then must find compatible algae or cyanobacteria with which to partner.

 

Community Lichens is in the Sawtooth Mountains (photo by Mark Dimmitt)

Lichens are probably long lived and it is possible that somewhere there are those that make the bristlecone pines seem young and have lasted as long as Pando, but who knows?  We have not explored and documented the world’s lichens very completely…or even fully understood the mechanisms of their partnership.  What is certain is that they are one of life’s most efficient colonizers: in areas such as the Atacama Desert and Antarctica, plants cannot grow unless lichen lived there previously (in fact I am going to include this post in my “invaders” category for just this reason). Lichens are also efficient at exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, and they are a critical link in the carbon cycle capable of fixing elemental carbon back into the soil and into the ecosystem.  When you look at a tundra landscape and savor the beauty of reindeer, mountains, and arctic birds, spare a thought for the ancient lichen, one of the first organisms on the land and still one of the most important.

Lichen slowly colonize a New England gravestone from the 1700's.

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