by Lee Kaiser
Often, some of the first organisms that come to people's imagination when sharing about Novalis and the jungle that has embraced us are the jaguar, anaconda, monkeys, and macaws. These iconic animals are some of the most captivating symbols of the majesty and wonder of the rainforest, but they are rarely seen when one ventures into the Amazon. In fact, while the macaws (or Guacamayos, their local name) are regularly heard chattering and squawking amongst one another within as well as high above the canopy, it is actually quite infrequently that we are able to observe them visually. The monkeys will equally make a ruckus and can sometimes be perceived, but they are difficult to keep your sights on. And just as the jaguar, rarely if even at all, leaves it's tracks for us to stumble upon, the anaconda is a secretive and discrete creature.
Indeed, all of the jungle operates in a highly refined, methodical, and elusively abundant manner as a result of the intensity, dynamism, and precarious nature of the interactions that make it such a rich and varied environment. All of life here is on the edge, teetering, in fighting off death or encroachment by another, and in exerting itself to maintain one's own vitality and viability. As a result, most vertebrate organisms are wary, they are observant, they are vigilant, and this leads to us having to be supremely patient and highly attuned in order to perceive and interact with the life forms that makes this place their home.
I wanted to take a moment here to share a little about some of the lesser known and appreciated life forms, which for me are some of the most representative and instructive members of the web of living creatures that makes a rainforest what it is in it's essence: vitality, proliferation, interconnectedness, diversity, and abundance. They are not the charismatic and pop-culture sanctioned messengers of the life force of the Amazon. Rather, they are some of the rarely spoken-of keystone species and primary, foundational links in the chain of life here that exist as profound pillars of environmental resilience and fecundity. They are the lichens.
Lichens are symbiotic integrations of a fungus and an algae, which harmonize the structural foundation of the fungus with the photosynthetic powerhouse of the algae, and they are considered a keystone species for many reasons. Namely, they are indicators for important environmental conditions like air quality, they improve air quality by filtering out toxins and pollutants, they create microhabitats to enrich species diversity, they provide food and nutrients to several organisms including fixing nitrogen from the air, they are vital forms of material and detritus for soil formation, as well as for animals such as birds to develop nesting activity, and for fungi and other decomposers to reproduce and flourish. Lichens are crucial to all landscapes that they inhabit, as their unique life history and traits propel them to take on important ecosystem functions. Many people commonly mistake lichens as mosses. Their growth and characteristics range from occupying space on top of leaves, tree trunks, branches, stones and even on the shells of tortoises and insects, to forming structures varying from long and dense strands to crusty films and even leaflike shapes. A type of lichen that many people can identify is commonly referred to as ‘old man’s beard’, and this is one of the long strand growth forms, called a fruticose lichen (the other growth forms are called crustose, foliose, and squamulose).
Lichens come in such a wide diversity of colors, shapes, structures, patterns, and textures, and could be seen metaphorically as terrestrial corals. Much like corals, they are symbiotic organisms that are emblematic of the intrinsic cooperation and harmony within nature. A lichen is not a single organism in the traditional sense, rather it is an integration of two species working together to share what they can provide, and that creates a profound opportunity for life to sprout forth and diversify. The fungal component contributes structural protection, absorption of minerals, and water retention, while the algae provides the carbohydrates to power the lichen through photosynthesis. When the fungus and the algae are separated in a controlled setting, they no longer exhibit the same growth form, and they cannot survive in the same conditions as when they are linked symbiotically. Lichens are crucial examples of species coming together to expand the horizons and diversify the potential for life. One could certainly take them as a model for how to engage with the rainforest: she provides the shelter, minerals, and water retention, much as the fungus does for a lichen, while one aims to become a powerhouse for nourishing the components of the ecosystem around oneself through their human functions, as the algae does.