Friday, August 26, 2011

`Infinite Wonder, Infinite Pity'

Trees are crowded places. Many on campus are dense with cicadas and ants, ball moss and lichens. The latter are non-parasitic epiphytes that also grow on rocks and masonry, composite plants, part fungus, part algae, existing symbiotically. The Texas drought has turned them into papery, pale gray-green patches on tree trunks and branches. On Thursday, I scratched some with a fingernail and raised little puffs of dust.

Like sparrows, lichens are drab and easy to leave unnoticed. In The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn (Profile Books, 2011), Richard Mabey likens lichens to “superficial ornaments” – until he acquires a stereoscopic microscope:

“…magnified a hundred times they become labyrinths of complexity. And it isn’t just pretty structural patterns you see but whole unexpected life processes. Diving down in three dimensions through the architecture of the plant it becomes clear that it’s symbiotic, a partnership of two plants – a fungal shell impacted with the minute green cells of a food-producing algae. There are tiny insect eggs embedded in the fungus. And then, scurrying through the tangles of trunks and roots, is an insect itself, a grey, louse-like creature no bigger than the eye of a needle. It is browsing on the lichen. There are even microscopic toadstools growing on the fungal surfaces. There is an entire forest ecosystem in this one square centimetre. It is a fractal world, each magnified layer reflecting the structure and process on the one before.”

Coming on this passage unexpectedly induced vertigo, a sense of falling into a world I never knew existed – a Mabey specialty. It also recalled passages in stories by Italo Calvino, Steven Millhauser and Borges depicting little fractal worlds, immense realities in miniature. In “The Aleph,” Borges writes of the title object, “a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance”:

“The Aleph's diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror's face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid…”

And so on, in glorious profusion. At the end of a long paragraph cataloging the contents of The Aleph, Borges adds:

“I felt infinite wonder, infinite pity.”


William A. Sigler said...

The phosphorescence of lichen clinging indestructibly to ancient rock is one of the most striking features of American Southwest desert – how can desolation be so vibrant? (There’s an analogy to reading a book there somewhere, but I can’t suss it).

I would look to another Borges story for an interpretation of what the mathematical complexity of lichen means, Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, in which an alien civilization created as an intellectual joke becomes the ruling religion of mankind. My spin: the mind makes the natural world so magnificent so that we might see the magnificence of the mind.

By the way, there’s a nice piece from nextweb on Borges’ 112th birthday this week.

Nige said...

There's an interesting account of Beatrix Potter's work with lichens - and the great controversy over what they actually are - here...

Anonymous said...

Don't try to kid me, I know the entire motive behind this post was to be able to write the phrase "likens lichens".