Agony of the Leaves: Part One

A few days ago, I had that kind of weird realization that seems embarrassingly obvious afterward but in the moment, it washes over the consciousness with a distinct profundity; I simply realized that I’m ALWAYS doing something.

Even when I’m sleeping, my psyche is picking through an intricate tangle of emotions, the details of my life and other strange artifacts. The moment I am roused from the depths of slumber, my monkey mind is busy tinkering with the thinking of conscious things–recalling and analyzing dreams, having random memories, reviewing tasks that need doing. Thoughts crop up like invasive weeds at increasing speed in what could be the wonder-meadow of my ideal morning. Such a morning would start with stillness, gently progress into alert focus and the blossoming out of bedcovers. I would have time and space for the satisfactory completion of an assortment of important tasks, dappled with natural bouts of lightness and play. I’d be free from both chaos and restraint and I’d be leisurely effective. I wish that this metaphorical meadow was my state of eternal return but that’s not how I’ve designed my life or my mind’s default setting–I need to build more thorough organization and confidence into the structure.

Angela + Sven by Travis Blue; travisblue.com

Angela + Sven by Travis Blue; travisblue.com

I am lucky and grateful to live this life of my own design and I prostrate myself before whatever deity is responsible for my good fortune. Unfortunately, my perception of the pressures that this life entails usually inches in from the future and robs me of much enjoyment. We all have the power to refine our perception and change habits but it must be consciously invoked. It’s a challenge to remember to do so consistently enough to make a change. Most days, when my feet hit the floor, I suddenly become a wound-up matryoshka on a litanical parade of multi-tasking: chores and texts and emails and schoolwork and “work” work and body maintenance, preparation of meals and, and…my hands are mostly doing stuff. Or my eyes are. Or my brain is. It seems each hour of the day is shorter than the one before it. But I am neither toy nor machine, so when do I get to levitate and frolic in the sweet beams and airs of my meadow? Sighhh.

Magical Meadow by Chris Eaves; countryfile.com

Magical Meadow by Chris Eaves; countryfile.com

In the din and fray of our modern times and especially as a denizen of our extraordinary, industrially developed cities, there is so, so much to do. We’re busy. It is a feat just to slow down and remember to live in the present of our lives. We can ask ourselves if we’re participating in a design that serves and satisfies us, even including the general activities that apparently must be done. It’s just that there are galomphorously wonderful opportunities in the world, so much so that when I’m not meeting the demands of subsistence, I want to be out riding bikes, tromping the parks, perusing flea markets, tasting new stuff, meeting strangers and dancing with friends til the wee hours. These are blessings to take pleasure in and yet, being super busy–even with things we want to do–can be…well, stressful. The stress of such ameliorating activities falls within the category of “good stress” by psychological standards, right along with big decision making and its subsequent changes. Eustress vs. distress. The good stuff still causes effect, albeit potentially beneficial ones if we perceive it properly.

Tea plants covered in mesh; hojotea.com

Tea plants covered in mesh; hojotea.com

When the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) is exposed to stressors, such as low light conditions or ravaging, salt spray winds, the plant responds by shifting its suite of chemicals this way and that, sometimes producing new ones altogether. These chemicals can actually end up benefitting the flavor immensely. Unless such factors hinder the plant to its detriment, they tend to cultivate more complex aromas, unique flavor profiles and an increase in both chlorophyll (makes for a deeper green leaf) and the compounds that  bestow upon our minds that beloved sense of energized calm. In Japan, producers of a highly regarded tea called Gyokuro actually fascimilate filtered light conditions with the timely addition of a tent-like covering, usually made of straw or mesh, thereby reducing the sun’s rays to between five and twenty percent, respectively.

Paoli leafhopper by Bettaman; flickr.com

Paoli leafhopper by Bettaman; flickr.com

A special wulong tea called Gui Fei (translation: imperial concubine) is the product of an insect’s bite; paoli leafhoppers (Jacobiasca formosana) nibble the tea leaves, inciting the plant to change its chemical composition and therefore, its aromas and flavors. Gui Fei is renowned for its gustatory and olfactory pleasures, often boasting spiced fruit and wood notes. The area around the Beipu village in Hsuchin county, Taiwan has allegedly foresworn insecticides in order to preserve both the leafhoppers and the profitability of this infestation. Humans have devised their own tricky responses to take advantage of these natural phenomena–we can be quite clever when we’re not being dummy blubberheads.

A parallell realization is that humans are affected by the conditions of our environment–i.e. the way we live our lives and what we are exposed to–and,  like most other organisms, we also respond chemically. When we are stimulated by stressors, our cortisol levels leap up and sometimes we experience surges of epinephrine (adrenaline) to help us defeat or remove ourselves from the stressor. I know this feeling as that ever-nagging, uninvited guest Anxiety, who falls under the “distress” category. At the same time, if we’re not at least a little challenged we get bored by the stasis and our lives may even start to lose their lustre.

madewithmolecules.com

madewithmolecules.com

Other ways in which we experience stress are a bit gooey: when we gaze into the eyes of our sweetheart, oxytocin and dopamine douse us with sensations very similar to that of an addict’s high or the pendulous moods of a schizophrenic. Being in love is very stressful, both physiologically and psychologically but it is an often pleasurable experience that may nudge (or shove) us toward growing stronger. When we are challenged by something and feel we can surmount it, we benefit from the stimulation of this positive stress in that the chemicals we produce can help us to become generally healthier; for example, they strengthen our immune system, keep our memory healthy and can even contribute to our overall satisfaction with life. Our perception of the stressor is the key.

Any of these elements can change the flavor of our experience and of who we become, so it’s important to acknowledge the characteristics of what we’re brewing in the context of our lives. What’s in yours? Is the flavor to your liking? Does it nourish you and replenish your energy? If not, perhaps it’s time to create some balance. What do you need to make your life more satisfying?

Wendy Paula; etsy.com

Wendy Paula; etsy.com

I return to the sanctity of my metaphorical meadow at tea time. I personally enjoy the preparation of tea itself as ceremonious, informal meditation; I try to execute each movement and step with exceptional attention, grace and precision. This shift in consciousness is a break from my more common smash-and-grab mode. I use beautiful implements to enhance the celebration of such Good Things–a practice I’m playing with which is similar to the concepts of Cha Xi.Taking the time to consciously step out of the rushing river of our day to make and savor tea (or anything, for that matter) is a shift that announces, “Self, I think this ‘slowing down and enjoying’ thing is a worthwhile priority!” It could help. Plus, then the tea itself can work its own special magic from inside of you.

Through millennia of subjective research, humans have found that some of the tea plant’s chemical arsenal are effective at heightening a sense of well-being and mitigating stress levels. Scientists have proven that C. sinensis contains L-theanine, a charming amino acid that is reputed to produce alpha waves in our brains, which are common in deep meditative states. When combined with caffeine, L-theanine offers a balance of calm and clarity to bolster our weary minds, effectively manufacturing the products of a meditative state. Indeed, Buddhist monks were the first champions of tea and they used it to help them stay awake through long sessions of meditation. They didn’t dedicate a huge branch of their spiritual practice just for its ability to keep them awake, though. Tea has revealed itself as a spiritual ally and there is much to be honored in our 5,000 year partnership with this plant.

