Ways of Enlichenment: The Book(s)

So it begins: ways of enlichenment, thirteen years in the making.

The first thing to know about our upcoming book Ways of Enlichenment is that it’s about the forest lichens of northwest North America. The ones that grow on trees and shrubs.

Vulpicida canadensis
Vulpicida canadensis
And the first thing to know about lichens themselves is that they’re composite. Even the simplest lichen is composed of at least two unrelated organisms: a fungus and an alga. Already this raises an intriguing question: Should lichens be thought of as ecosystems or do they more closely resemble organisms? In fact lichens are simultaneously ecosystems and organisms. Depends on how you think about them.

How, then, do lichenologists think about lichens? We live in reductionist times, so it’s perhaps not surprising that most lichenologists think about lichens primarily in terms of their component parts, that is, as fungi and algae, but especially as fungi. We don’t say that all lichenologists will necessarily agree with this assessment; but we do believe that this is more or less how it is.

Evidence? Consider the astonishing fact that lichenologists have not yet found it convenient to give lichens scientific names. True, lichenologists have been very busy naming the component parts of lichens – lichen fungi and lichen algae – but this only serves to underscore our point.

To summarize: more than 13,000 kinds of lichens currently inhabit planet Earth, but not one of them has a scientific name. When a lichenologist wants to refer to a whole lichen, the best she can do is apply the name of its fungal partner, as in Vulpicida canadensis, illustrated above. However convenient this convention is in the classification of lichens, it nevertheless comes at cost. For one thing it has tended contemporary lichenology to the only partially correct notion that lichens are fungi; and for another, related thing it implies that lichen fungi are somehow “in charge” of the lichen consortium when, to the contrary, it’s lichen algae that, by converting the sun’s energy to sugar, drives the lichen enterprise in the first place. There’s also good evidence that lichen algae largely determine what lichens look like and where they grow.

Obviously there can be nothing inherently wrong with focusing on the parts of the lichen consortium. What we’re suggesting, rather, is that there’s still much to be learned when we focus one level up, at the scale of the lichen itself. We think the time is ripe to take what experimental science has taught us about the nature of lichen fungi and lichen algae, and to apply it to the difficult exercise of seeing lichens whole. Partly this is the subject area of the lichen ecophysiologist, who works in the reductionist tradition of the hard core scientist; but partly too it’s the arena of the field naturalist, who wants to know, for example, how lichen form (what lichens look like) relates to lichen function (e.g., where they grow). We call this latter emphasis Lichen Distributional Ecology.

Learning about Lichen Distributional Ecology is a large part of what our upcoming book Ways of Enlichenment is about. We believe that books on lichens need to answer two questions. The first question is how does one learn to identify lichens. The second question is why should one bother? It’s this second question, not so much the first, which is comparatively easy, that has preoccupied us for the past dozen years.

We say “book” but actually we mean “books,” since Ways of Enlichenment will ultimately consist of three volumes. Volume 1 treats forest lichens that grow on trees or shrubs (epiphytic lichens), while Volume 2 handles ground-dwelling (terrestrial) lichens and Volume 3 deals with rock-dwelling (saxicolous) lichens.

Each volume of Ways will provide illustrated keys to all lichen species known to occur in northwest North America, and will offer detailed species accounts for all of the common species and most of the rare ones. Volume 1, for example, will treat about 700 species. Also provided are notes on lichen theory: what lichens really are, how lichens function, and how they can be used to deepen our collective understanding of natural ecosystems. We also provide original distribution maps, as well as up-to-date notes on global occurrence. Finally we offer literally hundreds of stunning images by Tim Wheeler, Anna Roberts, Jason Hollinger and others. Here’s a small sampling.

We expect the first volume of Ways to come off the press in late 2013. Please email us if you’d like to keep informed of progress.