Photograph by Jamie Rosencrans

World’s End

words by willow defebaugh

Lichens invite us to embrace curiosity: to admit where we may have gotten it wrong and question where one thing ends and another begins.

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

Kahlil Gibran

It was almost eerie, were it not so beautiful. Trees as far as the eye could see, covered in a ghostly white. As I watched their soft wisps sway in the wind, I thought of the sign we had passed on our way into the park: “Welcome to the end of the world,” a nod to how far south we were. It’s a sentiment I’m no stranger to, working in this movement. And the haunting panorama around me could have easily been that—some spectral graveyard or hallowed ground. Only these trees weren’t dead. Far from it. They were host to life-forms no less earthly than us: lichens.


The first thing to know about lichens is that they are complex. Prior to the invention of microscopy, they were considered individual organisms. Closer inspection in the 19th century revealed that they are partnerships: pairs of fungi and algae living in harmony. Each evolved independently of one another, but came together in mutually beneficial reciprocity. The algae use photosynthesis to create carbohydrates and vitamins that the fungi ingest—and in return, the fungi absorb surrounding water and create shade for the light-sensitive algae to grow in.


This discovery was revolutionary in another sense. Previously, two organisms sharing such close quarters had only been understood as parasitic. Lichens pointed to another possibility: that life could exist in a myriad of dynamic combinations. This led to botanist and mycologist Albert Frank’s invention of a new word, one that would change the Western understanding of how living things intertwine: symbiosis. As biologist Merlin Sheldrake once told Atmos: “I think of lichens as a gateway organism into the idea of intimate cooperation in the living world.”


In addition to inspiring radical new perspectives, lichens have served as a source of food, medicine, and artistry (such as clothing dye) for humans. They provide another important function, too. When I asked our guide why they were so plentiful in Patagonia, she explained that it was because they are extremely sensitive to air pollution. Excessive amounts of certain substances, such as nitrogen, can harm and kill the algae’s chlorophyll. And so lichens are bioindicators—canaries in the coalmine that inform us about atmospheric health. 


Lichens such as rock tripe lay the ground for other life forms to grow in places where it otherwise wouldn’t. As Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in Gathering Moss: “Slowly, slowly the lichens build up a thin layer of debris around them, perhaps their own exfoliations, or dust, or falling needles—the flotsam of the forest. The dusting of organic matter holds the moisture that the bare rock couldn’t hold and gradually an accretion of soil creates a habitat for mosses and ferns. Through the laws of ecological succession, the lichens have done their work of laying the foundation for others, and now the others have come.”


I breathed in the clean mountain air at the end of the world, the same that allowed these lichens to flourish, and let my lungs be filled with gratitude for it as a web of thoughts took root in my mind: What if the world isn’t ending? What if it already has? I thought of how many worlds end every day—how my own had ended exactly one year earlier, and the life that bloomed like algae from those ashes, a life I could have never imagined possible. Maybe, as Kahlil Gibran suggests, every ending is just that: a paradigm shift, an acceptance of what can no longer stand.


We once saw lichens as individuals. Now we understand them to be communities, living embodiments of reciprocity that lay the foundation not just for one another but for other life. These creatures invite us to embrace curiosity: to admit where we may have gotten it wrong and acknowledge that our notions of where one thing ends and another begins may be entirely off. To live not in finalities, but in possibilities. Perhaps a world is ending—or at least our idea of it, defined by infinite isolation and accumulation. The question is, what shall we grow in its wake?

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