Life lessons can be learned from lichens

Life lessons can be learned from lichens


Posted 14 July 2011, by Howard Bess, Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman (Wick Communications Co),

In Darlene’s (Darlene is my wife) ideal life, she would have been a field biologist. She grew up near the woods. She spent many happy hours and days poking around in the woods. In college, her favorite classes were in biology. She has been my primary teacher about the interdependence of life. Her knowledge and wisdom have impacted my theology, my psychology, my sociology, my anthropology and my politics. Because of her, I believe independence ought never be a goal to be sought, but a trap that ensnares and eventually kills.

In a recent conversation, Darlene mentioned lichens. It was a subject that was somewhat familiar because a longtime friend from California days is one of the world’s foremost lichenologists. When I first met Charis Bratt, she was a stay-at-home mom with five kids and the president of the Women’s Fellowship at the local Presbyterian church. We became friends when she and I headed up the successful building of housing for Mexican Americans (mostly undocumented) who lived in poverty and obscurity in the Santa Barbara area. When the kids were grown and gone, and Charis’ scientist husband retired, she had time on her hands and one of the most curious minds ever encountered. Charis started volunteering at the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens and discovered the world of lichens.

Google the name of Charis Bratt and see what she has become in the world of lichens.

So there you have it. I am interested in lichens because of two very smart and curious women. I am further interested because Jesus from Nazareth drew a large part of his teaching material from the world of nature — seeds, trees, grains, birds and sheep. Jesus found lessons for life in the natural world. He never mentioned lichens and I am confident that he did not understand the ones that he saw. I am also certain that if he had recognized and understood lichens, he would have used them for teaching material.

Lichens are unique composite organisms. They are around us in abundance. Bratt has identified them by the hundreds and even has one officially named for her. Lichen are made up not of one organism but two. Typical lichen are made up of fungus and algae in a symbiotic relationship. They behave quite differently than fungus and algae that live in isolation. Lichens are quite stable and live in some of the harshest environments known to the world. Lichens live in the arctic, in the desert, on dry, barren desert rocks or even in a slag dump.

The life of lichens is a kind of mutualism. Together, fungus and algae are able to produce an organic carbon sugar that feeds both. In their attachment, the fungus and the algae maintain their own identity, but they cannot live without one another. Lichens can be found in the harshest of conditions and not only live, but reproduce and thrive.

According to the Bible record, Jesus began many of his most memorable stories with the words “the kingdom of God is like …” I can hear him say “the Kingdom of God is like lichen.” Lichen can never have the word independent as a positive word in their vocabulary. Individuality is maintained only in a symbiotic relationship. What is vital to life is produced in a cooperative relationship. Lichen are never overcome by harsh conditions.

The Fourth of July is in many ways a great holiday for Americans. We understandably celebrate because our forbearers successfully challenged a system that was obsessed with power and wealth rather than sharing, supporting and giving. The British were lousy world citizens. We have become what we despised. We have become an empire known and feared because of our power and wealth rather than our goodness and generosity. The words Dwight Eisenhower quoted ring in my ears: “America is great because America is good. If America ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.”

We cannot understand greatness in terms of our conquering and domination. The lesson of the lichen is that we thrive because of interdependence and mutual assistance.

The life of lichen is no doubt an imperfect image for the construct of the world, but it makes a great contribution. We Americans have become obsessed with a patriotism focused on military might and the flag. We worship at the feet of independence at our peril.

Each of us lives by the images that we carry in our minds. If our understanding of life is built on the image of conquering, controlling and dominating, the future is bleak. If our understanding of life is imaged by community, the future is always bright. Family, clan, service club, church, lodge, fellowship, book club, discussion group, community council, community chorus, community band and community theatre — the list goes on and on. All thrive on mutualism. People need one another. They function best because of their interdependence. They reflect the lesson of the lichen.

Can we apply the lessons of the lichen to the world of politics at levels from local to international? Can we admit that Republicans need Democrats and that Democrats need Republicans? Can we admit that nations from the USA to Japan to Sudan to Paraguay to China to Austria to Iran to Mexico to Norway to South Africa desperately need a symbiotic relationship with one another?

The voice of the lichen is speaking to us all.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is

Opinions expressed on the Faith page are the author’s and are not necessarily those of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, its staff or its parent company, Wick Communications Co.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: