Arctic Lichen

As Swales writes in a Montreal Star article on her time in Iqaluit, moss and lichen were the few signs of growth among the rocks except for small plants aptly known as rockfoil (“Winter’s Touch Felt at Frobisher Bay”). To gather lichen and moss, Swales would have needed to turn her gaze down to the ground, paying close attention to what is often missed by others. In her unprocessed notes, “Gardens of the Eastern Canadian Arctic”, Swales remarks that “much of arctic beauty and interest lies in the ‘microhabitat’, or the small things you discover at your feet”.

The reindeer mosses she encountered in the summer of 1964 were found in rock crevices where other forms of life might not have been able to survive and in doing so supported life for bodies larger than their own. Their ability to persist despite cold winds, enables life for reindeer and caribou in the colder regions of North America, Scandinavia, and Russia who subsist on certain lichen for food during the winter months, as well as for the Indigenous communities whose culture and way of life centres around these animals.

Lichens are the very definition of symbiotic matter. Formed through the union of fungus and algae, lichens are seen in the scientific world as a classic case of mutualism. In quiet ways, lichens speak to the presence of environmental damage and pollution. As James Walton explains, since lichen “do not have an outer epidermal layer, they cannot discriminate between nutrients and pollutants, and absorb both” (“Lichens of the Arctic”). Lichens respond to different air pollutants in their own ways. As Jessica L. Allen and James C. Lendemer explain in Urban Lichens, while some species of lichen such as Cladonia cristatella (British Soldier Lichen) can tolerate air pollution in urban areas such as New York City, other species such as Punctelia rudecta (Rough Speckled Shield Lichen) are considered sensitive. As a sort of canary in the coal mine, a decrease in their presence can point to poor air quality and unseen pollution, which in turn helps environmental scientists understand the development of local pollution over time. That something as small as lichen can contain within it the larger story of human impact on the environment speaks to the importance of bringing into focus that which is often missed.

For more information, see Allen, Jessica L, et al. Urban Lichens: A Field Guide for Northeastern North America : Including New York City, Chicago, Toronto, Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. Yale University Press, 2021.