Jasmine pearls unfurl, see here!

“Agony of the leaves” is a phrase addressing the unfurling of tea leaves as they steep. Anyone can dunk a teabag into a microwaved cup of water and drink it–that tea might might even taste good to someone. Everyone is allowed to like what they like. It is my duty to deliver the news that there’s so much more to enjoy than that. However, nothing is free–it comes at a price. You get what you put in. If you want to taste liquid gold…if you aspire to prepare exquisite teas of superior quality, you must honor the need for attention to detail. It is an art and a science that is more accessible than it sounds. I hope you’ll let me tell you all about it in the next post. Stay tuned!

Agony of the Leaves: Part Two

Chashitsu Tetsu by Terunobu Fujimori

Chashitsu Tetsu by Terunobu Fujimori

A cup of tea for you and me

and one more for the pot makes three

A cup of time, both yours and mine

makes well-loved pots reveal their shine

Tea preparation is the topic of the hour in my life. I just broke a lifetime record, having sipped my seventh cup of tea today. I’m drunk on tea because the teas I’m drinking are so very good that I just can’t get enough. It’s true that the teas I’ve picked are outstanding *and* it’s also true that after nine weeks of my all-out obsession, I’m improving in my craft of coaxing a fine cup of tea. You can too!

Brewing loose tea can be as simple as a pinch of leaves in a thermos of hot water, waiting indiscriminately and then eventually drinking the result. That description represents the most basic end of the spectrum, one in which legions of people employ daily; it contrasts immensely with the opposite end: an exquisite performance of spiritualized art where every detail of the process is attended to by the learned and intuitive hand of a connoisseur. Most people find themselves hovering near the simpler side but I’d like to share what I’ve learned from the middle, peering toward that alluringly elegant end.

My opinion is informed by an amalgamation of suggestions from a gaggle of tea specialists and from my own experience. I will elaborate with the idea that you’ll extract what is personally significant to use at your own discretion.

untitled; Seth Holton

untitled; Seth Holton

Number One: Water. The main ingredient in tea is water, after all. My proposition is that everyone will benefit from using the best water available to them. What is the very best water of all time? Mountain spring water from the same region in which your tea was produced, of course! What is the more accessible choice? Filtered water that is free of heavy metals, excessive minerals and chlorine and which has a neutral pH and neutral taste. We want to taste more of the tea itself, instead of the reaction of the tea to the excess of foreign particles in the water. Tap water isn’t very good for making tea especially because chlorine levels in typical municipal systems tend to adversely affect the flavor–a Brita-type filter works just fine for transforming tap effluence. Apparently, reverse osmosis removes the trace minerals that actually help the flavor of tea shine, so it’s recommended that we avoid this system, though I myself have found it a superior alternative to unfiltered tap water. Ideally, I’d either use wild artesian well water (I don’t yet know where they are in Texas) or a Berkey water filtration system–feel free to give this to me, any of you! Please and thanks in advance.

The dame holds 'The Empress'; Dylan O 'Connor

The dame holds ‘The Empress’; Dylan O ‘Connor

Number Two: Tea. Don’t be shy about splurging on the “fancy” teas because it still usually ends up being much less than a dollar per cup. Plus, you’re more likely to treat it as something to appreciate and savor if you perceive it as fancy. I use loose leaf teas almost exclusively because I enjoy the interactive experience of their preparation. I encourage you to try them out if you haven’t before. You can observe their unique qualities with all of your senses and, if properly stored,  they tend to retain their integrity and flavor better in this form because there’s less surface area exposed to oxygen, preserving the aromatic molecules for your express enjoyment.

Bagged tea often employs the broken pieces or the tea “dust” from the manufacturing process; this is considered inferior in quality but infuses more quickly in the cup because of its increased surface area. When teabags use “whole” leaf tea, the bags don’t tend to offer enough room for the leaves to properly unfurl and fully release their fragrant magic. That said, teabags have their place (whilst travelling, for instance) and there are more and more high quality teas available in this form. Try many types of tea to find out what you enjoy, because there is a vast and beautiful, ever-changing array of things to fall in love with. If you need more information about types of tea, please refer to my previous post about the basics, Elixir of Life. If you like to read reviews of specific teas, check out websites like steepster.com or tea companies’ websites.

Gong fu cha; The Dragon's Well

Gong fu cha; The Dragon’s Well

Number Three: Vessel. Choose the appropriate teaware for the tea you’ve selected. While any of these teas can be made with a strainer in a cup, there are other methods and tools that may be more suitable to the tea, to your aesthetic or the trajectory of your own special tea adventure. I’m going to tell you about a few of the vessels I was unfamiliar with before my tea obsession.

If you’ve chosen a delicate white, yellow, green or lighter oxidation wulong tea, it is best to use a smaller teapot, with which you can make numerous infusions of the same leaves. The small pot allows the fragrances to build up better and concentrates them, in addition to cooling a little quicker, which is beneficial to these tender teas, whose molecules continue reacting and processing when exposed to sustained heat.

vintage gaiwan; bonteavant.com

vintage gaiwan; bonteavant.com

A gaiwan (aka – guywan or zhong) is simply a covered bowl. These days, they are often daintily perched on a saucer for ease of use. They are good for preparing almost any tea, especially the lighter ones such as white, yellow, green, or wulong. They’re often porcelain or sometimes glass. Place the leaves and water in the gaiwan and steep according to the instructions or your own intuition. You may sip directly from the cup, using the lid to hold back tea leaves, or you can use the lid to strain and decant the liquor into another vessel for serving.

theteagallery.blogspot.com

theteagallery.blogspot.com

yellow yixing teapots thesteepingroom.blogspot.com

theteagallery.blogspot.com

yixing gongfu pot; theteagallery.blogspot.com

yixing gongfu pot; theteagallery.blogspot.com

Gongfu pots are part of the equipage for gongfu cha, a tea ceremony originating in China but which is also a tradition in Taiwan. Gongfu is also spelled kungfu, a phrase which you may associate with martial arts, though it applies more generally to the concept of achievement through effort. These tiny pots are often made of Yixing clay from China; the clay is porous and “remembers” the fragrances of previously brewed tea, so it is best to select one type of tea to consistently prepare in it, such as pu-erh. Wulong and pu-erh teas are especially suited to this style of preparation, which utilizes a large ratio of tea leaves to a small amount of hot water, steeped for a matter of seconds and then decanted into tiny cups for savoring. Multiple infusions reveal concentrated snapshots of the tea’s evolution through its special aromas and flavors. It should be noted that gaiwans may also be used for gongfu cha.

