Friday, May 30, 2008

Of lichen and cinquefoils

Imagine, for a moment, life at 15,000 feet, on a hill in the Himalaya called Kyanjing Ri, at the top of which you are 500 feet higher than the highest point in the lower 48 States, 2700 feet higher than the highest point in New Zealand, higher by about 13,000 feet than the highest point in the England. All around you are swirling clouds that rise from the snowmelt creeks below and the great snowbanks of the Himals far off, separated from you by deep glaciated and river-cut valleys, pushed and pushed back by winds inconsistent and unpredictable.

The ridge you stand on, or lie against to catch your breath or to protect yourself from the skin-chapping wind, is a staircase of sandy humps, eroded on the windward side in huge, crescent-shaped washes. The knobs of its rocky spine lie exposed only at points of stress and bend, as if stretching for those craggy and dark Himals just out of grasp, knobs covered just barely by the gray freckles of half-buried loose stones and tufts of a rusty green shrub of the willow family called tukshing in the Sherpa language. At the summit, you find a wooden pole or two or three garlanded with the tattered cloth prayer flags of Tibetan Buddhism, the five colors faded from granite dust, from the constant inner-cloud drizzle, from the unimpeded sunshine of high altitude. And more, that insistent and consistent blow, even stronger here, a blow that breaks small branches and pinches shut incipient flower buds, that makes dropped seeds barren and desertifies the topsoil.

You expect lichens here, of course, black and brown against the white and gray granite and schists like spotting on a cow or a yak or a jopkyo—the cross between the two that is common in the Himalaya—and perhaps a tuft of grass or two, perhaps a wayward baby mountain goat at eye level across the deep unnamed valley in front of you, climbing perhaps the ice falls to cross to the next valley, but little else visible to the eye.

And yet: just down the path from the top of Kyanjing Ri, in a dip behind a necklace of rocky windbreaks, a black and chubby bumblebee rises up to investigate the sweet, novel smell of sweat. A little farther, still on the ridge, at the saddle where the trail diverges west to Kyanjing Ri's north peak or east along a higher set of Ris, where you stand 30 vertical meters below the north peak, a quartet of black-tailed songbirds swoops overhead, moving from valley to valley, each taking graceful cuts and curves and arcs, the white splay of their fanned tails sinking in bobs as they descend between green hillsides, the overtones from their high-pitched chattering lingering, leaving the remnants of echoes to hang in the air.

Underfoot you find not the barrenness of the imagination but instead green- and maroon- and chalk-striped caterpillars that inch and flex across the trail, no bigger than the long joint of the thumb, exposed only when not safely camouflaged among tukshing. A black ant scouts for food, or for an enemy colony, rivals for pollen and larvae and fallen or dropped tukshing berries in autumn. On a rock a beetle suns himself as best he can, his black carapace pockmarked with constellations of divots at the thorax that gleam mineral green, the long channels incised on the wings of his abdomen reflecting black and iridescent red. Twice the faint whiff of a skunk's scent wafts up—an animal not listed in Tej Kumar Shrestha's Mammals of Nepal--but it is gone in a blink.

Flowers appear or reappear 10 meters down from the ridgeline, first bright yellow cinquefoils like buttercups, tiny slips of orange in candleflames where petal meets ovule, the entire flower small as your smallest fingernail. Its color is a shock, and when picked and angled under a chin, like the buttercup, the cinquefoil reflects gold. Just below this the perfect purple globes of primulas—primroses—grow, tiny flowers facing up and down and every which way, rising from a stiff stalk like dandelions and looking just as balanced, just as ready to confetti the ground and air. Every so often the sunny-side-up face of an anemone (a. obtusiloba) shows, a star of cupping white petals surrounding an orange, star-shaped receptacle and nestled against the ground, no longer bothering with any stem to speak of. Nearby, a dwarf or cousin of the purple iris--i. kamaonensis--that grows so happily even 300 meters below, here fragile and timid, a flower's wallflower.

And here also the fingerbone branches of dwarf black junipers crabwalk outwards, the tree growing not up from a trunk but downhill from a root, its berries just beginning to display a checkerboard of straw and faded orange. Nearby its cousin, the dwarfed drooping juniper, with hand-size fronds splayed like sea fans amid cascades of the gray-green succulent saxifraga hemisphaerica that texture the land not just with shadow and light but with rosettes of nested leaves—a plant too small to register with many locals here, even as their fingers trace figures in the soil in search of a lucrative, ginko-like mushroom. Like you, they avoid the spikes and prickles of the morina polyphylla, which clings to skin and clothes and fur like the burrs we find in our socks when we tramp through American fields and meadows.

This area really belongs to the s. hemisphaerica, though, and where it is not, tufts of green and green-yellow and blue-gray grasses bend and curl, tonsure-like. As you near the grass you see it is grazed, is haphazardly mown; and next to it bullet-shaped scat, dense and as yet undisturbed: yaks, and jopkyo too. Today they are farther down, grazing on lusher grass in a warmer and moister gulch below even where the Tamang and Tibetan mushroom hunters inspect the green terraced edges of mountain goat paths and run fingers across the mossy edges of veiny stone. But the yak nimbly amble this high and higher, crossing the Ganja La Pass in late summer when its deep snow has melted and grasses and perhaps irises are available to be eaten, 16,340 feet above sea level and more than 1,000 feet above this saddle. At the trail's divergence, you find a single, cleft footprint of a mountain goat, moving upwards.

