Spring 2013 – Early April

Sing along: “It’s beginning to look a lot like April!”

If you don’t know the tune, write me and ask for it.  Just kidding.  Here it is, as written and sung by the great Johnny Mathis (biography):

If your brain is racked anything like mine, that song will be stuck in your head the rest of the day.  So, in a sense, we will be singing along together.  Just remember to use the word April.

Anyone living south of our Clinton County, New York (in the far northeast corner of the state, bordering Vermont and Canada) may enjoy seeing the still somewhat wintry nature of early-to-mid April here.  Folks north of here, go ahead and laugh, especially Alaskans, Siberians, Antarcticans (just north of the south pole), etc.

For reference, in case there is someone reading this not acquainted with Clinton County, NY:

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The Best of Being

Silvanus, Roman god of woodlands and boundaries. Often portrayed with a hunting or watch dog.
Roman marble statue at the Museo Nazionale Romano in the Baths of Diocletian, Rome, Italy. Photo by mharrsch under Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
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This is more evidence of how I entertain myself by blogging without a care for the poor readers.  It is three or four blog posts in one, because that’s the way I had fun.   If you don’t enjoy part of it, just scroll down.  If you don’t like any of it, please feel free to post a comment about that.  You might even just say, “What a waste of time.”  It has not been wasted on me.

It started out as a report on two more species of lichens at Balsamea — cousins of the British Soldier lichen that I wrote about recently, and about the taiga/boreal forest biome, including the usual pretty pictures.  It ended up here:

Research for my article on British Soldier lichens (Cladonia cristatella) — a type of reindeer lichen — enlightened me about two more species of Cladonia living here at Balsamea.

It seems that one of them is Cladonia stellaris.  The other looks like Cladonia rangiferina.  I have not seen common names specific to each of these (as in “British Soldier” for C. cristatella), but some sources refer to Cladonia in general as reindeer lichen.

Below are four more pictures from the May 12, 2012 photo inventory of fungi, mosses and lichens at Balsamea (long overdue for species identification).  This time, in addition to close-up pictures, I have views of their home turf.  I should remember to always get a shot of the surrounding biota when collecting specimen photos.  It’s nice to see where they live.

In the picture below, the Cladonia lichens are the whitish patches surrounded by dense, soft, green moss.  This little forest opening is surrounded by balsam fir, white pine and spruce trees, and the grayish white tree trunk clusters seen here are gray birch (very common at Balsamea).

Small forest opening near northeast corner of Aranyaka Maze containing lichens I believe are Cladonia stellaris and Cladonia rangiferina.  It is otherwise covered with moss, surrounded by Balsam Fir, Gray Birch and White Pine trees.

Below: a closer view of the two Cladonias; the pale green balls of stellaris and the white sprays of rangiferina.

They grow very slowly — 1 or 2 mm. per year.  They are dry and brittle, especially during the summer, and can survive on minimal moisture.

Closer views:

Cladonia stellaris.  As these "balls" range from about 1 to 5 inches across, imagine how many years they have been growing ... at 1 or 2 MILLIMETERS per year!  I should make a sign for the deer: "Please don't eat or walk on the Cladonia."  I have seen pictures of them in houseplant arrangements.  I my experiment with a little of that ... very little.

Cladonia stellaris

Sorry about the blurry picture.  I’ll replace this when the current snow-pack is gone.  As these “balls” range up to about 6 inches across, imagine how many years they have been growing … at 1 or 2 MILLIMETERS per year!  That information should make folks think twice about where they put their feet or picnic blanket.

Cladonia rangiferina

Cladonia rangiferina

Varieties of Cladonia grow in many places around the world, but these species prefer boreal and tundra regions.  Here on the northern edge of the Adirondack Mountain Region in far northeastern New York state, a short drive from Canada’s border on the Saint Lawrence River, Balsamea lies near the southern edge of the North American taiga biome (boreal forest), consisting of vast realms of boreal forest covering much of Canada, Alaska and some of the far northeastern United States.  Boreal forests also cover massive areas across the northern latitudes of the Eastern Hemisphere.  The taiga is the largest biome type on earth.

Boreas and Oreithyia, 1896 (oil on canvas), by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) / © The De Morgan Centre, London

Boreas and Oreithyia, 1896 (oil on canvas), by Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) / © The De Morgan Centre, London

Boreal means “of the north or northern regions,” from the Greek boreas, meaning north wind.  Boreas is the Greek god of the north wind, shown here kidnapping Oreithyia, to become his wife after he wrapped her in a cloud and raped her.  Boreas is known for violence.  Later she became the goddess of cold mountain winds.  All this time I’ve been referring to our north winds coming from Boreas, but they may have been Oreithyia’s doing all along.

When I use a picture like this to illustrate someone or something I mention, it is usually just for the fun of it, to share something interesting or beautiful.  I usually learn at least some basics about the work and its creator.  I hope you don’t mind my sharing a little of what I learned about this artist, despite her biography being far off-topic.

Among many works of art depicting the abduction of Oreithyia, in various media such as pottery, etching, painting, sculpture, drawing and relief, the painting shown here stands out as the most attractive, to my eye.

