Choose Your Own Adventure

Mai by Alphonse Mucha

Ahh, dear May…you are nearly over! As the days lengthen and temperatures climb, a bittersweet resignation settles in; I accept the progression of Spring into Summer and that soon, my focus will shift away from lichens for a while. I’m savoring the last few weeks of it.

To my chagrin, I didn’t go a’ Maying at the start of this month but I did manage to haunt a forested lakefront on a lichen collecting expedition.

unknown photographer; flickr.com

The illustrious James Lendemer chauffeured me in his rental car through the Pocono mountains, which are lovely with decrepit 70s era motels languishing amidst cottages and winding wooded roads. The forests here are so dainty compared to the Pacific Northwest’s old growth grandeur but they suffice for a nature-hungry waif like myself. After a second breakfast in Newfoundland, where I sadly missed the tasting of “scrapple” due to it’s possession of wheat, we drove on and circumvented Scranton, Pennsylvania of ‘The Office’ fame and finally landed at Frances Slocum State Park. The park itself was a pleasant and piddly little thing which held a surprising diversity of lichens, especially species that live on rocks (at least one of which Mr. Lendemer named).

Our trail amble was sweetened by brevity and masses of invasive honeysuckle blooms, upon which a buzzing, diverse crowd of insects were gorging themselves. Every so often my hunting companion made delighted exclamations of Latin names, as if bumping into old friends on the street. We saw all kinds of subtly bizzarre things, including a jade colored fungus the likes of which I’d never encountered; it looked a bit like this, but less intense:

Chlorociboria aeruginascens by Bob Gibbons; sciencephoto.com

It’s not a lichen, but it looks similar in some ways. It produces fruiting bodies in a familiar form because the fungi that most commonly lichenize are Ascomycetes, which is what this fungus is.

Chlorociboria sp. by George Barron; mushroomexpert.com

Being in a natural setting with James is such fun. He’s quite knowledgeable about so many of the organisms and their proceedings and his enthusiasm makes it extra exciting. At one point, he came around a rocky outcrop with cupped hands extended and said, “Look!”. When he opened them up, an adorable, bumpy toad peered back at me and clumsily stumbled around. James thought it was an American toad, like the one below. It was so small that I could only pet it gently with just one finger before it was released into its riparian habitat. I decided that our friend looked like it was covered in a brownish crust lichen! Compare:

u-s-c.org

nhm2.uio.no

In the midst of my collecting, I remembered to stop for a few moments to admire my surroundings–before me was a small, placid lake surrounded by freshly budded and leafing trees and such delicious quiet–I hadn’t been out of New York City since I arrived, so this was quite a treat! It seems the further from the city you get, the farther behind the vegetation is in waking from its Winter slumber–a common phenomenon due to the ambient warmth that the metropolitan area–in all its energy-burning and concrete glory–tends to cradle. Manmade microclimates are good for something, I guess. Staggered Spring!

I’ve been steadily working through all of the lichens I collected in order to discover their identity; their names are a mystery until I observe all of their important characteristics and work through a key to figure them out. I have the excellent fortune of sitting in a room with the man who wrote some of the keys to the species I am processing, so I get to ask him questions, clarify his terms and use his incredibly fancy video microscope to peer into these tiny things. A magical window indeed.

Identification keys are often found in guide books about whatever type of organism you want to get to know, though there are interactive ones online as well. I’ve used keys to ID plants, fungi, lichens, animal bones, butterflies, minerals, etcetera. Many of the keys are arranged dichotomously, which means they will offer two choices, one of which will best describe what you are observing if you’re in the right spot. Here’s a simple illustrated one about sharks:

The first couplet is usually pretty basic information and once a choice is made, it will lead you to the next two options; it will get more specific the further it goes. It’s a lot like a Choose Your Own Adventure story but instead of the resolution to the plot, you get to know another organism by the end of it!

Lichens are very challenging to key out because they’re so small and require a microscope for many features, in addition to chemical tests that are sometimes ambiguous and depend on the variable concentrations of chemicals present in the lichen. As with any good science, there is a whole language involved–the terminology further complicates the process but I love it.

Lichenology is such a young science that there is still much to discover; I wonder what we will know about these mysterious, mini-ecosystems in 5 years…in 10…20? I hope to lend a hand to the discoveries and continue participating in this adventure in whatever small way I may. Cheers–to a lichen enlightenment! Now check this out: Ways of Enlichenment.

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