Lichen on an oak branch in our woodlot.They may be tiny, but they're beautiful--a miniature garden on a branch. And being tiny doesn't mean being unsuccessful. Lichens are among the oldest living things on earth. They inhabit every continent on the planet and number nearly 17,000 identified species, But who knows how many unidentified species there are? They live in crevices, lurk in cracks and crannies, love dead branches, thrive on rocks in Antarctica and frozen soil in the Arctic. They are pioneers. They're survivors. Because they're so small, they're a betwixt-and-between species: they fill in the empty spaces in an ecosystem. Their microcommunities flourish where being big would be a disadvantage. They fit neatly into spaces from which other creatures are excluded because of their size. And they're incredibly powerful. Once established on a rock, they can gradually break it down. Lichens are capable of making a difference many times their size.
Lichens may not be at the top of today's "most-watched" lists. But they have their admirers. Beatrix Potter, for instance, who was the first person in England to record her speculations that lichen are symbiotic creatures: fungi co-habiting with photosynthesizing algae. She learned this herself, through close observation and down-to-earth study. She even cultivated the spores at her desk and drew them, lovingly. (The drawing is one of her fungi studies.)
Lichens are a lesson for me, living here in the Texas Hill Country, where it's easy to be impressed by big things: tall trees, massive rocks, rolling hills, endless skies. In a time when some forms of largeness loom over our landscape like a dark cloud, I need to remember the lichens. I need to look in-between, celebrate small, do the little things that might make a difference. Maybe that would work for you, too.
Reading note. It's the little things citizens do. That's what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees. Wangari Maathai