And the lichen. They are not just gray and black, scaly and tumor-like on the stone, ugly as parasites, but a jumble of color—gray and black, certainly, but also a continuum of green from deep forest to neon, yellows the colors of those cinquefoils and of mustard, bright white like snowcaps, a pink verging on tika-like red, rusty orange and burnt siena. Far from camouflaging the rocks as yak the lichens highlight them, mark them, give them color and depth.

Lichen are some of the world's most amazing organisms, a symbiosis between an algae that can photosynthesize and a fungus that can eat rock, so hardly that only they and a few fellow crypto-endoliths can survive in inland Antarctica. They're also edible, but know: it takes thousands of years for a lichen the size of your fist to grow. Mostly commonly in the Sierra Nevada of California they appear on the ground as a pale green cargo-net-in-miniature, or as attached to trees with flakes that vaguely resemble the puffed fingers of juniper leaves. Here in the Himalaya, they are more common as splotches on rock faces or mani stones, blooms or Pollockian arcs across an otherwise smooth surface.

Still, life at this altitude and in this place feels especially precarious, especially precious. The taking of it—the picking of a cinquefoil, the trampling of a saxifrage, the eating of a bird's-nest lichen—feels a violation, an injustice, the theft or appropriation of an heirloom worth little but difficult to replace. To pluck a cinquefoil of its petals like a forget-me-not is to be an agent of universal melodrama, is to choose consciously a cynical, anticlimactic ending to the fable of the cinquefoil's life: where it has heretofore survived the brutally indifferent winds and dwarfing airs and the tatatat of hailstones, has outcompeted its fellow flowers in brightness or sweetness, has defied—like all things—comically and cosmologically staggering odds by simply existing at all, its life is ended for nothing, for a distracted whim.

To see this is to place ourselves in a narrative that is not our own, in that we are not its subject; it is to recognize our own in- or consequentiality in someone else's story. It is, implicitly, to understand the dialectic of our lives, that each of our stories intersects with an infinite set of other stories, to understand that those other stories are often as valuable as our own.

The vast majority of these stories, however, is fundamentally unknowable. The history contained within a cinquefoil is incommunicable; we can intuit a story from the unusual kink of its stem, from the aborted bud it still carries, from the faintly green oil on a piece of quartz-marbled granite nearby and a crushed and torn leaf. This story, though, is not the cinquefoil's at all, but our own, double-boiled and filtered through the still of our understanding. Just as the vastness and magnitude of the universe are beyond human-scale modeling, beyond fathoming, are comprehensible only in the abstracts of mathematics and physics, so too are the knottings and weaving of microhistory, the separations and connections, impossibly Gordean. The world is bound by secret knots, as Kircher wrote; but of stories.

The paradox of these stories is that they are constructions—prose is architecture, Hemingway said—both conscious and unconscious. Simply to perceive a cinquefoil's existence as a story is a shortcut, a trick of the human mind. That we can see the world as a tangle of stories, or as tightly wound with them as a ball of yarn, is a benediction, a blessing; but is also the consequence of the confluence of speech and culture, or potentials physiological and pedagogical. To impart a story to a cinquefoil is to misunderstand it, is to perceive its existence over time in a fundamentally human way. That is, to conduct or construct the story as a melodrama is to limit ourselves to an understanding of the story as a human story; to give nature a moral is, in the end, a mistake of attribution.


The preciousness of life here, as long-limbed snowflakes fall on my shoulders and melt; as they settle into the crevices of exposed gneiss and do not; is, when properly attributed, a projection of precariousness of my own life in this place, and those of others like me. The cinquefoils, unlike people, abound. Indeed, there are certainly more of them nearby than people, and Polunin and Stainton's Flowers of the Himalaya lists the cinquefoils potentilla cuneata and p. anserina as “quite common” and “common,” respectively.

And yet, I see charisma in this cinquefoil, because it thrives where I cannot, in these dusty soils that as they dry pucker into hundreds and thousands of tiny crabholes like at the beach, though there are no crabs here, because it reminds me of a childhood myth of yellow flowers and chins and warming sun and topiary-like bluegrass, because it brings me a sense of comforting, warming sunshine. I pick a cinquefoil, inspect it, dispose of it; and in my mind I have done something wrong.

Little such charisma exists for lichen, though they are hardier, perhaps because they are less familiar, perhaps because they are easy to see as static and boring, perhaps because their lives and lifespans do not neatly parallel our own, unlike cinquefoils and primroses, elephants and snow leopards. Indeed, they are so culturally marginal that the saying that moss prefers the north side of the tree is not at all true for moss, but instead for lichen. Lichen earn what little value we attribute them when I tell how slow-growing they are; you can understand that to cut a lichen's life short after 100 years is like to cut short your own at 10, or 5.

Again, though, this presumes that our lives are parallel; that they continue like the ties of a railroad track, that even if you cannot see the twin, shined rails around a curve or sinking down a slope hidden by high wheat or alfalfa, you know that so long as the rails continue the ties must as well. With some certainty I can assert information about railroad ties; there is a limit to their possibility. Not so lichen, or rather, not so the intersection or non- of my life and its. In this metaphor we know simply that I am a piece of wood, and so is the lichen; all else is uncertainty, is a wilderness of mirrors propped up by a frame of cedar two-by-fours.

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