Tenmoku Cup; Miyoshi Photography: Kazuyoshi

Tenmoku Cup; Miyoshi Photography: Kazuyoshi

Tea bowls are a simple way to drink matcha, wulong and some puerh teas. While the preparation of matcha is often ritualized in chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, it is also possible to make it more simply; Zhi Tea in Austin, TX uses a heat-safe bottle to shake the hot water and matcha powder together instead of whisking it. This method produces a small amount of the characteristic froth, which ends up topping your cup as you pour it from bottle to bowl. To use a tea bowl as a one-piece steep and drink method for other types of tea, place a small amount of tea leaves in the drinking bowl of your fancy, then pour the water on it. Continue adding water to it as you drink it down–a tip I’ve read suggests keeping the cup at least two-thirds full at all times. I haven’t tried this method because I like the complexity of the others so I can’t speak to its effectiveness yet.

Number Four: Brew. Know that if you are interested in developing the subtle complexity of your tea and relieving yourself of unwanted bitterness, you will take care to investigate the brewing instructions associated with the particular tea you’ve chosen. Many tea companies list the recommended quantity of leaf to water ratio, the temperature of the water and the brew time on their packaging, which I beseech you to heed, at least the first time–it can mean the difference between a well-balanced, shimmering cup of nectar-like tea and an otherwise bitter and nasty mess. I’ve ruined tea before by both over- and under-steeping, so I suggest timing your teas to find your favorite strength. Don’t mess with the temperature of the water. Just don’t. It takes a little work but this system is tantamount to the increased potential for enjoyment. Tip: if you bought your tea in bulk, note the company that produced it for they will often list brewing instructions on their website.

Boiling Kettle by Uri Tarasov

Boiling Kettle by Uri Tarasov

With a little practice, you can learn how to hear when the water is hot enough in the kettle by the frequency and ferocity of its rising bubbles. Try using a thermometer to test your hypothesis about the temperature. A useful habit is to pour a little hot tap water in your chosen steeping vessel to warm it up and then dump it into the cup to warm that as well. Pre-heating your pot means it won’t rob the tea water of its necessary high degrees in trying to warm itself up first, which would put you at risk of an under-brewed beverage. It also ensures that you have hot tea for a longer period of sipping. Hooray!

Number Five: Explore. When the tea leaves and water are in your pot, gaiwan or bowl, place your face at a safe distance and sniff the steam wafting up from the brew, and then do it again after a minute or two. Does it smell well-developed and like you want to drink it? What about now? Sniff in short, repeated puffs like a dog on a scent trail, since it helps get the aroma molecules up to your olfactory gland more effectively. If you can, use vessels with white interiors or made of borosilicate glass to observe the way the color of the water changes as it is infused with the tea. It may be darker, lighter or a very different color than you expected–color is not indicative of strength or doneness. Please be open minded.

tea liquor colors; tea-party-ideas.net

tea liquor colors; tea-party-ideas.net

If you are accustomed to putting cream or sweetener in your tea, try this cup on its own. Slurp it so that the liquor is aerated as it enters your mouth–this is proper tea etiquette! Taste it like you would a good wine, beer or coffee and pay close attention to what you are experiencing. Hold the infusion in your mouth while slowly exhaling through your nose–this helps you detect aromas better; are there any aromas or flavors that remind you of something else? Is it bitter, sweet, sour or umami? Try to describe it in words. Some categories of aromas that you might perceive include vegetal, marine, nutty, fruity, floral, honey-like, chocolatey or malty. Share your tea! Ask someone you like to describe what they taste in it because they might notice something you didn’t.

Try to see this is an opportunity to connect to your body, your senses and a slower, more focused way of being. In tea, you are presented with a gift from nature and from the hands of skilled artisans. The gift is to thoroughly enjoy the sensorial pleasures but also to remember how to be human outside of our modern, digital age. A whole world of steps were carried out and many people worked hard to bring this tea to your lips; feel gratitude for the beauty of what is in your cup. Be grateful for the privilege of tasting this tea and having the time to pause and appreciate, for if you have this, you are most certainly blessed.

Elixir of Life

Eadweard Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge

It’s time again! The adventure gallops on, careening into yet another fascinating world; in my hands, I hold a sample of it–would you care to see? But ahh, oh! Patience, for it requires something of a grand introduction.

My current obsession is rich in history and cultural significance–extolling its virtues are stacks of scrolls, poems, treatises and paintings, towering centuries upon centuries high. Myths and legends abound about this precious material and its various forms, yet the truth often remains elusive. It was even touted as the Elixir of Life by Taoist alchemists. It’s not all splendor and glory, though. The memories of dark doings hang heavy in the mists of many south-facing slopes and subtropical valleys; they are knit several generations deep in the DNA of slave laborers; they tendril around the wicked hearts of many scoundrels, some of whom continue to benefit, even today, from an insidious cycle of greed and servitude.

Are you thoroughly perplexed yet? Any guesses?

The divine substance of which I speak–the exquisite commodity that powerful empires have mounted and crumbled upon…

It’s TEA.

Ann Lockley with Hawk and Spiny Lobster

Ann Lockley with Hawk and Spiny Lobster

Yes, the gentle cup of invigorating liquid that warms our bones and settles our spirits happens to possess a rather dramatic past, both brutal and beautiful. Who would suspect that such a ubiquitous, seemingly workaday beverage is actually at the crux of an ancient tale layered with mystery, religion, murder, narcotics trade and espionage? Like many things worth knowing, there’s much more to tea than what meets the palate.

Tea Party Animals; favim.com

Tea Party Animals; favim.com

If you are a guest in my home, I’ll offer you a cup of tea and you might (rightly) assume that I mean anything from a soothing herbal blend to a strong black brew that you could feasibly cream and sugar. Beleaguered by the contents of my tea cabinet, you will eventually report to me your selection, which I will set about to preparing–this is all about hospitality and not the lexicon of our culture but, well…it’s technically incorrect. Just so you know. You see, the term “tea” has essentially come to represent any plant-based, drinkable substance that’s not coffee or chocolate but in truth, it only technically refers to the liquor of the plant Camellia sinensis. Anything else is called a tisane, infusion or another name entirely. This may seem to be merely a stickler’s semantics but such differentiation is actually important for many reasons, especially because we put this inside our bodies! In the not-so-distant past, tea was frequently adulterated–sometimes with dangerous ingredients–in order to line the coffers of some crafty n’er-do-wells. I’m saying it’s important to be specific about these things in certain contexts.

The tree that produces tea is related to the camellias we find in many gardens here in the states, Camellia japonica–you know, these glamourous gussies:

Beneath the Camellia Blossoms by {thisisglamorous}

Beneath the Camellia Blossoms by {thisisglamorous}

Dreamy Camellias

Dreamy Camellias

La Dame aux Camelias by Alphonse Mucha

La Dame aux Camelias by Alphonse Mucha

They’re cousins. The species we use to make tea includes three varieties, Camellia sinensis var. sinensis, which is native to China; the slightly larger var. assamica which is native to India; and var. cambodiensis which is native to Cambodia, being a hybrid of the first two and not used for drinking itself but rather in the creation of new cultivated varieties (cultivars). 

