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Celebrating Lichen at Grand Canyon

July 2, 2011

Everyone knows there are grand huge vistas at Grand Canyon–multi-hued cliffs and buttes abound and astound.  What many people overlook, literally, are the tiny landscapes colored by lichen . . . which inspired this (very loooong) poem about lichen at Grand Canyon.

Lichen Love at Grand Canyon
Party of two: a fungi + green algae,
co-dependent in the best sense of the word—
you won’t see lichen on TV with Dr. Phil.
The algae, being green, knows a thing or two
about making food from sunlight: photosynthesis,
something union fungi aren’t allowed to do.
But a fungus can be kind of union-goonish
and provide protection for the fragile algae.
And, to continue the union analogy,
in a Sopranos sort of way, these fungi know
ways to extract just what they want
from rocks and plants and soil, their neighborhood.
Capiche? This fungi and this algae need each other.

More lichen niceties: imagine your own weight—
let’s peg it at an even hundred pounds—
if you were a lichen, you could drink
a hundred pounds of water at a time.
What sounds a bit like overkill for us,
who drink whatever on a daily basis,
but if your supply of rain was somewhat fickle
being a lichen would come in mighty handy.

Need some soil? Lichen can make that
and fertilize it too, with nitrogen
they pluck right from the air. this helps nearby
plants when lichen share. And that they do
when rain helps spread the lichen fertilizer.

Lots of birds use lichen to make nests
lots of people use it to dye stuff
and keep themselves from dying: lichen medicine
is an ancient art, and modern science.

While lichen and their cousin mushrooms stand
shoulder-to-shoulder in the fungi kingdom,
guess who gets the best and coolest nicknames?
Can you even name one kind of lichen?
Out of 227 species thus recorded
at Grand Canyon, there is only one
lichen with a common name: Dog Lichen.
(That might come in handy on Jeopardy.)

Grand Canyon mushrooms, on the other hand
have a long list of highly entertaining
common names, many referring to
body parts, like “Purple Tongues” and “Red Tree Brain,”
“Shaggy Beard,” “Pink Bottom,” and the oxymoronic
“Conspicuously Veiled Vaginata.”

But enough mushrooms . . . we’re celebrating lichen
and Nancy Brian’s wonderful exhaustive list—
227 reasons to ignore
that paparazzi’d-to-death gap in the desert,
and get on your hands and knees to shove
you nose into some rocks and dirt, to show
the fascinating lichen a little love.

(Source: “Checklist of Non-Vascular Plants of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona,” compiled by Nancy Brian and published Dec. 15, 2000,  in Notulae Naturae, the publication of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.)
Note: lichen can also consist of an algae plus a cyanobacterium and/or a fungus, but this is a poem, not a scientific treatise…although it comes close.

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