The painter, English woman Evelyn De Morgan (1855-1919) created dozens of renowned, prominent works among 102 oil paintings and over 300 drawings, during a roughly 45-year professional career spanning some of civilization’s most dramatic upheavals.  She had strong interests in social reform, spiritualism and music.  Sharing spiritualism with her husband, William (also an artist) they practiced automatic writing.  Combining her spiritual and social reform views led to many paintings of spiritually, mentally and sometimes physically strong women from throughout history, mythology and the Bible.  Throughout her work, I see the influence of her favorite Renaissance artist, Sandro Botticelli.

Here at Balsamea, nature is the only artist, and lichens are a series of amazing miniature masterpieces.

Near the start of this article, I said that I became “enlightened” to the nature of Cladonia lichens.  In learning about these lichens, and in direct experience of them, seeing, touching, and photographing them, I say sincerely that I am “enlightened,” at least a bit, in two senses.  First, I learned some things in botany, ecology, mythology and art.  (What I have shared here is only a little sample of things I explored.)

Second, the experience of learning a little more about the amazing diversity of the gift of Balsamea feels enlightening.  It is an enlightening experience of Balsamea.  It reminds me how, as I love to say, there is no solitude in a forest.  Thoreau agreed.

Each phase of nature, while not invisible, is yet not too distinct and obtrusive. It is there to be found when we look for it, but not demanding our attention. It is like a silent but sympathizing companion in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude … Henry David Thoreau, Journal, November 8, 1858

Really?  Are these bony lichens companions to me?

People rarely offer the kind of companionship “in whose company we retain most of the advantages of solitude.”  If they do, it’s often when doing something like watching television or sleeping together, where, although you are conscious of each other to a degree that you might regard as companionship, the moment is nearly as good as one of solitude.

I have enjoyed moments of deep companionship with a person who did not detract from qualities of being in peaceful forest solitude, even while consciously together, awake, attentive to each other in a special way that is hard to describe.  The character of such an experience is neither  solitude nor companionship.  It is unity.

My forest companions at Balsamea offer me glimpses of my truly inalienable unity with nature, through attention to their companionship, and through being a companion to them.  Their relationships with me are portals to growing awareness of the unity, of my belonging, with them, to a magnificent something that is greater than the sum of its uncountable parts.

For me, the ultimate glimpse of unity seems like a loss of the sense of separateness, a loss of the feeling of barriers between self and other things, whether physical or psychological barriers.  It is an experience of self and other as the same, while still paradoxically radiant with diversity, which is fully within a kind of awareness that feels singular.

It is where my distinctions between companionship and solitude dissolve, as raindrops meld and disappear into puddles, yet remain of the same substance.  It is as if the consciousness I usually know releases its self-containment, like having a body made of everything.

It is a natural experience of the true nature of our relationship with nature.  It is not something to seek.  It is there already.  It is hard to imagine any human being not experiencing it from time to time.

I suppose that for someone who has never experienced it, or not enough of it, they truly know loneliness, in a forest, or anywhere, and it must be horrid.  Neither companionship nor solitude will satisfy that hunger.  They need that merger of companionship and solitude, dissolving into each other.

The companion offering an opportunity for a merger that retains the qualities of solitude could be a cloud, a flower, a pet, a snowstorm, a painting, a piece of music, a garden, an insect, a lover, a friend, an activity, a lichen, or some grouping or set of things, activities or people.  Ideally, it is found in all things and all people, but we think too much to experience it that much.

I open the doors not by thinking or asking or searching, but by simple presence of self with other, unlocking my way with keys such as attention, time, quiet, deep observation, fully experiencing the thing or the activity, with all the senses, and with thought, contemplation, and imagination, all the things I naturally do, if I take the time, and let go of the past and future and other places, to stay present.  Then the lichen becomes a portal to a glimpse or moment of realization of unity, and to the satisfaction neither solitude nor company can bring.

Yes, even without doing drugs!  It’s cool to get high on things without eating or smoking them.  Being in the woods would be no fun otherwise.  (Not to say there’s necessarily anything wrong with eating and smoking things.)

Usually having glimpses of unity are not good times to drive a car or go grocery shopping.  However, it is a practical experience for me.  I come away from it with a reassuring sense of knowing that the unity is always there, that I am immersed in it, gently swaddled in a manner or a kind of consciousness within which it is easier to operate this mind-body machine and its connections with others, something like a metaphysical amnion.

It makes a mother of the earth, a father of the sky, brothers and sisters of the mushrooms and lichens, without having to be a Pagan.  It banishes loneliness, melts fear, and brightens the heart.  It’s just an experience of the best of being, or, as they say, being as being.

I believe there is a natural basis for the experience, and that it is necessary to our nature.  It is too natural to need anything supernatural to make it real.  But if you sense some extra-real thing going on that I don’t, I guess it’s okay as long as you don’t step on the dry, brittle Cladonia stellaris.

What is one of the portals to glimpses of unity that opens easiest for you?  (Besides orgasmic intercourse.)  Drop it into the comment bucket below, or whisper it secretly to only me.