Camellia sinensis var. assamica (unknown)

Camellia sinensis (unknown)

Our “libation of the ages” has been known by a scad of names across most of the continents, the commonest being te (variations of this include tea, tee, tay, thé, etc.), ch’a, cha and chai. The sweet and spicy, creamy beverage Americans recognize as chai originates in India and parts of Africa, where this is the popular way to prepare the leaves, though chai is simply the word for the tea leaves themselves.

This one glorious species can yield everything from white to yellow to green to black tea–they’re just different versions of the same thing. It’s mind-boggling, no? In addition to their botanical differences, there are many other factors that contribute to the distinctive flavors in our cup–variables such as soil quality, microclimate, weather patterns and other stresses, like insect infestations. It’s very much like wine, actually.

Tea pluckers in Sri Lanka; postcard / unknown artist

Tea pluckers in Sri Lanka; postcard / unknown artist

Part of the alchemical wonder is in the way the leaves are manipulated. Here’s how the process goes: tea pluckers–as they are called in the industry–carefully pick the first two leaves and the bud on the tips of the twigs (usually) and take them to be processed according to what type of tea they’re meant to become.

Lapsang Souchong; chadotea.com

Lapsang Souchong; chadotea.com

If the leaves are destined for black tea, they will be withered (slightly dehydrated) and then rolled, which ruptures their cell walls, allowing the enzymes inside to react with the oxygen present in air–a process referred to as oxidation. Oxidation is something that is generally undesirable, for instance, when the flesh of your sliced apple is sullied by a brownish blush; when your wine tastes flat after you were silly and left it open on the counter all night; or when your bicycle sits in the rain too long and goes to rust. Conversely, in the production of certain types of tea, oxidation is positively transformative. Skilled hands can turn a leaf with minimal flavor and therefore, worth, into an exquisitely nuanced beverage commanding hundreds or even thousands of dollars a pound. It’s true! After the rolling and oxidation is complete, the leaves are then fired to halt the enzymatic action.

Sencha; tea-addiction.com

Sencha; tea-addiction.com

Green tea is not oxidized. The leaves are steamed or pan-fired after plucking to dehydrate them, which disables the enzyme responsible for oxidation and preserves their verdancy. The leaves are rolled into their intended shapes, which range from long, loose and leggy to balled up like a pearl. Matcha is a Japanese green tea that is powdered and prepared by whipping it into water, as opposed to being steeped and removed like most other teas.

Silver Needles; teavana.com

Silver Needles; teavana.com

White and yellow tea can be considered very delicate versions of green tea; they undergo even less processing, mostly just air withering. Their flavors are sometimes so slight as to be missed by the less discerning taster. Yellow teas are historically some of the most precious.

Ti Kuan Yin; zhitea.com

Ti Kuan Yin; zhitea.com

Wulong, aka “oolong” teas are slightly-to-moderately oxidized and fall somewhere between black and green tea on the flavor spectrum. Wulongs are extra special because one spoonful of these leaves can yield numerous steepings and an evolution of lovely flavors. They can be aged for many years.

Pu-erh cakes; amazon.com

Pu-erh cakes; amazon.com

Pu-erh is fermented and often aged–it’s very earthy, intense and may require an initiated palate. It can be purchased in loose leaves or in its traditional form–packed tightly and shaped into a tea “cake” for ease of transport on the backs of horses along trade routes. Portions of it would have been shaved off and boiled in water, sometimes along with other additives like salt or orange peel. Tibetans make a savory brew with pu-erh to this day, including salt, yak butter and sometimes barley flour (tsampa).

Tea was also used as currency at one point in China’s history, like cacao to Mesoamerica and coffee to the Middle East and Indonesia. Note the scoring on the brick below to facilitate the snapping off of a segment for making change.

Tea brick; silkroadteastore.com

Tea brick; silkroadteastore.com

As I investigate what life was like in previous eras and remember, even, what it was like to live in an insular, small Midwestern town, I’m developing an awareness and subsequent awe of the treats and treasures we have access to whilst living in this modern, affluent country. It’s a little outrageous! One generation ago, there weren’t mangoes or quinoa in all of the major grocery stores; even citrus was a special, seasonal delight. Now, a simple trip to Whole Foods presents us with a gigantic wonderland of off-season imports from thousands of miles away. These are luxuries that myself and others of modest income must work hard to afford but the fact that we have access to them at all is so strange and wonderful.

Exotic goods which once traveled for many months over land or sea for the exclusive enjoyment of royalty have now become regular household staples. Tea was among the shipments and caravans, as were chocolate, coffee, spices, sugar, incense, perfumes, silk and plenty of other beautiful things that now seem common and not terribly fancy. I’m so grateful that my good fortune landed me here in this particular time and for the ways these simple pleasures have enriched my life…why, I feel like a King!

unknown photographer; m.pinterest.com

unknown photographer; m.pinterest.com

Oro del Alma

“The purest gift is not of gold, but in art that awakens the soul.” –Jack Gladstone

I have been concentrated on consuming the art of others for many weeks now and it has been very exciting, delicious and inspiring. I’ve also been digging deeply into myself–into my heart, my darkness, the essential marrow of me. I found only a few flakes of gold so far but it is encouraging and I know I must continue seeking if I am ever to hit a major vein. I am presenting to you, dear readers, the imperfect products of my most recent artistic endeavors. Part of my healing process involves forcing myself to share my work; whether it embarrasses me or makes me proud is irrelevant because it is the act of exposing that is important. Although I am tender, I trust that I am strong enough to allow you to look. You are invited to bring your gentleness.

Espera; charcoal and watercolor

Espera; charcoal and watercolor

This is a portrait of Segundo, the special dog in my life. I love him. He is a precious old man and I admire him for his outstanding patience. It’s not entirely finished but this is how far I’ve gotten in the process; I am dissatisfied mainly with the background because it suffers from the same issues that my work usually does–I’m slowly learning about composition. It was also meant to be one section of a bigger piece and I’m trying to decide if I will continue on with it or let it be as it is. I wanted it to be surreal and dream-like because it is about the deep spiritual things that Segundo represents to me.

It takes me a lot of time to make art. I have to consistently remind myself about why art is important; I like to ask people this question frequently. I know that I like some of what I see so much that it causes me to be really happy, though I’m not certain if a consistent pattern exists that links whatever produces this feeling. I recognize when a piece moves me through its use of light, color and powerful or wonderful subject matter. I like it when art makes me challenge my preconceived notions, when it makes me a little uneasy or shakes me up a bit; when it has a statement to make and I get it. I like it most when art is imaginative and playful.

I’m more comfortable doing artistic studies of subjects that are there in front of me, at least in a photograph. I have not committed to memory the way things appear and am therefore often displeased by the free-styling of my imagination, at least when it comes to creating visual art.

