Taking a ‘Lichen’ to Mutualism
It was meant as a helpful hint. I was walking around my yard with a friend, when he noticed some sizable, dirty looking, crusty blotches sullying the stone facade on my house. He offered to lend me his power washer to clean the stone. This seemed like a good idea, but upon further reflection…
The blotches are actually lichens which, over many years, have gained a foothold on that hard grey quartzite. The previous owners didn’t do a lot of maintenance so they were allowed to grow. What’s fascinating about lichens is that they are actually a partnership called mutualism… two different species living together for mutual benefit. The two species in a lichen are a fungus and a green alga.
With shelter provided by the fungi, and food (photosynthesis) provided by the algae, lichens have carved out a unique niche. Neither the fungi nor the algae, by themselves, could possibly exist on this forbidding barren rocky surface, but together they actually help each other and prosper, despite hot sunny summers, freezing winters, wind, soaking rain, drying, and even freeze-drying.
The generic term for this relationship is symbiosis. Mutualism (exemplified well by lichens) is sometimes seen as synonymous with symbiosis, but there are other symbiotic “isms,” such as parasitism. In a parasitic relationship, one species benefits at the expense of the other. There are many common examples: wood ticks, leeches, tapeworms, lice, etc. They feed on a host organism. Not only does the host not benefit, but with enough parasites, it can be significantly harmed.
Our population proliferating on the Earth is akin to a large scale example of symbiosis. Compared with other planets (barren lumps of rock or gas in space), Earth is very much alive. It is a de-facto host organism on which the human population is totally dependent for food, water, air, shelter, and space. The interesting thing is that we humans can be both mutualistic and parasitic.
Many years ago I knew a lady, Emma Toft, who exemplified mutualism in her interaction with nature. She made a living by operating a lodge on land that was originally owned by her father, adjacent to Lake Michigan. She protected the flora and fauna, and taught others to appreciate nature. Her garden was modest and organic. She loved wildlife and enjoyed a good life surrounded by old growth trees and wildflowers. Today Toft Point is managed by the university and maintained as a nature preserve in accordance with Emma’s wishes.
Unfortunately it seems most of what we humans do could be considered planetary parasitism. Our population continues to proliferate at the expense of the living ecosystem. For example, tens of thousands of species are totally eliminated, across vast areas, in order to raise food crops for just one exclusive species (us). Soil is lost continuously in the process of cultivating millions of acres of corn and soybeans. Immense amounts of fuel are required to provide the growing population with food, water, transportation, shelter, health care, and even fuel. The energy being used has been stored in soil and fossils (coal and oil) for ages, and isn’t being replaced. This is unsustainable and is at the expense of future generations in two ways: it will all be gone; and the countless tons of carbon that had been sequestered in these fossils are now put back into the atmosphere. As for the soil, it can take a thousand years to grow a single inch. Erosion is a permanent loss.
We continue to negatively impact our own life support system on planet Earth. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the carbon released from coal, oil, and gas has caused the Earth’s atmospheric carbon to increase from around 280 parts per million in 1700, to 390 ppm today, a level not seen since the Pliocene period, about 4.5 million years ago, an exceptionally warm time in Earth’s history. And this has happened within just a couple centuries. And it’s getting worse.
It doesn’t have to be like this. I know people who, like Emma, have made a very different choice. I would consider them to be practicing mutualism. They produce organic crops on limited acreage. They practice ecological restoration on their farm, restoring native prairie wildflowers and grasses for the sake of erosion control and wildlife food and cover. They know critters will claim part of the crop. You might say they are good neighbors to wildlife.
We all need to be more like mutuals. Parasitism can be particularly problematic to the parasite as well as to the victim. If you manage to infect your host to such a degree that it weakens and dies… where does that leave you, the parasite? As the undertaker in the Wizard of Oz would say, “not just merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.” If your host organism can prosper, than you as a parasitic partner can have a future.
What can we do? If we are able to control our consumption and also take a lesson from the lowly lichen… that is, modify our behavior to live along with other species in partnership, we may be able to survive such challenges as climate change.
Don’t look for help from the Republican contenders for the presidential nomination for 2012. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, for example, wants to subvert the one agency established to protect our world, the Environmental Protection Agency. According to Perry, “the EPA won’t know what hit ‘em…” Apparently he’s quite willing to sacrifice the future of our children on the alter of Mammon. No mutualistic tone here. Just consume baby consume!
We can choose to be mutuals or parasites… lichens or leeches. If a politician is unaware that a healthy economic system is totally dependent upon a healthy ecosystem, then he/ she is not deserving of your vote. Having been apart from nature way too long, we need to become a part. It’s time to make better choices.
I think we’ll just keep our lichens around.