Friday, February 3, 2012

Meeting Treebeard

Golden-Crowned Kinglet - Male (NW Journal)

The snow has almost melted. White water flows from the springs, and night-rains have left fallen branches, sparkling on a carpet of brown leaves.

These revelations from the upper canopy are like hidden gardens; the realm of tiny birds, whose calls, muffled by thick cedar fronds, remind me of tinkling silver bells…

On a low branch, there is a moment’s eye contact before one continues foraging; like a downy seed puff with wings and a tail. If you ever wondered what these birds eat in winter, bring a windfall inside and see how many species of insects and spiders hop, crawl, or fly out. Speckled beetles a sixteenth of an inch long and smaller; long antennae, short antennae, looping caterpillars, or flies with rainbow wings, like specks in the air. It’s another world. A spider an eighth of an inch wide dangles from my lamp, asking to go back outside. I carry it on a silk thread.

Body feather and primary 
flight feather of a Kinglet
These lichens are like a highly-populated shrubbery for all to share, from tiny kinglets to giant ravens. The animals will come too. For the deer and the elk, lichens are a regular part of their seasonal diet, helping them absorb nutrients from other foods. The flying squirrel needs them, in turn the main prey for the spotted owl.

Lichens are the lungs of the trees, cleaning the air - a tangled, inter-dependent mass of growth, several feet thick. There can be dozens of species on the thinnest branch.  They grow so thickly here in the North-West that trees send aerial roots into their mats, drawing nutrients hundreds of feet above the ground.  The lichen is itself a symbiotic plant, (two species - an algae and a fungi - living as one, each unable to survive without the other). Can it then be called a symbiotic relationship with healthy trees? How can we separate one from the other?  There is a web all around us, above and below.

Usnea longisimma, once found worldwide, is now listed as threatened, and classified as one of the most sensitive of all lichens. All lichens absorb pollution, forming a protective skin around the tree, but cannot survive beyond their capacity to deal with the toxins. As I hold them in my hand this year, I think of reindeer on a frozen continent in Europe, their breath misty in cold, un-polluted air – but their bodies  poisoned with caesium from Fukushima, traced to the lichens in their diet. In Malaysia they have a name for lichens, –tahi angin which means ‘excrement of air’.
 Native Americans believe they maintain the lungs of the planet, in a sacred relationship with trees - and the North wind.

All over the world these beings were named variations of  “Tree- moss” or ‘Tree-beard’.
If undisturbed, Usnea longisimma just keeps growing and growing, the wind garlanding it over generations of branches the ‘longest lichen in the world’ with strands measuring  up to 10 feet. The English name “Methuselah’s beard” can be traced back in writing to 1390  a Christianized form of ‘Old- man’s- beard’. Methuselah was said to have lived nearly 1,000 years…. the god, or priests of a god, who prophesized the last great flood if men did not change their ways.

I gathered some fallen bunches today. Usnea is one of the strongest anti-bacterial medicines in the forest able to overcome strep and staph infections, but I was gathering it for help with a respiratory problem – just like the trees.

Kinglet pair foraging lichens by the river,
with scouring rushes (NW Journal)
Detail from larger painting

note:- Usnic acid was named for an active ingredient in Usnea. It was noticed that the same function the lichen uses to destroy bacteria could be used to increase human metabolism. Taken out of context, the knowledge was used to put usnic acid together with other chemicals into pill form, and sold as a diet pill. It caused liver damage. In traditional medicine, usnea was and is used externally on wounds, and occasionally internally for short periods - often in combination with other plants.

Lichens have been used worldwide by hunter-gatherers for weaving, and beautiful colors can be obtained using traditional dye techniques. Gather it after a storm - never from the trees. Once the branch is shed, it rarely survives for long . Do not gather all you see. Leave plenty for the forest.
Usnea longissima had a name change a few years ago. It is now called Dolichousnea, still an Usnea. This is just a case of biologists fine-tuning its heredity by examining DNA  and molecular structure. It’s still the same long, mossy,  “Treebeard”.

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