Greg at Brooklyn Art Library

Greg at Brooklyn Art Library

At the same time, it’s very challenging to sketch things from life that are animated, such as people, animals, etcetera, because it takes me for damned ever to get it right. I know that my hand will become better trained and my eye more practiced at directing it so that each line, shade or highlight will be delivered to the paper with confidence and accuracy…but that’s not now. I’ve taken to sketching people as we are casually sitting together; I draw their various parts (ear, upper lip, etc.) however it is it looks at the moment I am focused on that section, regardless of it’s relationship to the other parts of their face or body in the drawing. Does that make sense? It’s amusing because it produces funhouse-looking faces that resemble the subject but as their doppelganger in a strange and stretchy, alternate reality. The above drawing is from my sketchbook and is a less dramatic example of that process.

I’m still learning the most basic of technical skills. Here is an ovoid, which was the first drawing I did in my art class with Andy Reiss. It’s on a huge sketchpad so it was difficult to scan. This drawing went pretty well overall and I found it an enjoyable process that boosted my confidence.

Ovoid; charcoal and pastel

Ovoid; charcoal and pastel

Cylinder; charcoal and pastel

Cylinder; charcoal and pastel

I dislike drawing cylinders very much. Or anyway, this drawing presented a number of challenges which ultimately improved my knowledge and skills but I didn’t enjoy doing it. It took me many weeks to complete. It was also on a huge sheet of paper and is therefore cut off, having been cropped by the scanner also.

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I have a tendency to hold things too tightly. This applies to every aspect of my life, really. I’ve been aware of this since the second grade, when Mrs. Graves scolded me for the vice-grip I had on my pencil during handwriting exercises. My white knuckles betrayed me then and they still do. This translates into very intense, tightly controlled work, like super-tight knitting or, in the case of charcoal drawing, really dark lines. My art teacher had to call me out on it during the cylinder debacle because I put in the blocking lines (a beginning sketch) way too dark and wasn’t able to erase them as I needed to. They still show up on the final drawing.

My teacher gave me an exercise to do wherein I had to practice making value scales to get the feeling of drawing very dark and heavily, progressing into the lightest shade I could muster. He also gave me many other shapes and lines to draw that would allow me to practice lightly pressing while engaging these different movements in a rhythmic way. He told me that I needed to feel every bump in the grain of my paper through the tip of my pencil, as if it were a sensitive extension of my body. It totally worked but I still have to practice these before drawing almost every time, or else I do it when I notice myself reverting into psycho-hand.

This is a page from my sketchbook. It’s a simple image that I began as a study of my left hand, but then got inspired to imbue with symbolism, belying certain truths and other fears associated with this appendage.

My Hand; graphite and lipstick.

My Hand; graphite and lipstick.

I have also been working on poetry lately. I’ve been writing for almost all of my life but now I am translating it into Spanish, as well as writing new poems in Spanish. I am currently learning the language as an “advanced beginner” so I’m not sure that my word choices and phrasing are appropriate, effective, or correct, even. It’s quite challenging but I like translating poetry. It’s like working with three languages all at once. The doing has expanded my vocabulary and use of the language in general, if nothing else. Here is some of my work in progress, beginning with poesías nuevas and travelling deeper into las viejas.

Sujetando Dulce

En mis brazos tengo abrigo

estoy un hamaca

para los perros

de todos

para sus hijos

que quien sera tranquilo

porque tengo brazos vacios,

puedo

rebotar ellos

envolver con amor puro

mejor que la mejor tía

¿necesitas los brazos libres?

tengo dos

listo

Mi Segundito

Fantasma lustre de glaucoma

balizas palidas

lanzan la luz anhelo

sobre la cara de medianoche;

sobre los dedos con tocino engrasado;

tocante la puerta

y caminar wobb-wibble

a lo largo de los calles

adornado con basura

suspiro doble hondo;

ternura

ganada duro

Ceremonia Iniciación

velo se levanta;

bombos estruendosos

y pies patean

 polvo levantarse

…creciente…

arco palpable del intercambio

apertura a apertura

recepción

un frotis de pasta resinosa

-de sangre, flores y cáscaras-

mejillas sonrojadas anuncian

golpeteo, orejas golpeteo, pecho

las perlas de

miel

goteante

hedor sutil sobre

las puntas de plumas

rebotando

 impregna, delata

llamando, cuervo llamando, grito

y la fuerza polar

emite una demanda:

rendirse.

así lo sea.

Agazapado Sobre Calle Diagonal

Ocaso

preguntó

me que acallar

mi mismo

y observes sólo.

Ella preguntó para

nada

y yo tuve que

venir arrastrándose

cada momento

para tratar de cesar

las posturas interminable,

el contorsión de mi cara.

Rosada desteñido

dentro de naranja

en azul

y fui testigo

a una salida grácil

(el tipo que hace

su corazon menos consciente

de lo que esta rompiendo

mientras que ella se escapa

con calidez,

luz, vibrance).

Mis huesos

traqueteo

y golpear

y saber

ahora es el tiempo

abrirme a luna.

Yo se aflojan;

ciertos musculos mantienen

una medida de nervioso y tenso

contra sus dedos

inquisitivos y frios.

Ella ha lo encontrada

para lo que buscaba

y la quemadura de humilliación

se expande

dentro de mi cara

y ahora, contracción.

Me hundo.

Estoy callada.

Encaje

Encaje es

quebradizo-espina-flaco

las mejillas son hundido

cetrino

ella no viven en eso mundo

nunca mas

ella parlotea

sobre los quimicos

y la falta de valor

en la vida humano

“preferiría salvar una animal…

lo no es comicó

tampoco”

ella dice a mi sonrisa

a mi espalda

estoy curiosa sobre los sueños de ella.

genuine unoriginal

Dadadreams; etsy.com

Dadadreams; etsy.com

I am a collage. Genetically, I’m a blend of peoples from many places in the world, according to oral accounts of my lineage. Some day soon, I will research my ancestral heritage through a sampling of my DNA because I want to know for certain where my progenitors are from and who they might have been; I know how these things have a tendency to morph during emigration and over decades of transmission and potential white-washing. I’m curious especially about the food traditions, artisanal crafts and ceremonial practices of the cultures I come from.

Terry Lee WHETSTONe; terrywhetstone.com

Terry Lee WHETSTONe; terrywhetstone.com

pinterest.com

pinterest.com

Culturally, I am a collection of attributes that the multifarious influences in my life have led me to–I choose to hold and perpetuate those which are consistent with my beliefs. Sometimes I quarrel with myself over the vague but heavily-charged boundaries of cultural appropriation, even as I believe that if a particular practice serves an individual and they are reverent and respectful of its origins, then its use serves to honor the whole (to put it simply). I try to invent my own rites and rituals based on what I’ve found to be powerful in my quest for spiritual anchor, along with the general concepts and elements that are inherently sacred to me. It is a micro-culture that remains private, for the most part.