Okay, I’m done entertaining myself for a while.  I hope it was fun for you, too.

  • Emerging from the Snow (myeverydayphotos.wordpress.com) – by Teri J. Pieper, someone who really knows how to get close to nature, right down at ground level.  Wonderful photos of little things that take being fully present to notice them, and to capture such good pictures of them.

British soldiers in Balsamea woods!

While browsing Rebecca in the Woods, the blog of a naturalist and environmental educator, I bumped into her photo of a lichen she found on a tree stump in Ohio.

We have an item that looks like the same thing, carpeting a couple of big old tree stumps in the place we call Five Stump Skypatch (a forest opening about 100’x30′ where loggers took out five big trees a long time ago).

I believe this is the only patch of this stuff that we have at Balsamea. It has cousins in other small openings here, but this is the only one with the red lipstick.  (Post-post update: this is not the only patch.  There are a few more.)

As with many other flora and fauna rattling my ignorance, I do not recall ever seeing it anywhere but Balsamea.  Not surprisingly, authorities say it is common throughout northeastern United States and Canada, with 128 cousins here and in other regions around the world.

These are my photos on May 12, 2012:

About a half square foot area on the edge of the big tree stump

About a half square foot area on the edge of the big tree stump

Cladonia cristatella, a.k.a. British Soldier Lichen, one of a variety of Cup Lichens.

Cladonia cristatella, a.k.a. British Soldier Lichen, one of a variety of Cup Lichens.

This other-worldly looking red-capped Balsamean is Cladonia cristatella, with the common name British Soldier lichen.

A lichen (LIE-ken) is a mutualistic, symbiotic merge of a fungus (plural fungi) and either an alga (plural algae) or a cyanobacterium (plural cyanobacteria) — the kind of bacterium that does photosynthesis. In this case (plural cases), it is an alga.

Lichens are sensitive to air pollution, so their strong presence indicates clean air in the environment. We knew about the clean air here at Balsamea, but it is nice to see it officially declared by nature itself, as we have several kinds of lichen (lichens).

Reindeer, caribou and possibly (according to one source) Whitetail Deer eat Cladonia cristatella when other food is scarce. At Balsamea, we have surplus Whitetails. If they eat Cladonia cristatella, maybe it is only as a last resort, or else our small Cladonia patch could well be gone. Maybe they only use it for medicinal purposes?

We have no wild reindeer or caribou in the Adirondacks. But some tame reindeer are professionally employed nearby at Santa’s Workshop at North Pole (Wilmington, NY), twenty miles from Balsamea.

In multiple places, I read that a lichen (Lecanora esculenta) is likely the manna collected (as food fallen from heaven) by the Jews during their wilderness journey from Egypt to Palestine.  This kind of lichen is known to dry out and blow from the mountains to the desert in great quantities, enough to collect in layers or piles.  The Collaborative International Dictionary of English defines manna lichen at length in scientific terms and as food.  Varieties of manna lichens are still traditional food sources in the region.

To the Jews, at that time in their experience and in the known science of the time, it was food from heaven.  Now we know it didn’t come from heaven, but from lichen.  That’s good.

Science is also at work exploring things in lichens that could advance understanding of human aging, according to Melissa Harding’s article, The Fungus Among Us for the Phipps Science Education and Research blog of the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh.  Excerpt:

Dr. [Anne] Pringle’s preliminary results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die. The definition of aging changes from organism to organism. Death, as we know it now, is animal-centered. The rules for fungi, as well as the subjects of similar studies like the bristlecone pine and the wandering albatross, are something different.

To learn more about lichen and Dr. Pringle’s research, check out this article by Hillary Rosner in the New York Times.

Dr. Pringle studies aging in fungi and lichens at a place known for aging, of a sort: a cemetery.

As ever, in nature’s system of getting things done, nothing goes to waste.  Along with presenting a mesmerizing video of starlings, a post by Dear Kitty reports, “Ecologist Peter Bremer discovered [that] … common orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina) benefits from … bird droppings.”

So, it pays to take a while and really look at what is going on in the woods.  These British soldiers are special in many ways.  They are not just colorful pretty faces on fantastic bodies.  They are air quality indicators.  They have complex personalities (mutualistic, symbiotic integration of fungi and algae).  They are food for reindeer, caribou and Whitetail deer, which of course is no surprise, since they have distant cousins who are food for people lost in a desert.  They grow less likely to die as they age, and they really take their time about it (a couple of millimeters per year).  And they have relatives in the bird poop recycling business.  These could be important Balsameans to know.  Really tiny ones, but ones with a lot to say for themselves.

After scouring through many websites for reference information about lichens and the Cladonia family, I settled on the ones below to bookmark and pass along to you. There are 128 lichens just in the Cladonia family, and thousands in all lichen families.  So get busy likin’ the lichens.  (I just had to do that.)

Special thanks to Rebecca in the Woods, who addresses the lichen topic several times in pictures and text (plural texts).

Authoritative information sources to enjoy:

Related articles: