Good Things Take (So Much) Time

Across the river from our house in upstate New York is a community graveyard sprawling under canopies of coniferous and deciduous trees. It is on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the river, with shallow marshes to the south, swift-flowing water to the east, and a wide-open expanse to the north. The paths around and through it are carpeted by pine needles, soft for the walker or the mourner. More than a thousand bodies have been laid to rest in the cemetery, some as recently as last week, others there since the Revolutionary War. Some of the tombstones are so old that they are slowly being eaten away by crawling green lichen, and it is difficult to tell who lies beneath or for how long they have been there.

No one plants lichen; lichen isn’t even a plant. Robin Wall Kimmerer says that lichen “volunteers to put down roots and homestead stone, metaphorically of course, since they have no roots.” Lichen is likely to be everywhere. It hunts for the route of least resistance and flourishes when left alone. Some lichens grow so slowly that it can take them a hundred years to become as big as the palm of your hand. Most of us walk past 200-year-old relics in the forest without seeing them at all. They hide in plain sight. The oldest lichen known to us is nearly 9,000 years old. D.W. Winnicott once wrote, “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” And this seems apropos of the life of lichen.

Once a friend and I were hiking, and she kept stopping to put her nose right up against a tree trunk. I wondered what she was doing, but out of respect for all the odds things we do while hiking, I didn’t ask. Finally, around the fifth or sixth tree, she exclaimed loudly, “I found it!”

“It” was Lobaria pulmonaria, a lettuce-like lichen clinging to the side of a giant spruce tree.

“Why did you want to find it?” I asked.

“No reason,” she said. “I just wanted to.” She ran her fingers lightly over the edges of the fungi and then, as is her nature, continued down the trail. Merlin Sheldrake, the author of the acclaimed Entangled Life, writes that “nature is an event that never stops.” So too with my friend.

For over a hundred years, lichen has been known to be, as one poet writes, a “marriage of fungi and algae, chemists of air.” Sometimes even a marriage of three. I looked up Lobaria pulmonaria after my hike and found that the third organism in its symbiotic relationship is cyanobacterium. Merlin Sheldrake writes of the discovery of this organism in 1867 by a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener: “Schwendener’s suggestion was vehemently opposed by his fellow lichenologists. The idea that three different species could come together in the building of a new organism with its own separate identity was shocking to many.” Later, Schwendener was proven right. As unlikely as it seems, these separate organisms came together and made a new organism.

One might think such a miracle would be rare, but lichen is everywhere in the forest, on every tree and rock and branch. Lichen is thought to be the “largest single system [for nitrogen fixation] in an old-growth forest.” This strange amalgam of three is, literally, keeping the trees alive. If you take a brief rest midway through a hike to sit down on a nearby boulder, when you stand up and keep walking, you will carry lichen spores with you, and they will scatter, finding new rocks and trees to adopt as their homes. They will lose a part of themselves and find new communities. They will carry microorganisms and markers from their former homes and knit them into a new life.

Some fungi stay airborne, which is how we get sourdough bread and soy sauce, kombucha and kimchi, yogurt and beer.

In the early days of the pandemic, everyone everywhere seemed to be making sourdough bread, and having never tried making it myself, I bought the sourdough bible everyone recommended and sent my husband, Nate, out to the store to get the last remaining bag of flour on the shelves.

I labeled a Mason jar STARTER and diligently took out and added the appropriate amounts of the flour and water mix every day, leaving the lid slightly lifted — better to catch the airborne yeast. I bought a dough scraper. I read about crumb — the air pockets that form in the dough as it rises. I read a hundred different ways to perfect the crumb. And finally I placed the soft and neat round in my Dutch oven and waited for the end result.

I couldn’t seem to perfect my loaf. The loaves I made were good, but never good enough. They had crumb, but never enough. They rose nicely, but they lost the perfect cuts I’d razored through them to prevent them from splitting. They were soft, but they lacked the sharpness that one expects from a loaf of sourdough. We slathered slices with butter or jam or compote, dipped them into hearty soups, or grilled them with cheeses and fruits, but after a few weeks, I gave up on sourdough.

Later, I read that the more you make sourdough in one place, the better the sourdough becomes. Why? Because of the airborne yeast and how it continues to transform over time. One baker has had the same starter in a jar in his bakery since his father opened the bakery decades ago, and his bread is renowned for its flavor. Time is its essential ingredient, making it better and better and better.

What happens, though, when time seems to be taking too long?

A Wendell Berry quotation from The Art of the Commonplace gives shape to my time back in this place: “And so here, in the place I love more than any other and where I have chosen among all other places to live my life, I am more painfully divided within myself than I could be in any other place.”

Wendell is my teacher and probably the one I have learned more from than any other writer. It helps to read those words and remember that someone who seems to me so perfectly settled and grounded in every sense of the word still felt painfully divided within himself.

I feel it too.

In coming home, after so many years, I must make peace with the reality that no matter how much time passes, some things will never be resurrected. And it’s not just here either. Almost no organization or institution or community I’ve been a part of in recent years has remained as it was. Some things will never be the same again. I keep thinking, If I do this or they do that, perhaps we can find our way back. But the question I always find myself pausing on this: Why would I want to go back?

Sheldrake writes about what he calls “living labyrinths,” saying, “Imagine if you could pass through two doors at once. It’s inconceivable, yet fungi do it all the time. When faced with a forked path, fungal hyphae don’t have to choose one or the other. They can branch and take both routes.” He goes on, “One can confront hyphae with microscopic labyrinths and watch how they nose their way around. If obstructed, they branch. After diverting themselves around an obstacle, the hyphen tips recover the original direction of their growth.”

Sheldrake likens the fungi’s problem-solving to the way humans make their way through IKEA. There’s mainly one way to move through the store — the way the long and winding aisle takes us. But there are surprising shortcuts along the way if we’ll notice them — a sudden split between the rows of throw pillows, a glimpse of dining room furniture from the bedroom displays, the reflection of mirrors through a doorway in the lighting section. “They [fungi] find the shortest path to the exit,” he writes. This would be like my entering our nearest IKEA, in Ottawa, Canada, and starting at the beginning of that long aisle and finding the quickest way downstairs past the cashiers to the cinnamon rolls. Not exactly, but similarly. The fungi’s main job is to fill the environment with itself, and it’s going to take the fastest and easiest route to get there — even if it takes an eternity.


Content taken from The Understory by Lore Ferguson Wilbert, ©2024. Used by permission of Brazos Press.

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