I recently had an epiphany about collages: #1, they are valid works of art and #2, that I had been secretly telling myself they weren’t for most of my life. I had some strange insecurity about the fact that they employed found images or objects that I hadn’t created with my own hands, from my own imagination. This is ridiculous when I consider the possibility that everything an artist produces is borrowed from the world around them. Even their interior world is informed by what they’ve seen and experienced in the physical world–the one that they share with the rest of us. The materials they use might be in a simple, raw and basic form (charcoal, for instance) but they are only materials…it’s the life that the artist breathes into them which makes them art–the meaning they become infused with. I wonder this: is collage a form of collaborative art when the materials are sourced from another creator? Must co-creation be consensual?

artist unknown; fffound

artist unknown; ffffound.com

Perils of the Easier Path by Mark Lazenby

Perils of the Easier Path by Mark Lazenby; mark

Tyler Varsell’s sketchbook; cargocollective.com

As a teenager, I found collage to be the medium in which I could most easily create a sense of what I wanted to impart. Instead of having to deal with all of the time-consuming, sometimes frustrating technical parts of drawing and painting, I was able to effectively express through the amusing act of sourcing and repurposing objects and imagery and combining them in my own context. My process involved selecting and extracting the materials to arrange and rearrange, watching the relationships between each element shift and waiting for a potent and powerful combination to emerge, which I would then affix to a surface. Sometimes the process itself  inspired new directions and revealed new meanings.

I started suspecting that collage might be totally legit when my excellent friend Ivan showed me this book:

Masters: Collage: Major Works by Leading Artists; amazon.com

The paintings beyond the link below look like collages but they’re NOT! Tricky!

Corporeal Clusters

These days I’ve been focusing on two dimensional visual art, mainly because I needed to narrow my field of focus a bit  and I wanted to gain the skills I require to complete illustration projects. However, I generally feel more compelled toward the consumption and creation of  things that provide a multi-sensory experience. I love installations, film, music and other mixtures of media for this reason.

The following is a really wonderful New Orleans project featuring lots of super great artists and makers of things. Check out the website AND the video!

Dithyrambalina

At the Frye Museum, I witnessed an awesomely artful video installation called An Ode to Octavia, a Sonic and Kinetic Ritual by The Black Constellation, though unfortunately I can’t find any images from it or the video itself. I wish you could see it. If you’re in Seattle, go check it out because it’s beautiful.

What is your perception of collage as a medium? Do you know of any outstanding artists who make collages, be they flat, three-dimensional or interactive?

good yes please

Ah, yes yes: I have realized that I am quite blessed to have at my disposal a portal to all of the art my big, fat, indulgent heart can stand (the internet) *and* access to a whole city brimming and buzzing with museums, galleries, public/street art and much more to please my aesthetic tastes in general. WE are. We live in a time conducive to convenient consumption and one in which art is rather accessible, for which I am exuberantly grateful. I’ve come to learn that I actually need this imagination fodder and that I do well to satiate my craving for such stimulation. I’m just getting started!

Brooklyn Art Library; atlasobscura.com

One of my favorite things about living in Brooklyn is that it is the home of the Brooklyn Art Library. Here, I can sit for as long as I want, as frequently as I want (during their hours of operation) and the peachy-sweet, very hospitable employees encourage my presence without needing me to buy anything–it’s also a store hawking items like vintage postcards, notebooks, minimal art supplies, books and other odds-and-ends. Library cards are free there, just like the Public Library. It also doesn’t hurt that Mast Brothers Chocolate factory is only a few doors down.

The library hosts the permanent collection of a wonderful thing called the Sketchbook Project, the fruits of which line the walls of the space. The sketchbooks of artists from all over the world are just waiting there to satisfy your snoopiest curiosity. I insist that you to go there if ever in the vicinity. Upon receiving a library card, a set of sleek computers assist in the selection of art-filled loot by any of a variety of mechanisms, though I always choose mine by themes bearing enigmatic phrases. A friendly employee will retrieve several for you to pore over; simply return when finished for re-shelving and start the process of selection again. Repeat ad infinitum. It’s fun!

In case you’re more of a visual/audio person, here is a stop-motion video about the Sketchbook Project:

One of my favorite sketchbooks I’ve seen so far is Ileana Surducan’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, which you can see the entirety of by clicking the title. It is appealing for its wild-eyed sense of wonder and supported by her fantastic illustration skills. She’s from Romania and I like that.

This year’s collection of sketchbooks has just begun their tour and is perhaps in a city near you. You yourself can also contribute to this project; with a $25 fee, you receive a notebook and space in the library for your finished volume of sketches–and–for another $45, you can have it imaged and uploaded to the web archive for world-wide perusal along with a couple of other perks. I’m tickled half to death by this project.

To waltz along another avenue of my daily art immersion, here are a just a couple of gems I’ve found on the art blogs I pillage for sustenance–a habit I’ve recently acquired and one that I hope to continue for years to come. I strongly suggest that you get your daily dose of beauty and inspiration so you can grow up to be dreamy and giddy, just like me!

Follow the image links to view more fabulous work–these are only a sample.

Gala Bent; hifructose.com

Miss Van; hifructose.com

Vision by Katie Scott; katie-scott.com

Speaking of artists I admire, I’ve spent about six hours total at the Brothers Quay exhibit at MoMA. They’re brilliant genius twin brothers who’ve been making art for many decades. Perhaps you will enjoy reading this New York Times review of their retrospective.

Personally, I like their often repulsive, creepy aesthetic which tends to drum up the feeling of an era outside our own, of a grimy, interminable depression animated by repurposed cast-offs that speak not only to the intensity of the human condition but also of a whimsical imagination and a subtle sense of humor. It’s rich in detail, disturbing and simply phenomenal.

brothers Quay; morbidanatomy.blogspot.com

Brothers Quay; thelmagazine.com

I was introduced to the work of Heinrich Kley by my art teacher, Andy Reiss. The free and sketchy quality of Kley’s art produces such excellent style and flow of movement, plus his imagination is pretty fascinating. The illustrators for Fantasia were inspired by his art.

Heinrich Kley; fineart.ha.com

Heinrich Kley; 4ojos.com

After admiring her work online for the past numerous weeks, I saw Tiffany Bozic‘s exhibit at Joshua Liner Gallery in Chelsea. Her medium is watercolor and also washes of acrylic on maple wood panels, sometimes incorporating the pattern of the woodgrain to a lovely effect. Her subjects are primarily organisms of the natural world, often presented in unnatural combinations and positions with somewhat surreal elements, sometimes abstracted entirely for the sake of design. Her creative vision sets her apart from Audubon’s naturalist artwork that was more geared toward accurately representing nature for education as much as the appreciation of the forms–organisms in their natural environment.  I could easily see the influence of Ernst Haeckel in her finely rendered organisms, their patterns and compositions–even her color choices on some pieces. There is a dark, unsettling quality to many of her pieces that I find outstanding.

