Regarding Lichen

Isaac Yuen

What are the odds of the lichen settling on this rock? This tongue of rock, jutting out from a sea of permafrost? Is the lichen aware of other lichens, borne on other winds, clones of itself, diaspores settling on bleached shores, on exposed outcrops, or drowning in bogs?

Does the lichen find its new home amenable? Would the fungal half of the lichen, the part weaving structure, the part building shelter, prefer instead a purchase away from the tundra winds? Would the algal half of the lichen, the one spinning sugars, the one providing livelihood, fare better in a sunnier location? Can lichen be disappointed? Does it ever plan for other possibilities, other eventualities as it spreads forth its lifeprint, millimeter by millimeter, decade after decade? Does it wonder whether its colonies will come to resemble flecks of dashed paint, mats of kinked yarn, or shrunken, calcified doilies?


At the Arctic research station, who among the generously funded pharmaceutical expedition first samples and describes the new lichen species? Is it the mycologist, seeking certain properties rumored to exist within the fungus? Is it the phycologist, fascinated by specific processes theorized to dwell within the algae? Or is it the lichenologist, keen on teasing apart the symbiotic mysteries between the two organisms?

As time goes on, is a consensus reached on how to classify the specimen in such-and-such a way? As months pass by, does resentment grow with credit being allocated, with attention being devoted, in such-and-such a way?

When the results are confirmed, does the trio fall into chattering excitedly with lips broken from months out in wind-scoured desolation? Is there a sudden pouring forth in ideas and dreams of possibilities? Does the trio continue to converse through lunch, through dinner, in between sips of sour beer and spoonfuls of tinned beans? Does talk go on, sentences slightly slurred, tones slightly softened, late under the night sky ribboned with otherworldly lights? Between which pair?


Was it the fungus that embraced the algae into its mycelium being? Was it the algae that imbued each fungal strand with color? What was the adjustment period for living together? How long before things became easy? Before they grew complicated? At what point, after how much time, did the two become composite, merging into the entity known as lichen?

During and after, were there on occasions, drifting down from airborne currents, chance encounters at rocky outskirts, certain third parties, fringe forms of yeasts, blue-green bacterial imposters, enticing one party or the other with certain novel advantages? Were they rebuffed? Why? What is the growth rate of the lichen before and after these intrusions? What happens to these rejected third parties?


After the Arctic, after communion, who decides to take the clinical research position in a new country? Does the other ever regret uprooting their life for the sake of the partnership? Do the two nevertheless revel in the new roots they laid down, during the bright blooms of spring, in the messy nests of laughter, with matching sets of fine bone china?


What compounds in the lichen, in what proportions, are eventually discovered to shrink certain tumors? Is this cure derived from the fungus? Is it synthesized from the algae? Or is the key found within the chemical letters exchanged between the pair, bittersweet notes produced after a sampling chisel shadows the sky and gouges a hole clean through the lichen’s core?


Which is stronger over the ensuing winter, fungus or algae? When during the six rounds of blizzards, during the seven months of darkness, does the weaker half stop trying to drink the dry grains of ice? What does the stronger party offer when there is nothing left to give?


Is one half of lichen, bereft of partner, still considered lichen? Would the fungus with its filaments continue to cling? Would the algae and its green cells continue to grow? Does the survivor remain cocooned within its woven caverns and floors of chilled stone? What are the odds of it leaving home, in search of other rocks, perched cliffs, bodies of water?

Isaac Yuen’s works have appeared in Flyway, Hippocampus, River Teeth‘s Beautiful Things, and Orion, among other publications. He is the creator of, a website connecting art, film, and literature to nature, culture, and identity. Isaac lives in Vancouver, Canada, on the unceded territories of the Coast Salish people.