Symbiosis: Lichen, moss, John Donne


Lichen on slate makes a kind of mandala, a small moon, or star, of mutualistic symbiosis–because lichens are amazing compound organisms: a fungus and an alga, although apparently there can even be three living, botanical parts to some lichens. I find this amazing. Unsurprisingly, “Reproduction can be tricky for a compound organism,” because which organism’s reproductive directive does a composite organism adopt? Some explanations can be found at this site, the homepage of THE book on lichens by Irwin Brodo and Sharon and Stephen Sharnoff.

It is spring. The rain brightens up the mosses, and photosythesizing organisms begin to turn green. Bryophytes lack a vascular system, so they cannot draw water up through capillary action via xylem cells. They have to absorb water instead, and that is why mosses generally need moist, shady places in order to thrive.

Mosses decay, adding more moist humus to keep the soil damp or to extend the reaches of creeks very gradually, which is good for the riparian ecology and for the moss. A more metaphorical symbiosis, but we could stretch the concept.

japanesemapleSymbiotic relationships fascinate me, partly because of the evolutionary brilliance–nature is so “wise”–and partly because symbiosis is richly metaphorical if one’s inclined to think that way (which I am). For example, my personal sense of the relationship between art and poetry feels symbiotic: the disciplines “need” one another, help one another out, in terms of how I imagine and structure my world.

I do not think the world needs me, but I need the world; that’s dependency, not symbiosis. But mutualism–human beings need that reliance on one another. We are community-building creatures for all our harping on being self-reliant and independent. “No man is an island.” That over-used phrase (along with the over-used phrase that closes the same poem) is worth revisiting in Donne’s original:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.


“Any man’s death diminishes me/because I am involved in mankind.” Would that more of us would remember these lines, and consider how they inform the poem’s lovely and significant purpose.