Tiffany Bozic; artistaday.com

The Golden Gate by Tiffany Bozic; joshualinergallery.com

Flesh and Blood by Tiffany Bozic; joshualinergallery.com

Shift

Piero Fornasetti; farfetch.com

After an arduous and bizarre Summer, my “real life” hiatus has finally concluded, just in time for Autumn’s arrival. I return to the Carousel upon a gust of changed wind;  you see, I have chosen to >>SHIFT<<.

Perhaps keen readers may have noticed (from previous posts) that I am a student of science. I love plants and lichens especially but I’m bowled-over by most of the disciplines within the broad spectrum of my field. To furnish a label, I say that I study Natural History, for I can learn about much of the world and it’s processes within this umbellate structure. Also, Natural History museums are one of my favorite places to be because they present concepts and objects that I love, often in an aesthetically pleasing way and sometimes through multi-sensory, interactive media. Although my passion for science has always been married to my necessity and fondness for aesthetics, science and nature have enabled my return to art. Now I have begun to lean toward art for art’s sake.

Let me back this train up (dreamy, blurred transition sequence with harp scales denoting flashback):

pinterest.com

When I was a wee lass of 16, thrashing about in the throes of hormones and mental illness, my primary love in life was painting; it was my one and only reason to get out of bed in the morning and for attending school daily. Painting made life more tolerable because I could concentrate my turbulence into expression and also focus on the perception of  the physical world outside of me. I saw layers of paint slathered everywhere I looked, instructing me in the ways of light, shadow and color, allowing me to see what was actually in front of me instead of the meagre projection of what I expected. It was a form of escape and it was to be my Escape Plan.

However, a near constant succession of emotional storms culminated in something akin to a meteorite collision, which struck me down into a pile of crumbs. After that, I was unable to paint because I had nothing inside me to express. I sat staring at empty canvases, mouth agape as if paralyzed at the beginning of a scream, which ran out of steam and rusted in place. The main problem was that I was rendered unfeeling and impotent by the too-strong anti-psychotic medication prescribed to me by a diagnosis-happy charlatan who bragged about being an allopathic physician and shamed me for being queer. Bless his coronary. True, I was no longer crazy enough to be dangerous to myself or anyone else because all I could think about was eating and sleeping…but all I could do was eat and sleep and as such, I lost my true love to the Nothing. Is that any kind of life?

Selasphorus rufus and Xylocopa californica arizonensis

After years of quivering in the shadows of traumatic aftershock and in fear of criticism for my lack of skills and a suspicion about my level of talent, I forced myself to pick a new medium; a new muse naturally installed itself thereafter. Watercolor paintings and drawings of non-human entities delivered me into new territory, only marginally associated with the battleground.

Biological illustration is one of my favorite types of art and I have been practicing little by little, though it has been exquisitely painful, for there is sensitive scar tissue around the phantom wounds. Above, you see two products of this effort–I watercolor painted these animal friends, which were extracted from a large interpretive poster I made about ocotillo’s (Fouquieria splendens) pollinating partners.

After struggling through many a misstep and accepting that I am merely an imperfect beginner, I decided to finally-at-last heal the heartbreak and gift myself that which I lack–a solid foundation in technical artistic training. Through a serendipitous meeting of a professional illustrator named Zelda Devon, I now have a weekly art class with an outstanding and encouraging teacher to help me mend and make new my identity as an artist. Yeah, because I said it: I’m an artist and nobody can change that (not even me). So there.

Here are a few pieces of art that I’ve foraged from the internet–I find them lovely and exciting:

Langdon Graves; booooooom.com

This piece by Langdon Graves pleases me immensely with the muted palette I so often gravitate towards, treated with a flash of hot color that draws the eye. The subject’s dismemberment is made only slightly disturbing with her bunny hands, though I find it more sweet and imaginative than morbid.

Carne Griffiths’ work is nudging me toward a return to human portraiture with his ethereal, fractured work. I also love it when people incorporate materials other than the precious, highfalutin stuff one acquires at the art store, such as Griffiths’ tea and booze.

Fragment Postcard Pack by Carne Griffiths; behance.net

Here are some pretty graphic design things by Tatiana Plakhova–check out the website because there you will find a whole universe of gorgeous, sort of mind-blowing images.

The End of Geography by Tatiana Plakhova; complexitygraphics.com

From ‘The End of Geography’ by Tatiana Plakhova; complexitygraphics.com

Art Forms in Nature by Ernst Haeckel was given to me for my birthday by my darling friend Danielle. Haeckel is so absolutely outstanding! I want to be like him when I grow up.

amazon.com

Tiffany Bozic’s new book Drawn by Instinct features the very kind of artistic expression I hope to one day be capable of; she melds the meticulous detail of a scientist with realistic portrayals of creatures–some are posed within strange, compelling compositions–and gives them the breath of emotional movement. Essentially: I want this book. I would accept it as a gift, should anyone be so inclined to offer!

From Tiffany Bozic’s book ‘Drawn by Instinct’; hifructose.com

From Tiffany Bozic’s book ‘Drawn by Instinct’; hifructose.com

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.

sex and nonsex

Julius Klinkhardt; vintageprintable.com

It is Spring! The sun is warm and strong now and days of it are strung together with lustrous rainy ones. Plants are waggling their petaled parts, exuding fragrant messages and beckoning to whatever vector makes the magic happen for them. People are shedding Winter-worn layers for brighter, lighter and smaller articles, revealing ever more of themselves to the hungry eyes and fluttering hearts of their compatriots. The air is ripe with pollen grains enough to excite any wayfaring sinus or epiglottis into a crescendo of…mucus? Hmmm. Luckily for yours truly, northeastern Spring doesn’t have such an expectorant effect and indeed, I am all too happy to be whisked away into blissful reverie by the pungent, floral-scented Atlantic breezes. Swoon!

Now I want to tell you about lichen sex. I cannot refrain from anthropomorphizing this subject, so I appreciate your forgiveness in advance. Thank you. As a burgeoning scientist, I’m not supposed to attribute human characteristics to other organisms but I think it’s helpful to have some kind of context within which to understand this fairly complicated and unusual subject. Plus, it’s far more fun to explain it in ways that appeal to our desire for relatable drama.

The most basic way to put what I have to say is this: some lichens have sex and some do not. At least, we haven’t seen them do it.

Ah-break it dowwwnn:

Sexy lichens have sex. The most outstanding thing about this evolutionary mechanism is the dynamic between the symbiotic partners–the fungi wear the bossy pants and actually suppress the reproductive abilities of their algae or cyanobacteria. Although the fungi and algae don’t have sex with each other, they are domestic partners in that they share living quarters and the algae also feeds the fungi food that it’s photosynthesized for itself. What’s more, the fungi gets to have all the reproductive fun they can muster but refuses to allow the photobiont to reproduce. No sexy time! It’s not the most fair relationship by my standards but it’s apparently working well for them, so obviously I am not an appropriate judge. It is thought that this measure ensures that the algae doesn’t evolve into less suitable genetic configurations that wouldn’t work as well for the fungus to partner up with. To complicate things a bit, let me blow your mind with this interesting, though somewhat irrelevant fact: fungi have so many sexual types that there is no male or female–if you’ve read my previous posts, you have to know how much I love this divergence from boring old binary gender systems.

As I was saying, it is only the fungus which thrusts its way through the surface of the lichen, creating structures we refer to as a “fruiting body”, which are analogous to genitals in that they release reproductive spores. It could look like these parts:

Dibaeis baeomyces by Stephen/Sylvia Sharnoff; lichen.com

Suggestive, no?

apothecia types; Erik Acharius; http://www.nrm.se

So, their spores are disseminated into the world, not just to make new genetic combinations, but specifically to search for that special someone to move in with: an algal symbiotic partner. They’re really into interspecific relationships. You see, the fungi that wants to become a lichen is dependent upon algae–it can’t live without it! Isn’t that terribly romantic? Less romantic is the fact that fungi can switch algal partners. If it doesn’t like the one it’s with, it can pick a more suitable partner either by stealing it from another lichen or acquiring it from a free-living algae community.

Non-sexy lichens do not have sex. They can also be referred to as sterile, but that makes them sound like they’re lolling about at the end of their genetic lineage…which is just not true! It might be that some of them are just very discreet and only have sex occasionally which we just haven’t seen enough of to say that they do. The ones who don’t have sex are not prudes devoted to practicing abstinence, nor are they barren curmudgeons–they simply don’t need sex to reproduce. These crafty little darlings have evolved into this lifestyle because it’s clearly successful for them.

Isidia; unknown photographer

They produce asexual propagules, which are little bundles of cells that can grow into genetic replicas–a clone, if you will. They come in a couple of forms, being isidia, which are finger-like or soredia, which are more like balls or granules. These propagules are released by the lichen into the environment, typically via water, animals or wind, and if they land on their preferred surface (we call that a “substrate”) and are surrounded in the right conditions, they can become a new lichen with the same genetic makeup. It’s kind of crazy. That’s like if you grew fingers which fell off and then grew into a whole new you! This method is not unique to lichens–some plant species also produce “pups” that can grow into new plants…investigate stonecrops, agave, yucca, cacti and spider plants for more info on how they do such magnificent things. The picture below is a succulent plant with three smaller pup propagules around it.

Echeveria agavoides w/ pups; glenhirstcactiandpalms.co.uk

Unfortunately, sterile lichens don’t get much lichenology play because so many scientists aren’t willing to take the time to understand them. They’re challenging. Dunh-duh-duh-nuhnnn, James Lendemer to the rescue! James, whom you may recall from my previous post, is a lichenologist at the New York Botanical Garden who has championed the sterile crustose lichens for years now–researching them, redefining their taxonomies and even the ways in which we look at and describe them. He’s written keys for them, which are necessary to identification and thusly make it possible for us to get to know who we’re working with.

Sterile lichens are every bit as important as reproductive lichens because they provide similar services to humans and they have their own role in their environment–they deserve to be protected from habitat destruction for the very same reasons. They are extra important even, because they tell us a different story about evolution and the perpetuation of species. I, for one, am listening.

What shall I call thee?

Fungi by Carl Linnaeus

I just love names. I love applying monikers to plants, animals, inanimate objects, pieces of art, actions, dance moves, stories and poetry, colors, etcetera. I used to want to design my own line of cosmetics just so I could name the products–when I was fifteen, I had an idea for a nail polish collection inspired by bowling balls…but I digress.

What I want to talk about is taxonomy. Taxonomy is the classification of things; in biology, this is about understanding how one species relates to other species, which leads to finding a position for them within the tree of life and ensures that they are properly named. Humans tend to come up with systems that help us organize the things we find around us and it is convenient to have something consistent to call these things so we can effectively communicate about them.

Scientific names use Latin to create helpful uniformity, though some names have Greek roots too. For example, a person from Vietnam can say Helianthus annus to a Colombian and both can feel confident that they are referring to the well-known North American sunflower. ‘Sunflower’ is what we refer to as it’s common name–these kinds of names are dangerous and tricky because they could refer to anything that a person thinks is a sunflower, which might not be anything close to the species you imagine when you think of a sunflower. According to Wikipedia, there are 38 species of native perennial sunflowers in North America alone, so you can imagine that without a specific name, we could be talking about very different plants. This makes a big difference in the larger picture–say, if you wanted to eat something or use it as medicine, you’d need to be certain you’re ingesting the right plant or fungi (considering some are rather poisonous and could potentially kill you).

Carl Linneaus; gap.entclub.org

Binomial nomenclature was invented by Carl Linneaus. He invented this standard naming system because it was such a confusing jumble otherwise. Let me break it down for you: the whole name includes two parts–1) a genus and 2) a species, in that order. Though it comes first, the genus is like your last name–other people in your family share it, indicating that you’re related. You also have your own unique first name, which is analogous to the species name (unless you’re a junior, in which case I’m not talking about you). This two name system makes it easier to talk about plants, animals, fungi–even bacteria have scientific names. As humans, in our current evolutionary form, we are called Homo sapiens. You might notice that I’ve italicized every Latin name and capitalized only the first letter of the genus, which is the correct way to type it. When handwritten, you simply underline the name.

To get even more legit, when you write common names, they are not capitalized unless they contain a proper noun, such as Williamson’s sapsucker (Sphyrapicus thyroideus) vs. yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius); this subject is debated within the scientific community but it is how I was taught as a botanist/writer by a botanist/writer and I will adhere to it until someone provides me with sound reasoning otherwise.

Listen to a brief and amusing episode of NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ about naming species with Robert Krulwich:

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=94886658&m=94953486&t=audio

It is important to note that this somewhat reductionist branch of science is not the only legitimate system for naming things. There is immense value in the taxonomies used by indigenous communities, where the names allow them to communicate details about the species they interact with to a degree in which scientific names fall quite short. This article describes just that: Endangered languages encode plant and animal knowledge

Lichens are special because they are not one single organism, as they may appear to the naked eye. Upon closer inspection, we find that they are a partnership of fungi, algae or cyanobacteria and bacteria, which are not normally related to each other. Because these species join forces and operate as if they were one, and since they look very different in their partnership than in their individual forms, lichens are often referred to as a singular organism. It’s confusing, huh?! We could think of them as a tiny ecosystem or we could look at them as a composite individual, like we do a sunflower. Either way, we need to be able to identify them by a tidy little name so we go with the conventional binomial nomenclature, which is based on the fungal partner (aka–the mycobiont). Only 3 percent of the algal species (photobionts) that become the lichens we know and love have been identified, so this kind of makes sense.

Read more about this conundrum here in an essay on the names of lichens by Trevor Goward, who is a prominent lichenologist.